Sean Couturier opens up about recovery process, returning to practice

The Flyers centerman returned to team practice on Tuesday.

Sean Couturier returning to Philadelphia Flyers practice wearing a non-contact jersey and it was the first time he was able to skate with other teammates in an organized fashion, in a very long time.

The Flyers top centerman has been slowly recovering from a back injury that caused him to get surgery for the second time in that area, all season long. The surgery took place at the end of October, and here we are with just one month left in the season and he is crawling towards making his potential season debut.

Even that is not completely certain right now, but it has been a goal of Couturier’s as he went through this grueling process.

“The goal ever since I got surgery, was to come back at some point this year,” Couturier told media after Tuesday practice. “It is kind of something I’ve had my mind on for a while. It’s been tough at times, not really seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but here we are getting closer, and finally being able to at least join the team for a morning skate. Maybe get a practice in by the end of the week, and go from there. I feel good.”

It’s clearly day-by-day for Couturier as he steadily increases the workload and returning to some form of team practice. But what has been a positive is that he is feeling much better compared to the last time this attempted comeback was happening.

“It’s day and night, it feels a lot better. Last time, there was always something nagging me and I was just pushing through it; not really knowing what it was,” he said. “I was pretty much able to do everything, but I was always feeling just a little uncomfortable. ... But now, I haven’t had any of those feelings, so I’m able to work out normally without even having that at the back of my mind.”

Through training camp last October, Couturier was making progress on coming back from his previous back injury (not this current one, the other time that happened) and playing his first NHL game since Dec. 2021. But thankfully, this time around he has been feeling completely better and not have that nagging concern of something happening again.

This isn’t the first time a Flyer is trying to make a late-season return to the ice. Just last year, Kevin Hayes appeared to have his season done in January, but he pushed back to return in the middle of March and score 22 points in the 28 games he managed to fit in.

Now, a six-week absence is a little different than not being able to play for 15 months, but it is a similar mindset of returning to play during a season that is already lost on a team that is destined for the draft lottery instead of the playoffs. Luckily, Couturier was still able to relate to Hayes a little bit and knows the benefit of coming back to play before the season wraps up.

“It’s actually something I’ve talked a little bit about with him,” he said. “Especially for me — if I wait until next year then it would be two years since I have played in an NHL game, which is not ideal. I mean, I’m not getting any younger either.

“I just want to get in a game and get a feel for the game, and just know, going into the summer, what I need to do to be back at the level I need to be. Just feeling good about yourself, knowing that you’re back to being a hockey player and not just rehabbing — I’ve done that enough.”

You just have to feel for Couturier. The guy has been unable to play for so long and even before that, he had to deal with the weird and ever-changing COVID bubble season. Plus, he hasn’t even been able to fully be a part of the Flyers this season.

“It’s been really tough. Especially with everything that is going on around here, and not being able to help the team or contribute in any way,” the 30-year-old center said. “You feel left out a little bit and not really able to do anything — to change anything.

“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. You question yourself and it puts a lot of things into perspective, around hockey and in life, family time and stuff. I definitely miss the game and it’s something that, when you’re out for so long, that you sometimes almost take it for granted. That’s definitely something that I have learned, that when I am back, enjoy it as much as you can, every moment. You never know when something like this can happen.”

A little bit of perspective isn’t bad, but let’s just hope that it doesn’t take a back surgery and not being able to do your job for over a year.

If Couturier plays before the Flyers end their regular season on April 13 in Chicago, he will be on the ice with a completely different team full of new players and a new direction for the club. Last he played, the team was still hopeful to not be all that bad. Hell, in the last game Couturier played, the Flyers’ lineup featured some guys like Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Gerry Mayhew, Derick Brassard, Martin Jones, Oskar Lindblom, and of course, Claude Giroux.

“Yeah, things have definitely changed in the last two, three years,” Couturier said. “Definitely not a situation I was envisioning when I signed, but here we are. It’s the business of the NHL, things can go one way or the other pretty quick in this league, and being part of a rebuild is not what you want, but I think it’s the right thing to do in the situation that we’re at. With all the injuries and everything, it’s kind of something that we have to do. I’ll do my best to be around and lead in the right way and get this team back on track as quick as possible.”

Couturier is in his first year of his eight-year, $62-million contract that he signed almost two years ago. He will be sticking around for a while, no matter what, but he isn’t the worst experienced center for young players to learn from — he might be one of the best.

We just want to see No. 14 on the ice again.