Elias a determined Devil

New Jersey Devils winger Patrik Elias fought back from a serious bout with hepatitis A to lead his team to a division title and is now thriving in the NHL playoffs

By Doug Harrison

A year ago, when many of his locked-out NHL brethren were reflecting on their experience with European club teams, Patrik Elias was fighting to get his hockey life back.

The tired New Jersey Devils winger was home in his native Czech Republic, his energy sapped by an illness he knew little about.

Elias had been diagnosed with hepatitis A – a potentially life-threatening liver disease – while playing in Russia two months earlier.

"I didn't know what hepatitis A was or how bad it can knock you out," Elias told CBC Sports Online, adding his weight dropped to 168 pounds from 195 during a month-long stay in hospital. "I couldn't get out of bed and couldn't even look at food.

"After I left the hospital I couldn't even walk up the stairs at my friend's apartment. I had to go have a sleep for a couple of hours."

The hepatitis A virus had compromised his lung capacity and stamina, so something as simple as walking to the bathroom and taking a shower was exhausting.

Elias's troubles began on March 1, 2005, when he developed flu-like symptoms while attempting to fly to Magnitogorsk from Moscow to join his Metallurg teammates.

Elias spent a few days in a Russian hospital before being transferred to Prague, where he began a seven-month rehabilitation.

The slow recovery process started with five-minute walks that grew to 10 minutes over time. Eventually, stretching and weights were included in the 30-year-old's exercise program, while he dropped greasy food and spices from his diet.

On Sept. 22, 2005 – nearly seven months after the initial diagnosis – Elias was back on skates, but he still had a long uphill climb to return to NHL form.

"I was weak. My conditioning was at zero," Elias said. "I couldn't push myself because I would get pain in the liver. I had good days and bad days."

The good days started to outnumber the bad ones by a wide margin once New Jersey general manager and coach Lou Lamoriello pencilled Elias into the starting lineup against the visiting Florida Panthers on Jan 3.

He had an assist and three shots in 15 minutes of ice time, well below his average of 18:40 during the 2003-04 campaign.

Mindful of the NHL's arduous travel schedule, Elias didn't practise often with the Devils during January in order to save his energy for games.

That approach seemed to work wonders as Elias recorded points in his first four games and had a five-game points streak later in the month.

"I did better than I thought I would when I came back, but it helped that my linemates [Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta] were playing well," Elias said. "You need some luck on your side and I was getting that in the beginning."

Elias rode a five-game points streak into the playoffs and stood out in New Jersey's four-game sweep of the New Rangers in Round 1, posting a team-leading 11 points and looking every bit the player who led his team in scoring in 2003-04.

"He thinks the game so well and makes the players around him better," said Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Jay Feaster, who watched Elias earn three points against his team on Feb. 7. "He finds a way to find the open man and get into scoring position. You have to be aware of him all the time."

New Jersey sported a 16-18-5 record in early January when it welcomed back Elias, who had missed the team's first 38 games.

He played a big role in the team's subsequent nine-game winning streak and also had a hand in the Devils' 11-game run to end the regular season, collecting 17 points during that stretch as New Jersey finished atop the Atlantic Division at 46-27-9.

Feaster told Sports Online of a similar scenario early in 2004 when he acquired defenceman Darryl Sydor for prospect Alexander Svitov in a trade with Columbus.

At the time, the Lightning were hovering around the .500 mark with 23 wins and 16 losses.

They went on to win 23 of their final 34 games en route to a second consecutive Southeast Division title. From there, they disposed of the New York Islanders, Montreal and Philadelphia before defeating Calgary in seven games in the Stanley Cup final.

Feaster now views the Sydor move as pivotal to Tampa Bay's successful run to a Cup championship.

"From the time we brought Sydor in, we were unbeatable down the stretch," he said.

"That team has played so well since [Elias] has come back. "Obviously, New Jersey has great goaltending [with Martin Brodeur], but I think [Elias] is responsible for the way they've turned it on and the run they've been on. He's a special player.

"Often times, when you get a guy back [from illness or injury] or get a guy without giving up an asset [off your roster], it makes such a difference to your hockey team."

Elias admitted to feeling better and more confident on the ice over the past month and likes what he has seen from his teammates.

The nine-year NHL veteran was part of the Devils Cup-winning teams in 2000 and 2003.

"In 2003, we won by playing real good defence," Elias said. "This team also has a good defence and great goaltending. And we have guys who can put the puck in the net.

"But it's all about coming together at the right time."

For Elias, it's also about keeping things in perspective and understanding it's just a game.

"I've learned that what I'm doing here [in the NHL] is not the most important thing in my life," he said. "My health is."