Lilja is back where he belongs
But on Feb. 28, 2009, a fight with Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber nearly ended his career.
"He knocked me out," Lilja told NHL.com after his team practiced on Monday at Joe Louis Arena.
Weber did more than that. The force from his fists gave Lilja a concussion that kept him off the ice for an entire year. It was so bad that the 34-year-old had no choice but to contemplate retirement.
"In the beginning, I did," Lilja admitted. "I tried to stay positive the whole way. After seven and a half months of headaches, I went to see a guy in Vancouver who really helped me out. He got me symptom-free for three days, so I was like, 'OK ... it's only going to be a matter of time.' It took a year."
Lilja finally returned to the Wings' lineup on March 1 at Colorado. He played the final 20 games of the regular season, notching a goal and an assist with four penalty minutes. He's been in the lineup for all three of Detroit's postseason games against the Phoenix Coyotes and will be again when the teams meet for Game 4 on Tuesday night (6:30 p.m. EDT, TSN).
"There was a bunch of times," Wings' coach Mike Babcock said. "He decided he wanted to play and those are tough decisions for him and his family. Any time you're talking about head injuries, those are tough decisions and you hate when it happens. In saying that, you've got to give him credit for his determination and his will and his ability to battle back."
Detroit is in battle-back mode following a 4-2 loss to the Coyotes Sunday. Phoenix shocked the hockey world by winning 50 games during the regular season, good enough to earn the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. Lilja, who has appeared in 45 NHL playoff games, thinks this best-of-seven series is primed to go the distance.
"I think it's going to probably go seven games," Lilja said. "But it's awesome. We're playing a really good team, so we have to step it up. They're not going to roll over and die and give it to us. We have to make sure we take care of business ourselves."
Just like how Lilja took care of business off the ice to make sure he could return to action. It was a long year -- probably the longest of his life -- but the former second-round draft pick (Los Angeles, 2000) is finally back to living a normal life and playing the game he loves.
"It's a really good feeling," Lilja said. "It's been quite a while that I've been without symptoms. It's just awesome to be out there and playing with the guys and battling. It's a lot of fun."