NEWS
11/02/2015 11:34 EST | Updated 11/02/2016 01:12 EDT

Fehr back in action five months after modified Tommy John Surgery

TORONTO — Eric Fehr pulled off the wrap covering his left arm to reveal the scar across his elbow. Plenty of hockey players have had elbow surgery, but this scar was different.

Fehr had torn all the ligaments so severely that one doctor recommended he have a form of Tommy John surgery, a procedure usually reserved for baseball pitchers.

"As far as I know it's never been done in the NHL," Fehr said Saturday before making his season debut for his new team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. "None of the elbow doctors I've talked to have seen it before. Talking to the doctors, they think that's a good thing because (a tear is) probably not going to happen again."

Fehr's elbow is as good as new, if not better, after Dr. Shawn O'Driscoll at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., repaired the lateral collateral ligament. The official Tommy John surgery involves the replacement of the ulner collateral ligament with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. Fehr's came from a cadaver.

"It was either that or take it from a hamstring or something, and I didn't want to do that," he said. "I didn't want to touch anything else. We used cadaver ligaments and put brand-new ligaments in there."

Fehr, whose injury happened over the course of last season, had a goal and an assist against the Toronto Maple Leafs in his first game action since May 13, when he was in the playoffs with the Washington Capitals. All the while, the 30-year-old forward wore a protective elbow pad similar to the one worn by NFL star defensive player J.J. Watt to keep going.

The Winkler, Man., native saw one specialist who believed he had some damage that wouldn't require surgery. Washington Nationals medical director Wiemi Douoguih eventually diagnosed an LCL tear and surgery. The injury got progressively worse, to the point Fehr saw the renowned Dr. James Andrews, who sent him to the Mayo Clinic for O'Driscoll to take a look.

"As soon as he saw it, he knew immediately what it was and recommended that I got it done," Fehr said.

Fehr had surgery June 3, and though the Capitals said in a statement that doctors foresaw a comeback in time for training camp, his recovery timeline varied widely. Pitchers typically miss a full calendar year or more, but because hockey puts far less torque on a player's elbow, it wasn't that dire.

"Because it's never been done in hockey before, they didn't really know what the recovery time would be," Fehr said. "So if you followed my injury progress, you saw a lot of six months to 10 months or 6-12 months. There was a lot of variance whether I'd be back in September or January, and that's just because it was kind of an unprecedented surgery."

July 1 came and went, and once the Penguins traded Brandon Sutter to the Vancouver Canucks for Nick Bonino, they finalized a US$6-million, three-year deal with Fehr. General manager Jim Rutherford preached patience at the time, assuring Fehr would be 100 per cent before he made his Pittsburgh debut.

So far, so good. Fehr was feeling good Sunday at the Penguins' last practice in Toronto before heading on a western Canadian swing to face the Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.

"I waited long enough (to come back) for that reason to make sure that it's not a nagging injury," Fehr said. "Right now it's as strong as it can be, and it's not something you usually get a lot of wear and tear on like shoulders or knees or groins, so it's something they don't expect to re-occur."

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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press