GLENDALE, Ariz. — The darkest time came right after the injury. Months in the hospital. Multiple surgeries. Pain, fear, little hope.
Playing hockey again was not even a remote consideration. Carl Soderberg had bigger concerns.
“I was more worried about my eye and would I get my vision back,” Soderberg said.
The Arizona Coyotes made the biggest splash of the off-season, trading for highly productive right wing Phil Kessel.
But the addition of Soderberg might have been Arizona’s biggest move.
Impact on Coyotes Roster
A 6-foot-3, 210-pound centre, Soderberg has given the Coyotes a big body to go with all those fast, skilled young players.
He’s a willing jostler outside the crease, creating traffic in front of opposing goalies and shooting lanes for his teammates. He’s the guy who goes into the corners to dig pucks out. Need a big hit, he’s Arizona’s guy.
Soderberg also is skilled, tied with Christian Dvorak for second on the team with eight goals. He’s also tied for fifth with 15 points through 29 games.
“He’s a guy that goes to the net. He’s always around the net,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “He’s just fit in and he’s a big body. It’s nice to have those big bodies. He’s done a nice job for us.”
Blind in Left Eye
The most amazing part of Soderberg”s NHL success: he’s legally blind in his left eye.
He was injured while playing in the Swedish Elite League in 2006 when an opponent tried to lift his stick and hit his eye instead. Soderberg suffered a detached retina, spent three months in the hospital because of pressure in his eye and lost track of how many surgeries he had, estimating between eight and 10.
A young player reaching his prime, Soderberg was in too much pain to think about his hockey career.
“The pressure in my eye was so high for months,” the 34-year-old said. “It wouldn’t go down, so I was in constant pain, getting constant headaches and worried if I would ever be able to see out of my eye again. I just wanted to feel good again.”
Once the pressure started to go down, Soderberg began working out and, within about a year, was playing hockey again. His return was difficult, from figuring out how to play with limited vision to quashing the fear that comes with having been struck in the eye with a stick.
“It was a little different on the eyes, I was scared, afraid to get hit again,” he said. “It took me a couple years to fully get back.”
Soderberg worked through the tentativeness and adjusted his game, learning to turn his head more to see the puck and having a better understanding of where everyone is on the ice.
“You have to be more aware, you have to listen to your teammates, look around you a little bit more,” Soderberg said.
Willie O’Ree Understands Soderberg’s Situation
Willie O’Ree knows what Soderberg is going through.
Playing at a time when players didn’t have helmets much less visors, O’Ree took a slapshot to his right eye during a game in 1956. O’Ree lost nearly all the vision in his eye and was told he would never play hockey again.
Undeterred, he started skating two weeks after leaving the hospital and adjusted his game. Being a left-handed left wing helped some, but seeing the puck to his right required turning his head all the way to the right so he could see it with his left eye.
O’Ree went on to become the first black player in the NHL in 1958 and played 21 seasons in a variety of leagues. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, has an NHL community award named in his honour and currently serves as the league’s diversity ambassador.
“You never took an eye exam, so I said, if I’m good enough to make the team with one eye, just don’t tell them,” O’Ree said. “I was getting hit a lot more than I did before, but I was able to play 21 years with one eye.”
Soderberg Continues to Thrive
Soderberg is playing his eighth NHL season while seeing little more than light in his left eye. He spent three seasons with Boston and four with Colorado before being traded to Arizona for Kevin Connauton and a draft pick last summer.
Soderberg, who has 94 goals and 166 assists in 511 career games, has been a big reason the Coyotes are off to one of the best starts in franchise history, entering Wednesday’s games a point behind Edmonton in the Pacific Division.
“Ï have a good feeling about us as a group,” Soderberg said. “We should be at the top of our division at the end and that’s our goal.”
It’s hard not to trust Soderberg’s vision at this point.
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John Marshall, The Associated Press