With a sound mind and body, might Gilbert Brule put his struggles of last season behind him and play his way back into the plans of the Edmonton Oilers in 2011-12?
Brule enjoyed the benefit of neither last season. He battled nagging injuries — a sprained ankle, a concussion and a bruised spleen — that had him in and out of the line-up and limited him to 41 games. He also wrestled with off-ice issues and family matters that weighed heavily on his mind.
The combination not only prompted speculation by fans and media alike about what might be wrong with the 24-year-old forward, it wiped away all the gains made during what many considered a break-out year in 2009-10, when he scored 17-20-37 in just 65 games. Brule had just seven goals and nine points.
Brule went from being perceived as kid who was finally living up to the reputation that saw Columbus select him sixth overall in the 2005 Entry Draft to something of an afterthought with many fans as they tried to figure out where, and if, he fits in with an Oilers team — he was supposed to be part of the trade with Los Angeles that brought Ryan Smyth back to Edmonton — that is laden with young talent at forward.
So, that opening paragraph is a question worth asking — if Brule has his head on straight and can stay healthy, does he have a chance to bounce back and make himself part of the plans again?
"Everyone has their issues, right? This was stuff that was between my family," Brule said in an interview with Jim Matheson and I at Kinsmen Arenas today. "Things like that.
"It was all new to me, so it was kind of just thrown on my plate and I was dealing with it as I was trying to deal with it as I was trying to deal with a very stressful hockey season. It was very tough, especially with all the injuries I had as well on top of that. It just all kind of weighed down on me pretty heavily last year."
Given what Brule told me about his off-ice situation and that the subject of depression was prominent in the headlines this summer after the suicide of Rick Rypien last month, I asked him if depression was an issue with him, and if he’s been treated for it.
"The things that I had to go through with my family were very, very tough and I would never wish this upon anyone, honestly," Brule said.
"It definitely affected me in a very negative way and I was not feeling very good about myself. That’s why I wanted to start talking to these people because I’m a good athlete and I’m a good hockey player and I need to be reminded of that and be reassured and have confidence in myself instead of just getting down on myself."
"I wasn’t missing hockey because of those things," he said. "It was mostly because of injuries or flu, whatever it was. Things like that. These things I’ve dealt with all last year with the doctors on our team.
"This summer, I saw a psychologist and a sports psychologist, so I’m trying to get that mental strength back that I kind of lost a little bit . . . I need to get back to that.
"I need to be reminded, to remember that I’m a good player, I was drafted in the first round and I can play. Under the right circumstances, I need to get a good chance and I need to play well and be confident in myself."
Compounding the injuries and the family distractions, Brule got down on himself because of his lack of success on the ice. Add it all up, and Brule made the choice to get help. It struck me that he looked and sounded like a brand new man when we chatted today.
"I think I’m my worst critic," Brule said. "After every game, I’m the one saying I should have done this and that. This year, I’m working with a sports psychologist like crazy to just get away from that.
"I can’t think like that. That thinking drags me down and just makes me think too much. After games, I’ve got to sort of, ‘You know what, I didn’t do those things right. That’s not me. This is what I have to do.’ That’s it. I can’t constantly be thinking all these thoughts. That’s when you don’t get sleep and it’s just too much."
Brule is confident he’s turned the corner and can pick up where he left off at the end of the 2009-10 season. Time, as it always does, will tell, but you hope for the best with a likeable kid like him.
"I feel great this year coming into camp," Brule said. "Even with all the stuff that happened this summer, I don’t even think about it anymore. I’m thinking of it as a new slate for me.
"You know, maybe they (Oilers) aren’t thinking that, but that’s the way I’m going in thinking. I just have to put my best foot forward.
"I’m human. Everyone has issues, right? I think the Oilers have been great with me. They’re treating me just like a regular person, they’re not treating me like I’m some crazy whatever . . . they’ve been very good with me and very patient, which I respect."
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.