KENNEWICK — Neal Prokop gathered in the puck, skated down the boards and hit his teammate with a perfect pass across the slot.
It was just practice and it was a routine drill, but after sitting on the sidelines for eight months with the possibility of never playing hockey again, it was a lot to be thankful for.
The Tri-City Americans forward broke his left femur March 23, just 1:02 into Game 3 of the first round of the 2010 Western Hockey League playoffs against the Chilliwack Bruins.
And Wednesday night, eight months and a day since his injury, Prokop played his first game, against the Seattle Thunderbirds at ShoWare Center in Kent -- a 5-4 Tri-City victory in a shootout.
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It felt relly good," said Prokop, who assisted on Jordan Messier's game-tying goal in the third period. "Within the first 10 strides I hit a guy and that got me into the game. I'm happy with my first game back, and we won too, which is good."
Prokop, 20, who joined the team in Brandon during its swing through the East Division in early October, has spent the last six weeks conditioning and getting his confidence back on the ice.
"I've enjoyed being back with the guys," he said. "We've been hitting the gym together and skating. My leg feels pretty good. ... From where I was six weeks ago, I've made great strides."
Greater than expected.
When the 6-foot-4, 210-pound native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was injured, it was not from contact with another player. It was just a freak accident.
"I was taking away an option for a defender. When I had him turned, I was too close to the boards and I couldn't get my skates turned around, and I went down," he said a week after the accident.
"I heard it pop. I knew right away it was serious. I was on my back and my leg was numb."
Nancy and Grant Prokop were watching the game via the internet when their son was injured.
"When it happened, they switched to the score clock and all we could hear was the audio," Nancy Prokop said. "That was hard. We could hear that they were getting a doctor and bringing out the stretcher, that he looked to be in a lot of pain.
"A few minutes after it happened, the trainer (Brian Cheeseman) was calling us. He told us it was serious, but that he had movement and feeling in his leg. Grant and I were looking at each other; we were kind of dazed. He'd hit harder and been hit harder and never had anything happen. He didn't even get hit."
Medical personnel took care of him at the rink, but it took two hours to get him transported two blocks down the road to Chilliwack General Hospital.
X-rays showed a severe fracture in the upper third of his femur, the strongest and thickest bone in the body.
Though he was scheduled for surgery the following morning, it was nearly 48 hours before he was wheeled into the operating room. A titanium rod was inserted into his femur and screwed in at the knee and his hip.
"It was a long 48 hours for him," said Nancy, who arrived at the hospital just before her son went in for surgery. "But we can't complain about the surgeon. He did a magnificent job. Looking at where Neal is now, he did something right. He told Neal it was a 2 1/2-hour surgery and it took 4. He said he had trouble getting the rod in his bone because it was so hard."
Americans team doctor Luke Megna said standard protocol after such a surgery is to have the patient up the following day. But Prokop couldn't get out of bed.
"He was weak and groggy," Nancy said. "On Sunday, he said, 'I would feel better if I wasn't so light-headed.' "
Doctors told her that Neal lost a good deal of blood with the break and more during the surgery. He needed four units of blood after the surgery.
But that wasn't the only problem. He developed a fat embolism in his lung and a small blood clot below his calf muscle. He was on blood thinners for three months.
After 13 days in the hospital, Prokop and his mom flew home to Winnipeg.
"When we came home from Chilliwack, he was setting off the airport scanners," Nancy said. "He will be patted down the rest of his life."
Doctors told Prokop he would need six to nine months of physical therapy to heal so he could do day-to-day activities. Playing hockey was more than a year away -- and not a guarantee.
That wasn't good enough.
"I didn't do standard therapy, I just did everything on my own," Prokop said. He was hobbling around the gym on crutches to work his upper body before he could work his legs. "As soon as I could go on the elliptical, I was there, and the more I could do, I did.
"Since everyone was in school or working, I got a trainer to push me. At first I didn't know if I'd be able to play again, but once it was July and August, I felt I could play."
"He has come a long way," Nancy said. "We bought an exercise bike for home. He was on the bike almost immediately. He lost 20 pounds from the surgery and he's gained it back.
"He started walking in May, then running. The orthopedic surgeon he had here for his follow-up was allowing him to do more and more as he improved. He gave Neal the go-ahead in August and told him when he was ready he could play. Once he got that, it motivated him even more to come back."
The hardest part was watching his teammates win subsequent rounds in the playoffs, and eventually the Western Conference title, without him.
"It sounded like lots of fun. I wished I could have been there," he said.
Prokop, who took a full load of college classes during the summer in addition to his rehab, hasn't backed off his training since coming back to the Tri-Cities.
"It's impressive," said Americans' strength and conditioning coach Scott Murphy. "Athletes are a special breed and can recover faster, but this is ahead of the curve. That he's back playing this soon is a testament to his attitude and hard work."
Megna said the fact Prokop has been diligent with his therapy is why he is able to get back on the ice so soon.
"He's young and athletic, which helps in the healing process, but the rehab he's had has been very good," Megna said.
"You hope with the rehab and watching his biomechanics on the ice that this won't happen again."
Prokop had played 2 1/2 years in Moose Jaw and part of a season in Regina before an offseason trade brought him to the Americans before last season.
In 179 games before he joined the Americans, he scored 18 goals and had 30 assists. In 67 games with Tri-City, he had 22 goals and 23 assists.
Tri-City general manager Bob Tory said he felt Prokop earned an opportunity to come back and try to earn a spot on the team.
"He's a great kid and was a big part of our team last year," Tory said. "That he is back is remarkable with the severity of his injury. Having him back and around the team is great and rewarding."
But with Prokop returning, Tory now has four 20-year-old players -- WHL teams are allowed only three overage players. Tory has two weeks to decide whether to keep the three overage players he has -- captain Kruise Reddick and defensemen Tyler Schmidt and Zak Stebner -- or release one to include Prokop.
"That's up to Bob," Prokop said. "I just have to try and do my best and see what happens."
If Prokop isn't asked to stay, he doesn't want pity.
"I knew what the chances were coming back," he said. "When the time comes, I will deal with it then."
Head-on, just like he has for the past eight months.
*Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; email@example.com