By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
Ever since Nolan Patrick was first sidelined with a migraine disorder in September 2019, explanations pertaining to the specifics of his condition and recovery were scarce. The only thing being reported with certainty was that Patrick was being treated and monitored for his condition, but there was no definitive timeline of when he would fully return to the Flyers.
Alain Vigneault didn’t have all the answers when asked about Patrick during the 2019-20 season, which Patrick wasn’t cleared to participate in. Vigneault explained that he wasn’t privy to daily updates on Patrick, but that his migraines were being handled with a “big-picture” approach rather than day-to-day.
Even Patrick has admitted that he doesn’t completely understand the cause of his migraines. While Chuck Fletcher explained that Patrick has a family history of migraines, the center isn’t entirely certain that that’s to blame.
"I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. I don’t know how it works. I don’t know if it’s something from the past or something that happens," Patrick said after his first full practice with the team last year. "I can tell what progress is. It’s slow, but obviously I notice it."
Despite making some progress in his recovery after his diagnosis, Vigneault didn’t provide any hope of Patrick appearing on the Flyers’ playoff roster, bluntly stating that the team would be “moving forward” with the available players.
Although Patrick was not in consideration to play during the 2019-20 season, Vigneault has been optimistic about his availability for the 2020-21 season.
"What I have been hearing lately for quite some time is that he is in a good place and that he is feeling better," Vigneault said a few weeks prior to camp. "Just put yourself in his shoes, the anxiety and the stress of all of this, and coming back. I want this to be as smooth and as easy for him; it’s not something that has been easy for him to go through."
This follows reports that Patrick has been skating in non-contact practices, and has spent the offseason regularly skating and scrimmaging in Manitoba, Canada with a group organized by former Flyer Ryan White. In September, Fletcher noted that Patrick has been “living a mostly normal life” and had “made a lot of progress since March.”
Even more promising is the fact that Patrick has returned to Philadelphia in preparation for the upcoming season, and the hope is he will be cleared to participate in the Flyers’ preseason training camp starting on Monday. The team held physical examinations on Sunday, during which they will gain full knowledge as to whether or not Patrick can be cleared for contact. If he’s cleared, he will be closely monitored each day to see how his body responds to increased intensity of practice.
However, there will still be plenty of apprehension surrounding a return to play for Patrick. In order to make up for no actual preseason games before the season opener on Jan. 13, the team plans to scrimmage on a near-daily basis throughout camp, concluding with an intra-squad scrimmage on the final day of camp that simulates a game day schedule. While this competitiveness will be a passable indicator of Patrick’s health and readiness for actual games, players have the consensus that scrimmages aren’t a totally adequate simulator of real NHL matchups. Seeing as Patrick has not played an NHL game in over 650 days, patience is of the utmost importance in seeing him return to full form.
There is also the ever-present issue of the severity of Patrick’s migraine disorder. It has been made clear that he is not just suffering from annoying and inconvenient sinus pressure, but extremely painful and sometimes debilitating headaches that can affect his ability to function in daily life. This is not something that will go away with treatment and medication, and while it can be closely monitored and managed, it’s likely that this will be a persistent concern for Patrick for the rest of his career.
Despite being treated delicately as he eases his way back into full play, Vigneault is confident that Patrick has not lost the desire to get back on Wells Fargo Center ice.
"There’s no doubt in my mind that he wants to be with this team," Vigneault said. "There’s a young man that’s played hockey all his life and I’m sure loves the game, so he wants to get back at it. But first, he’s got to be healthy. Right now, all I’m hearing are good things about him skating, working out and feeling good about himself."
Patrick also has the full support of his teammates as he progresses, and their recent comments point toward Patrick's return in the upcoming season as well.
"Obviously I’ve been in touch with Patty a lot. He actually was up in the Brandon area, lives a couple houses down from where I live. Saw him a lot," defenseman Travis Sanheim said. "We were working out a lot together and training together. He’s been awesome. His skill set is next level. We knew that since the day he got drafted. It’s awesome seeing him back out there skating. Looking forward to playing with him again."
"I’ve been here for a week now. It’s been a little over a week. He looks good. He’s skating well," Sean Couturier said. "We all know the talent and the skill that Nolan has. We’re excited to have him back. He could be a big asset for us this year."
Fletcher summed up the Flyers’ current approach towards the situation as “conservative but confident.”
"Nolan, I watched him skate. He’s an amazingly talented young man. He looked great. Feels good," Fletcher said. "Again, we’ll wait for the doctors to meet with him for the pre-season physical. Life is unpredictable. We certainly saw that last year. I can’t make predictions on anybody. I think we’re in a good shape going into camp and we’re excited to get him back."
Overall, there is still uncertainty surrounding Patrick’s situation, but he is showing nothing positive signs in recovery. Being cleared for preseason camp may seem like baby steps, but considering that it was once a very real concern that his migraines would end his hockey career, seeing Patrick in camp would be an enormous leap forward. While it’s been made clear that fans shouldn’t be dusting off their high hopes yet in terms of on-ice expectations, it’s safe to say that Patrick, along with the rest of the Flyers, is not giving up faith.