By now, nearly everyone in hockey circles knows how Teppo Numminen overcame major heart surgery and returned to the NHL. The 40-year-old’s tale has been told often. But it’s worth telling again.
Numminen’s journey from heart-valve replacement to Buffalo Sabres defenseman will be highlighted league-wide today. The Buffalo chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association has elected Numminen as its nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
Numminen and his fellow nominees in the Northeast Division will be revealed today. A different division will be highlighted every day this week, and the trophy will be handed out June 18 at the NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas. Pat LaFontaine (1995) and Don Luce (1975) are the only Sabres to win the honor. Numminen is a legitimate candidate to join the duo.
Numminen had a valve replaced in his heart in September 2007. Despite being suspended without pay, he set a goal of returning and played in the season finale last year. Reaching that goal wasn’t enough. He decided he had to play at least one more season and dedicated himself to doing so.
"I just thought, 'I’ve got to see how far I can still get,'" Numminen said Monday. "It was like a challenge, a goal and a dream."
The dream has been realized 55 times this season, and Numminen is expected to play in his 56th game Wednesday when the Sabres visit the Atlanta Thrashers.
"Before the surgery you don’t know how things are going to work out, how it’s going to go," Numminen said. "It’s been awesome just to be back and be able to play.
"It was a lot of stuff [in the past 19 months]. After the surgery you just want to survive. You just want to be a normal parent for your kids, just be a normal street guy, regular parent, not be a professional athlete. I wasn’t even thinking about that. That came later when I realized I could be a normal parent and just do the normal things with the family, just everyday routines.
"This has just been extra for myself, and I’m really thankful for that. To be back and playing professionally, it’s just unbelievable."