VANCOUVER – When Julien Sprunger hits the ice on Tuesday, in Switzerland’s first game of the tournament, against the US, it will be exactly 289 days after his last game against Team USA. Sprunger remembers that game well because it was the game where David Backes shoved him into the boards head first.
It was one of those things where everything that could go wrong, did. Sprunger came flying down the ice, trying to reach a cross-ice pass at the far post, but missed it and fell down. He got up quickly to get the puck, and just as he regained his balance, Backes shoved him on the chest so that Sprunger fell backwards to the boards.
That time he didn’t come up. Not quickly. Not at all.
Instead, it was obvious to everybody in the arena that Sprunger had been badly hurt. His face twisted with pain, and a few seconds later, panic, you could see he was screaming at the top of his lungs.
As he was lifted on a stretcher and carried out, Sprunger couldn’t feel his arms or legs, and flashes of a complete different life went past his eyes.
“I was really lucky. It was a bad injury, and I had to undergo a major surgery to repair the fracture in my 4th and 5th cervical vertebrae,” Sprunger told IIHF.com.
“I couldn’t move my legs and arms, I was thinking about wheelchairs. Those were the longest ten minutes of my life. Or, actually, I wasn’t really thinking, just panicking. Then another ten minutes later I started to regain movement in my arms and legs,” he adds.
The road back to hockey, and to the Swiss national team started right there. Even if Sprunger himself was focused on everything and nothing at the same time, somebody else knew exactly where Sprunger should set his sights.
“The day after my surgery, coach (Ralph) Krueger told me that our first game of the Olympics is against Team USA and that playing in that game would be a good goal. It wasn’t the first thing on my mind but it felt good that he talked like that,” Sprunger says.
It would be easy to fast forward to today, or tomorrow, when Krueger’s prophecy becomes true, but of course, for Sprunger, making a comeback has meant a lot of work, and perseverance. He returned to action with Fribourg-Gottéron in the Swiss National League A in mid-November, a little ahead of the expected recovery schedule.
“I was nervous, even if I hadn’t had any backlashes along the way. I still wasn’t sure what was going to happen. But when the puck dropped, I wasn’t afraid, and everything worked like before,” he says.
“I scored a goal in my first shift, so that was the perfect comeback,” he adds, smiling.
Since his comeback, the big forward has nine goals and 26 points in 27 games.
“And now that I am back, I’m happy. To play in the Olympics, and a hockey tournament in Canada is special, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. The game against Team USA is a very special one for me," he says.
Special, yes, but still just a hockey game.
“I haven't talked to Backes since the incident and I’m not going to use the game to get back at Backes, it's just a hockey game,” he says.
“I’ve done some mental exercises, about the comeback and meeting the Americans, and even meeting the same player again so that I won’t have any fear. I’m prepared, I’m not afraid,” he says.
That’d better apply for the entire team. In Turin, Switzerland beat both the Czech Republic and Canada in a span of two days, proving to the world that they belong here. This time around, the Swiss will play in the same preliminary group with Team USA, Norway, and the hosts, Canada.
“I think our group is one of the toughest ones. The U.S. and Canada are among the best teams in the world. At the same time, there’s a lot of pressure on them, while we’ll be complete underdogs. That’s good for us,” says Sprunger.
For coach Krueger, Vancouver is the end of the line as he’ll step down after 13 years as Switzerland’s bench boss.
“Maybe his last game will be special, but right now, you can’t tell it from anything he does. It’s just business as usual. We want to win for him, for us, and for the country. We’re proud to be here,” Sprunger says.
“We’re not saying that we’re here to play for the gold, but we have a good team and can beat anybody. We beat Canada last time. We just want to get to the quarterfinal, and who knows what might happen there,” he adds.
And he, if anybody, knows that you never know what can happen in a game.