Playing in a sport known for its speed and power has its risks. With each 120-mph puck or 30-mph player flying at you, there’s the chance of a career-ending collision. Or worse, as Minnesota Wild left-winger Zach Parise comments: “It’s not just about playing or not playing. You want to be able to do your everyday things. When you can’t even pick up your kids, that’s when it gets really challenging.”

As the father of two small children, Parise’s “everyday things” includes moving every waking moment, on top of his rigorous NHL training and game schedule. It also means any hockey injury has far-reaching implications. “You get hurt, and you think, is this it? Will I be able to get through this? Will I feel normal again? They’re the thoughts that go through an athlete’s mind a lot.”

A hockey family

As the son of a Minnesota North Stars player and lifelong coach, Parise puts much of his identity into his role as a hockey player. Watching a third generation take up the sport brings even more meaning to the game. “I don’t remember life before hockey, driving to the rink while it was still dark out or skating on the pond after school until dinnertime. And now I see it with my son. I get teary-eyed watching him skate, and I’m sure it was the same for my dad watching me when I was young.” For Parise, playing meant carrying on a family tradition for both his father and his son; the implications of getting hurt sets the stakes as high as they possibly could be.

Zach Parise’s injury in 2016

In 2016, Parise had his most serious brush with a life-changing injury. “Starting in January, my back started to hurt. I was getting care at TRIA to manage the pain, but every time I played in the following weeks, it got a little worse. One day, I really didn’t feel like myself. It was the second-to-last game of the 2015-2016 season, and I took a hit. The next morning, I woke up with a shooting pain down my leg. I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t walk, couldn’t get into the car.” The diagnosis from his TRIA doctors: a herniated disc.

Recovering from a herniated disc

An eventual recovery allowed Parise to play the 2016–2017 season, but by September 2017, despite progress, it became evident that physical therapy wasn’t providing a permanent solution. “I was trying rehab and everything I could to avoid surgery, but the pain slowly got worse and worse, until it got unbearable,” recalls Parise. “I think in my own mind I tried so hard to think that it was going to go away. But when it started to get to me mentally, when I couldn’t sleep, or sit in a chair or in the car, when I was irritable with my kids for no reason, it got pretty obvious that I had to get it fixed.”

Throughout his rehab, Parise had been in touch with his doctor at TRIA, following up weekly if not daily on his progress. The constant contact made him extremely comfortable with the decision to move forward with surgery. “I called in on a Saturday in October, and we had it done the following Tuesday. I got in there at 7 a.m., and I was home at 11:30. I remember when they put me in a wheelchair to leave, and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, the pain is gone.’ It was unbelievable. By 3 o’clock that afternoon, I went out for a walk without pain”

Parise had spoken with other athletes who had undergone the same surgery, and didn’t quite believe them when they reported such quick pain relief. “For about three days after the surgery, there would be the occasional nerve zing, which is normal. But at five days, they were gone, and I never felt them again.”

After months of battling pain, Parise was facing a new challenge: catching up with a team that had played 30 games without him, and teammates who had been building their endurance level up over weeks of training. The most difficult part wasn’t the challenge of the physical work ahead, but having the patience to allow a full recovery in the last weeks before he hit the ice again. “It’s hard to watch your own team play, because there’s that competitiveness, and that feeling that I should be out there. But that made me just that much more excited to get back and play games again.”

“At the beginning, I was in a pretty dark spot, getting hurt like that. But my relationship with the TRIA physical therapists and doctors got me through. I never questioned whether we were doing the right thing, and was always confident we were making progress. I just know from my experience that I got really good care.”