CHICAGO – The Columbus Blue Jackets’ morning skate had ended 20 minutes ago, and the team bus was due to leave the United Center in 15 minutes.
Anyone who missed the bus would be out of luck for a ride back to the team hotel.
They could call a taxi, maybe? Or hoof it a couple of miles across frozen sidewalks?
Yet Crystal Lake native Jared Boll remained on the ice, working on skating drills to improve his conditioning and strengthen his surgically repaired left ankle. When he finally appeared in the Blue Jackets’ locker room, he had about 10 minutes to shower and change if he wanted to keep up with his teammates.
Others might have felt stressed, but Boll stopped at his locker and smiled.
“It sounds stupid,” said Boll, a former Prairie Ridge standout who is in his seventh NHL season. “But I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed practice this much in my career.”
It doesn’t sound stupid.
It sounds perfectly reasonable.
Boll, 27, has endured a long, frustrating season that began with a bad back during training camp and continued with a nagging ankle injury that required surgery in December. He has not played since Nov. 22, missing 40 games and counting as the Blue Jackets make a run at an Eastern Conference playoff berth.
But this week marked a milestone in Boll’s arduous rehabilitation from his injury. He traveled with the Blue Jackets for the first time since his surgery, and he participated in the team’s morning skate before their game against the Blackhawks.
A specific return date is uncertain – “It’s still up in the air,” Boll said – but the Olympic break allowed him an extra two weeks of recovery without missing any games. Before his injury, Boll notched a goal and 38 penalty minutes in 21 games.
Teammates were thrilled to see Boll on the ice for Thursday’s morning skate.
“He’s a great teammate,” Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert said. “He’s definitely one of the faces of this organization. He lives in Columbus full time. He gives a lot to that city and our team. He’s been around for a long time and is a fan favorite.
“He’s a big asset for us. He’s had a tough time with injuries and he’s in the midst of working himself back into the lineup, so it should be exciting when he gets back.”
For now, Boll is focused on fundamentals in his return to the ice.
The 6-foot-3, 214-pound forward spent much of the morning skate working on individual skating drills. He sprinted between center ice and the blue line, alternately planning his right skate and left skate as he came to sudden stops.
The workout was grueling, Boll said, but nothing compared with how tough it had been to stay home for months while his teammates headed out on the road.
Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards praised Boll for his mental toughness.
“Jared, it’s been a tough road for him,” Richards said. “It’s a lot to deal with. But he’s worked really hard off the ice, worked really hard in his rehab.
“I think, when you get away from your teammates for a length of time – because they are like brothers together, it’s a family in there – and when they go on the road and you’re stuck there at home and you end up watching games on TV, … you feel like you’re not part of the group. So part of coming back is traveling with the team, [and] it’s also just getting out on the ice and practicing again.”
Even Blackhawks players looked forward to Boll’s return.
“We’ve fought before in the NHL and we’ve had good fights,” said Blackhawks forward Brandon Bollig, who like Boll plays the role of enforcer. “He seems like a nice dude.”
Only in hockey is this normal.
Yeah, we’ve punched each other in the head before. I like that guy.
“That usually tends to be the story,” Bollig said with a laugh. “Usually, you either know the guy or you’ve said what’s up to him outside of the rink. But then you end up getting on the rink and you end up fighting, and you say ‘good fight’ and go your separate ways.”
When Boll returns, he will join a Blue Jackets team in the heart of a playoff race. Columbus has not reached the postseason since 2009, and Boll is eager to contribute to a winning team that added a couple of players at the trade deadline.
“It’s great,” Boll said. “That’s the challenge for me. This is a good lineup we have, and it’s going to be a tough one to crack.
“I’m just trying to get in shape as fast as I can. And when they need me, I’ll be ready and excited to go.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.