No. 12 on the chart, No. 1 in his heart
On the wall, usually facing the bed, there is a sign in the doctor's office that has 10 faces. The round, cartoonish expressions range from a smile to one wailing in pain. It's a useful tool for young children to tell a physician how much something hurts. The chart is not long enough for Teddy Lillico.
The Red Wing senior defenseman returned to the ice nearly a month ago, on Jan. 3 at Rochester Century. His 11-game absence was no surprise. But it was obvious in the record, 1-10 before, and 3-3-2 since his return.
It took six months for Lillico to make his return to game action. That he even did is a testament to his desire to play hockey.
"It was, like, a 12. It's a sharp pain, like someone stabbing you," Lillico said after a recent practice. "It was such a long process, six months. But I really want to play college hockey, and I'll probably play juniors (after this season). Usually I play hockey all year, but this year I couldn't. I got the surgery just because of that. If I wasn't going to pursue sports, I probably would not have gotten it done. I mean, I slept in a recliner for six weeks. It was not fun."
For three years, Lillico felt pain and soreness in his right shoulder. Then, one day last spring, Lillico, the catcher for the Wingers' baseball team, fired a throw to second base from his position behind the plate, and his shoulder screamed out like Face No. 12.
"Midway through the season, I threw at practice, and then I could not throw. At all. It was horrible," Lillico said. "I was getting massages at the beginning of the season because it hurt so bad and it was so tight, but then that happened and I'm like, 'We've got something going on here.'"
Well, a little more than something. Lillico tore the labrum in his shoulder, making the act of lifting his arm a wincing movement, let alone throwing a ball. Or slamming a forward into the half-wall.
Surgery was probably an immediate option, but Lillico and the Wingers were about to embark on a magical run to the state baseball tournament. So the catcher stuck it out, and, somehow, hid his injury from opposing coaches.
"I wouldn't even throw to second after warmups. I'd take a few steps and lollipop it out there. And no team figured it out," Lillico said. "I had a team steal on me in the first couple games, and then not again until the last game of the state tournament. The pitchers threw strikes and did a good job keeping guys on first so that I didn't have to worry about it."
After the season concluded, surgery was again tabled for a showcase hockey event. Red Wing boys hockey co-head coach Anthony Boser said Lillico was "impressive" at the camp. That he even played through the pain should be the first note in college and junior hockey coaches notes.
Then, after a day of rest, it was finally time to go under the knife. Then it was six months of rehab. And then, finally, Lillico got to put on his pads and do what he loves to do: play hockey as physically as he possibly can. And, well, that can be a problem for a player coming off major surgery.
"We had a discussion, not about the way he plays, but just playing smarter," Boser said. "It's funny, I think Teddy remembers that chat until the second before he has the chance to make the first big hit of the game. Then it generally goes out the window and it's business as usual for him. But he is playing smarter, and not always looking for the biggest guy on the ice. He's been more protective of his shoulder, and that's great. It's a longevity thing for him."
Boser noted that the timing of Lillico's surgery made the loss a bit more palatable as it gave the staff time to figure out the rest of the blue line. Despite all the early losses, Boser said the defense stepped up, noting in particular the time and play of Jack Nevitt. Now, with Lillico back, Boser said everything "just feels more settled."
"Because it's fun," is why Lillico wants to continue to play hockey, to continue his assault on his body. And there is no question he belongs on the ice.
"He's a special player," Boser said. "He has a grit and determination that you don't always see. It's not a regular thing these days to see a kid with the tenacity and the way he plays. He's a joy to coach. He's grown into a team leader. He's a rock back there. There's not much else to say."