VANCOUVER – Derek Dorsett spent a recent day off playing with his kids in a gymnastics studio.
That physical activity, however light, would have been next to impossible last winter.
The bruising Vancouver Canucks forward was shut down 14 games into the 2016-17 season when the numbness he often felt after taking or receiving a hit was beginning to get progressively worse.
Those “stingers” were lasting longer and longer, sometimes more than a day, with doctors believing a bulging disc might be the issue. But when both of Dorsett’s arms went numb on a harmless-looking play against the Arizona Coyotes on Nov. 17, 2016, it became clear the situation was more serious.
“The No. 1 thing was my health and my future health,” said Dorsett. “That’s the only thing that really mattered.”
He had surgery 2 1/2 weeks later to insert four screws and a plate in his neck. A piece of bone was removed from his hip and grafted with a washer to be inserted between two vertebrae where a disc used to be.
In a neck brace, Dorsett couldn’t even lift five pounds for the first month following the operation.
“My son kind of looked at me like, ‘What’s wrong with daddy?'” said Dorsett. “We explained that I had a boo-boo and that I was going to get better.
“My wife was good about it. They definitely got me through a lot of tough times.”
The 30-year-old from Kindersley, Sask., has a scar on his right hip he gladly showed reporters in the Canucks locker-room following a morning skate earlier this month. There’s another on his throat from when doctors pulled his vocal chords to the side to remove the damaged disc.
Known more for his fists than his skill with the puck most of his career, Dorsett has exceeded expectations since being cleared to play back in June.
“He went through something that a lot of people would probably think might be the end of it,” said linemate Brandon Sutter. “He’s come back better than he was before.”
Canucks rookie head coach Travis Green has upped Dorsett’s minutes to an average of 15:37 per game, a full three minutes more than his next-best showing with Vancouver, and has cast him in a shutdown role along with Sutter and Markus Granlund.
A seventh-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2006, Dorsett has repaid that faith with a team-leading seven goals, but that doesn’t mean he’s changed a hard-nosed style that saw him accumulate 1,240 penalty minutes in 495 games before this season.
“I don’t ever come in thinking about scoring like I have,” said Dorsett, who received his second instigator penalty of 2017-18 in Thursday’s 4-1 road loss to Anaheim. “I’m glad I came into camp in good shape because I’m getting the minutes.
“I’ve been able to take advantage.”
Green has also entrusted Dorsett, who signed a four-year, US$10.6 million contract extension in April 2015, with increased time on the penalty kill, where he ranks second among Canucks forwards with an average of 2:45 minutes a night.
The coach said he wanted to figure out what Vancouver had right off the bat in training camp.
“We had questions, I’m sure he had questions,” said Green, whose team sits at 8-6-2. “I knew he could kill penalties, I knew he was an energy player, a smart player.
“Give him credit. He’s defined the role.”
At six feet tall and 192 pounds, Dorsett has done what he’s needed to in order to stay in the league throughout his nine-plus NHL seasons, but also had a career-high 12 goals while playing on a checking line with Columbus in 2011-12.
“People have looked a little bit off of what he is in the past,” said Green. “When you can kill penalties in this league, you’ve got a pretty good hockey mind.”
But that hockey mind, despite all the well wishes and positive feedback after the surgery, wasn’t always sure he’d ever be back doing what he loved.
“There were some doubts,” said Dorsett. “At some point when you’re dealing with losing feeling in your arms, you’ve got to look beyond the game of hockey.
“Having a young family made the decision (for surgery) a lot easier to make sure I got healthy first and then could return to play.”
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