SAN JOSE -- Alex Stalock is a glass half full kind of guy.
After suffering a serious nerve injury behind his left knee during a game with the Sharks’ AHL team in Worcester on Feb. 4, 2011, just days after making his NHL debut, Stalock was told by doctors there was a 50-50 chance he would play again. He sat out for nearly an entire calendar year, rehabbing and working to continue what was, at the time, a promising career.
“Being young and having it be my first injury, I kind of played it like it’s not going to be a big deal,” said Stalock, a fourth round pick by the Sharks in 2005. “I think that mindset was kind of a big reason to get through it.”
He continued: “I didn’t really what care what [the doctors] said, honestly. It was always in the back of my head there was a chance that I’d be doing something else. Obviously, I wanted to work hard and get to where I was.”
Stalock may never be 100 percent, admitting that in daily life he occasionally has trouble with his balance on uneven surfaces, sometimes rolling his ankle. He has about a six-inch scar behind his left knee, where current Los Angeles Kings forward Dwight King stepped on him during a game against the Manchester Monarchs.
Fortunately, ice surfaces in the NHL are nice and flat, and Stalock indicated he hardly notices any lingering effects during games or practices. Still in his first full NHL season as Antti Niemi’s backup, Stalock is 7-3-0 with a 1.56 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. He doesn’t qualify to be among the league leaders yet since he hasn’t played enough minutes, but it is an impressive stat line nonetheless.
The time off after his surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota may have been a blessing in disguise. Stalock did not return to game action until Jan. 21, 2012, suiting up for the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder more than 11 months after he was hurt.
“The year we spent almost not seeing pucks, working on movement – I joked with [Sharks goalie coach Corey Schwab], maybe it’s good for a goalie to take a year [off] and actually work on some of the stuff he needs to work on to get to the next level,” Stalock said.
“We simplified stuff that I thought I needed to get better at. I’m kind of seeing stuff now that maybe four years ago I wasn’t doing.”
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Tommy Wingels was on the ice the night Stalock went down.
“You see those plays numerous times throughout a game. A scrum around the net, a goalie laying down and bodies around it,” Wingels said.
“I think he knew something was wrong right away, but you’re so focused on where the puck is and what is going on, and a rebound, and continuing to play, that I think once people realized it was a serious injury, play stopped. But, at the time, no one really knew.”
Coincidentally, the San Jose Sharks were preparing for a game in Boston when Stalock’s injury occurred in nearby Worcester. Todd McLellan went to see Stalock in the hospital.
Stalock’s immediate sense of willpower left an impression on the head coach.
“You could sense at that time he was going to be very determined to overcome the injury,” McLellan said. “It wasn’t an easy process, and it took some time. We’re excited for him that he’s fought his way back, and I think that’s why he fits our team so well. Guys know his story. They understand where he’s been, and they get excited about playing for him.”
In his last five starts, the St. Paul, MN native is 4-1-0 with a 1.00 GAA and .966 SP. He broke the Sharks’ franchise record for shutout streak by a goalie with more than 178 minutes without giving up a goal, and his only loss came on Monday when he allowed just one goal to the Los Angeles Kings in a 1-0 defeat.
He’s established himself as an NHL goaltender, and it’s not difficult to imagine him one day becoming Sharks’ starter. No matter what happens from here, though, it’s been a remarkable journey.
“Hard work, and let the body take care of itself, and I was lucky enough that it worked for me,” Stalock said.
“To be successful at the NHL level is a huge deal,” Wingels said. “A lot of credit needs to be given to Al for that.”