Bryan Little looked like a carefree kid playing shinny with his buddies during his infrequent skates with the rest of the Winnipeg Jets in recent weeks.
On Saturday, his equipment was tidily stored in his locker-room space in the bowels of Bell MTS Place — and that’s how it will stay the rest of the NHL season.
The injured centre won’t return to the Winnipeg lineup.
Little, still recovering from a head injury and perforated ear drum after getting blasted by an errant shot in early November, has been shut down by the Central Division team.
Head coach Paul Maurice said Little needs surgery, and the focus now is on the 32-year-old’s long-term health.
"(Little) has gone through a series of tests over the last couple of weeks, and while there’s been some really good improvement the feel from the medical community is the amount of time that he’s going to need to safely heal is going to take us through the rest of our hockey season," Maurice said Saturday, following an optional practice.
"He also has a procedure that we were possibly hoping to put off to repair the eardrum that will have a three-month rehab to that, a no-flying situation. That will happen in the near future but Bryan won’t play this season."
Little was struck in the left ear by a Nikolaj Ehlers’ slapshot in the third period against the New Jersey Devils and immediately fell to the ice. He required 25 to 30 stitches to close the gash and suffered a brain bleed, spending two nights at the Health Sciences Centre neurological unit.
The 13-year veteran had joined the Jets for several practices in recent weeks, wearing a yellow non-contract jersey, and hope remained he would get back into the lineup for the stretch run to the playoffs.
More than three months after getting hurt, doctors say that simply isn’t possible.
"There has been good progress in his healing, it’s just that you get a lot of tests done and you get a lot of people to look at it, the rate of healing says — and because of the injury — we’re not putting this player at any risk," said Maurice. "We’re not going to wait until the very end and say, ‘Yeah, you’re close.’"
Little had a pair of injury-filled seasons from 2015-17 but competed in all 82 regular-season games the past two campaigns and 23 playoff games.
He missed the first nine regular-season games of the season after taking a high hit from Minnesota forward Luke Kunin, sustaining a concussion in the final pre-season contest against the Wild.
He rejoined his teammates Oct. 20 against the visiting Edmonton Oilers and played a total of seven contests, scoring twice — highlighted by the overtime winner over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 26 in Regina at the Heritage Classic outdoor game — and chipping in three assists.
When Little went down a second time, Blake Wheeler switched to the second-line centre position from his customary spot to the right of top-line centre Mark Scheifele and has remained there since.
"We’ve operated under this environment for so long. We’ve explored a bunch of different things on how to best handle it. We do have a plan of what we’ll do going forward," Maurice said.
A subsequent injury to centre Adam Lowry meant a shift to third-line centre for Andrew Copp, who continues to play some of the best hockey of his career.
Copp has three goals — all game winners — and three helpers in seven games in February. Has he been impactful enough for an expanded role, possibly a spot up the middle in the top-six, and a return to the wall for the captain?
"It’s (Wheeler’s) natural position. There is a certain energy burned for him at centre ice. You spend more, especially with the style of game that he plays. Your wings get in on the forecheck, especially if you change sides, your wingers are far more important on the forecheck," said Maurice. "At centre, you’ve got to be patient in the defensive zone bringing the puck up the ice, so you’re slowing your game down a little bit to make sure that you’re getting your exit and into the entrance. So, you miss that size on the walls."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
Updated on Saturday, February 15, 2020 at 3:47 PM CST: Minor edits
11:08 PM: Edited