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Chicago Blackhawks’ Andreas Athanasiou shows progress with injury but still tackling mental hurdles: ‘It gets in your head’

Andreas Athanasiou has been sidelined for nearly four months with what he described as a hip/groin injury, but the Chicago Blackhawks forward feels like the end is in sight.

“Yeah, definitely been getting closer every day, so it’s definitely a good feeling for sure,” he said after participating in practice Tuesday at Fifth Third Arena.

Coach Luke Richardson said he talked to Athanasiou afterward but couldn’t estimate a time for his return to the lineup.

“That was even more up-tempo of a practice and some physicality, and he was involved in all of it,” Richardson said. “It was good to see, but I don’t have a timetable yet.”

Athanasiou played through the second period of a Nov. 9 game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was an accumulation of factors.

“I took a pretty weird fall in Tampa, so that was probably the big part of it,” he said. “I’m fortunate that it wasn’t — obviously it still sucked — but it wasn’t as bad as it looked for sure.”

Athanasiou had groin issues with the Los Angeles Kings in 2021-22, but he said this injury is unrelated.

“That was the other leg, different part of the leg,” he said. “But it’s a little bit different. It was very frustrating, obviously. Being a skater is my strong suit, and not being able to skate is definitely not a good feeling.”

Richardson said there were no signs of a major problem looming before Nov. 9, “but he did say he stepped on a puck or stick in training camp and he did something to one of the legs.

“It kind of was there for a while and was getting better, but then he did something that game in Tampa. … He went down the tunnel, got checked, came back.”

Richardson knew something was up when saw the speedy forward on a breakaway.

“I could see him almost wincing going down the ice, one-legging it, and he had to veer off to the left and fling a shot at the net,” he said. “Most nights, he would’ve been in, clear-cut.”

Athanasiou said he didn’t undergo a procedure but relied on rest and various treatments.

“We did so many things,” he said. “We didn’t really think it was that bad, and it didn’t feel that bad.”

The Hawks initially expected him back in December, but he didn’t see enough progress. He was getting frustrated and it was affecting him at the rink and at home.

“It was pretty nagging,” Athanasiou said. “Obviously there were a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of achy days where you go home and you just ache, but that’s part of it.”

Said Richardson: “That can be definitely a long time when there’s uncertainty about what it is exactly or how to approach fixing the problem.”

Athanasiou had his doctor, the one he used while with the Kings, take another look.

“Finally (we) imaged it and (it) showed what was wrong with it,” he said. “And it was a pretty good injury to that right hip, that right groin. It sucked, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Once we did the MRI, we figured out what it was and went from there.”

For the better part of Athanasiou’s recovery — 114 days and counting — he had a battle on two fronts: physical and mental.

He felt powerless during that stretch when the Hawks had eight forwards, including him and Connor Bedard, plus defenseman Seth Jones on injured reserve.

“That was definitely one of the tougher times, and you see everybody out and you can’t go out and help,” he said.

Athanasiou, who has missed 47 games, has had nothing but time on his hands.

“There’s a million thoughts that go through your head,” he said. “I spent a lot of time at home and you sit on the couch and you think a lot, right? So it’s going home from the rink and you’re aching and you’re in pain and you’re just thinking about it the whole time.

“There’s so many doubts and thoughts that go through your head, it’s kind of just put those in the back of your head and try to keep it as away from the work as possible. … I went home and I thought about it, whether it was bad thoughts or good thoughts, whatever it was, and came to the rink the next day and just really focused on working.”

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That was his cycle: Get his mind off his injury while working on his rehab, then “go home and think about it all day again.”

Athanasiou said he can tell there’s a mental obstacle just by watching the way he skates.

“He’s worried about reinjuring it again,” Richardson surmised. “The doctors feel he’s at the point he can go full-out. … (But) today, watching him, I could tell he’s still watching himself on the quick stop-starts. I could see it in his face and body language.

“That’s going to be a mental hurdle to get over as much as getting back into shape.”

Athanasiou has no concerns about holding back whenever he’s back in the lineup.

“If and when I’m back, I’ll be sure that I’ll be ready to go, so that’s the first thing,” he said. “When you deal with something for so long and something so nagging, obviously it gets in your head and you think about it all the time. But I think it’s come a long way. It’s getting better.

“I’m almost back up to speed and it’s just getting that last little pop and should be good to go.”