You can never count out an old fighter. And despite only being 20, overage forward Jordan DePape already knows a thing or two about battling.
Not giving up. Not backing down. These are life lessons he shares, often, when he talks about playing hockey in the Western Hockey League after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 13.
In November, however, he sounded like a defeated man. His voice shook when he spoke about having to end his junior career with the Kamloops Blazers early because of impending shoulder surgery. When he told his teammates the news after a game, he broke down. Not because his childhood goal of playing in the NHL was gone, but because he wasn't able to skate out the final moments of the junior dream he had already realized.
“I told the guys, ‘take every moment in because you never know when it will be over,' ” said DePape at the time.
But, as it turns out, it wasn't over after all.
On Friday night, Jordan DePape will play in WHL career game No. 133 with the Red Deer Rebels when they host the Edmonton Oil Kings.
"There are a lot mixed emotions right now," said DePape, who was picked up on waivers by the Rebels at the trade deadline. "I'm nervous and I'm really excited just because of what I was told four months ago -- that I would never be able to play junior hockey again.
"I believed that I could come back and I proved to myself that I could do it. I'm pretty proud of that."
He ended up having surgery on his right shoulder much earlier than expected, performed by Dr. Peter MacDonald, who had also operated on DePape's left shoulder the year previous. Having already gone through the rehab process once before, the right-winger could tell this shoulder was healing differently.
At home in Winnipeg he went to physio sessions with a therapist twice a week and then began using the new exercises he learned on his own at the gym to help quicken the strengthening process. His doctors were surprised by his progress.
It wasn't until the new year that he quietly promised himself to try for a comeback even though the Blazers had released him. He called his old Triple-A midget coach Paul Krueger to see if he could skate with his team a few times a week. Every day he became a little stronger. He began talking to teams, mostly Jr. A ones, about possibly playing again this year.
Then, on Jan. 10, he was at the movies -- watching The Hobbit -- when his cell phone kept ringing. Not recognizing the area code, DePape didn't bother picking up. On his voicemail was a message from Rebels owner/GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
"I thought I better get out of this theater and give him a call back," said DePape. "They had 20-year-olds at the time, so they were able to fit me in and I was just thrilled for this opportunity."
A month later he was in Red Deer skating with the team, though he was only cleared for contact a few weeks ago.
"My shot is 100 per cent," said DePape. "It's really strong. I'm starting to feel pretty good."
Since receiving the green light to play again, he said he's been playing through the WHL return in his mind, not sure what to expect taking the ice for the first time in front of new fans in Red Deer.
"I'm just going to seize the moment," said DePape. "Work hard and keep it simple, that's for sure. I'm just going to take short shifts just so I don't get too tired until I get my compete level back."
The 39-24-5-2 Rebels have already clinched a playoff berth, so DePape knows he'll be lucky enough to get an extra few games in before his junior days are finally over. He still plans on enrolling at the University of Manitoba to study criminology and play hockey for the Bisons.
"Right after my surgery I remember talking to my mom and saying 'I didn't want to end my career this way,'" said DePape. "This is what I've worked my whole life for. Ending with an injury is not the ending I wanted."
The victory for DePape won't be found on the scoreboards or in the stats sheets on Friday or in any of the other games he plays after that. It'll be in getting a second chance to re-write the final pages of his four-year WHL career.
"It means a lot," said DePape. "Everybody who plays junior hockey goes through this, and now I can do it the right way."
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