LETHBRIDGE - "I'm not gonna lie, I felt a little rusty first time I stepped on the ice."
Lethbridge Hurricanes centre Ryan Vandervlis says he's lost about 30 pounds, but is now working out, skating and trying to gain that weight back, just four months after a June 15 campfire explosion at the home of former team Captain Tyler Wong, that left him in a medically induced coma, with burns to most of his body.
Team mate Jordy Bellerive and alumnus Matt Alfaro were also injured in the incident.
Speaking to media Thursday afternoon ahead of a team practice, Vandervlis, who spoke with a softly raspy voice, said it's hard to go anywhere in the city without someone recognizing him and wondering how he’s doing now.
“That means so, so much to me…it’s been a tough four or five months here, but that support from the fans, from the community, from my family, from the players, from guys around the league that have reached out, it’s been outstanding really. I can’t express enough how much that means to me.”
He recalled his stay at Foothills Hospital in Calgary, and a child named Brody Stewart. Last year, Vandervlis says at Childrens’ Hospital, he gave Stewart a stuffed animal.
“And he gave it back to me when I was in the hospital and that meant a lot to me. I don’t think there was a square inch of my hospital room that wasn’t covered in a picture or a motivational poster or something.”
His recovery has been a difficult one; he has had numerous surgeries, skin grafts, is recovering from a tracheotomy and is re-learning things he used to take for granted.
“A lot of it is day to day things, that you don’t ever think about like getting in and out of your car or sitting out in a chair or stuff like that, that when you’re weak, when you have no core muscles it makes it extremely hard to do.
“That’s going to be my biggest focus just getting my strength back, and as my strength has come back I’ve felt better and better every day and my mobility has gotten a lot better. Stretching is one of the key things Because everywhere that I was burned, the skin, the scars just wants to tighten up. So, a minimum probably 40, 45 minutes a day of good, solid stretching on top of the workouts I’ve been doing.”
That said, he says he is surprised at how well his body has reacted to a lot of the exercises and tasks he has attempted. He explained that his health care professionals, tell him the more exercises he can accomplish every day, the faster his muscles will adapt and the faster his body will heal.
And that’s something that Hurricanes General Manager Peter Anholt says the team’s staff and coaches will help him with.
“We all see the different challenges that he’s got in front of him. But he’s got a good attitude about him. And the way he’s approached it (recovery) and I know our players are really pleased to have him here.”
But Anholt also says that doesn’t mean treating Vandervlis with kid gloves, either.
“He’s a part of our group. He’s back with his billets. We’re not going to baby him. I think the big thing is, we’re going to treat him normal and as one of our team and then we’ll let him overcome his obstacles as they come up.”
Vandervlis will remain with the team for the foreseeable future and Anholt says the coaches won’t restrict him from any activity that he believes he can accomplish.
“We’ll let him work through that process. He’s proven that he certainly has a long way to go, but we’re not going to harness him in any way, shape or form…so let’s let it go a day at a time, and he’s working out with the guys. He’s doing extra work in other areas.”
As for the longer-term, the 20-year-old is hoping that he not only gets back to skating the way he used to, but that he’ll even be able to play hockey again.
“We’re going to have to sort out medically, a lot of stuff that’s still out of my control. Just with regards to how my body is going to heal. I’ve healed extremely well. A lot better than anyone at the Foothills thought that I was going to heal…my goal is to be back playing.”
Last year, Vandervlis only played 19 games after season-ending shoulder injury surgery. But he adds that neither the shoulder injury nor the burns he suffered are likely to dampen his determination.
“This team, this is where I want to be, this is where my heart is. These guys, they’re all my best friends…it’s the best thing for my rehab to be around them.”
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