Nobody was rooting harder for Bryan Little's return to the Winnipeg Jets lineup this season than Blake Wheeler. The two go back to the Atlanta Thrashers days and aren't just long-time teammates, but also good friends.
The unfortunate news that Little is being shut down for the season after suffering a gruesome injury in early November clearly hit the captain hard.
"The guy was working every day to try and come back. Everything he’s been through... he’s been through hell and back to work as hard as he can to try and play for us this year," an emotional Wheeler said on Sunday.
"I feel just gutted for him. Selfishly as a team we miss him as a hockey player, but Bryan has a lot more going on in his life than the Winnipeg Jets. He’s got a wife and a young daughter, those are at the very top of his list."
Little suffered a concussion in the final pre-season contest on a high hit from Minnesota's Luke Kunin, costing him the first nine games of the regular-season. Upon his return, the 13-year veteran scored twice and added three assists in seven contests until he was felled by an errant Nikolaj Ehlers slap shot during a Nov. 5 home game against New Jersey.
The end result was a serious head injury, brain bleed, vertigo and a perforated ear drum that caused him to be hospitalized for a few days. Little, 32, had resumed skating in recent weeks, joining the Jets for practices wearing a yellow non-contact jersey. His heartrate was being closely monitored as he gradually picked up the pace, although team officials always cautioned about reading too much into that.
There were numerous medical hurdles he had to clear, including one that has now ended any hopes of coming back to play this year. Little will undergo surgery on his eardrum, with an expected recovery time of three months.
“None of this has been easy for him. It’s a complete freak injury. You play as many years as he’s played in this league, those things just don’t happen. It’s a complete freak accident.” ‐ Blake Wheeler
"When I think about the whole situation I just think about him and you want the best for him and you want him to be looked after. And I think those are all the things that he’s gotten here and I’m just real happy he was able to get what he needed to ultimately make that decision whether he could play or not play. For me, I just feel terrible for him," said Wheeler.
"None of this has been easy for him. It’s a complete freak injury. You play as many years as he’s played in this league, those things just don’t happen. It’s a complete freak accident."
It was Wheeler who was tapped to try and fill the void left by Little, moving away from his traditional right-wing spot on a line with top centre Mark Scheifele to become Winnipeg's second-line centre. He's been in that position ever since, albeit with a rotating cast of linemates that included Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor on Sunday night against Chicago.
"You can’t put into words what Bryan has meant to my career. I sit next to him every day, our wives are real close. Those are all the things that you think about," said Wheeler.
"I watch him play. He’s a 200-foot player, very responsible. Playing with him, you always knew where he was. As a centre iceman, you try to bring those things, piggyback off some of the habits he brought to the ice every night. Always in the right spots, always competing both ways on the puck. He was an impact play for us for a long time."
It's been quite a season for the original Thrashers still playing for the Jets. In addition to Little's injuries, defenceman Dustin Byfuglien was suspended without pay after contemplating retirement just as training camp was set to begin. He subsequently underwent surgery for an ankle injury, filed a grievance against the Jets seeking lost pay and is now on the verge of terminating his contract and becoming an unrestricted free agent.
The hope, of course, is that Little can make a full recovery and return to the team next season. He's still under contract for four more seasons, with an annual average value of nearly $5.3 million.
"I think the fact he was able to bounce back as fast as he was to just be able to come into the facility and work out and be around the guys and kind of resume a normal life was awesome. There was no timetable for when he could be himself again. We’re just happy that he’s back to being the Bryan that we know and taking care of the most important things for him," said Wheeler.
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