There was no singular moment of salvation, no particular turning point in the occasionally painful and often tedious process.
Gabe Vilardi’s rehab from an unspecified back injury wasn’t that simple. The Kings’ 2017 first-round pick followed a gradual route to recovery, a physical and mental grind that will see him return to game action for the first time in almost a full calendar year on Friday with the club’s minor-league affiliate, the Ontario Reign.
“I feel like a completely different person, if I’m being honest, than I was last year,” Vilardi, 20, said Wednesday, a soft smile returning to his bearded face. “It’s been a long road, but I’m happy I’m here.”
The 11th overall selection in the 2017 draft, Vilardi was once the Kings’ top prospect. Not since 2009 (Brayden Schenn, fifth overall) had the team picked a player so early in the draft, and after recording 157 points in 143 games in juniors, the 6-foot-3 two-way center was considered arguably the brightest gem of the Kings’ next generation.
In the last year, however, he’s had few opportunities to shine.
Vilardi’s lingering back pain returned during training camp ahead of last season, delaying his pro debut with the Reign until late November. He managed just one point in four American Hockey League games before being sidelined again. In December, the Kingston, Canada, native was ruled out of the World Junior Championships and returned to his junior team. In January, he was shut down for the remainder of the season.
“It’s been a long year for me,” said Vilardi, who spent most of the offseason working with trainers in Canada before returning to Los Angeles at the start of the year and resuming full-contact practice last week.
“I can talk all I want but nothing really is going to simulate until I get out there and see how I’m feeling and how I’m reading the plays out there.”
Decked out in Reign-branded gym clothes and clutching a plastic bottle at the team’s El Segundo practice facility on Wednesday morning, Vilardi met with reporters for the first time since aggravating his injury last season.
How was he feeling?
“We’ll see,” he said. “Obviously, it’s going to be tough for me but I’ve done a lot of work to get here thus far so I’m pretty excited.”
What did he miss the most during his rehab?
“Everything, honestly. Just playing hockey. It’s fun. It’s what I’ve always done,” he said, noting he filled his free time with reading and an online business class that he admitted, with a laugh, “I couldn’t do it. I don’t know how people do that stuff.”
What did he learn from his laborious last year?
“Just talk more,” he said. “Be more open. Don’t be so quiet. There’s a lot of people here to help me. That’s just the truth of being a professional hockey player. You’ve got a massage guy, you’ve got all these people that are here to help you. So you’ve got to take advantage of it. That’s what I’ve been doing so far.”
Ontario Reign coach Mike Stothers echoed that last point. These days, the Kings’ minor-league coach sees a different Vilardi than the teenager who tried to push through pain a season ago.
“You see him now, you’re seeing a player that is making eye contact, his shoulders are back, he seems confident, he seems happy,” Stothers said. “[Last year] I think he was probably guarded and cautious that he wasn’t quite ready to play.”
Stothers won’t put Vilardi on any specific minutes restriction Friday but doesn’t expect to play him again on Saturday night in the second of the Reign’s back-to-back road games against the Tucson Roadrunners. For now, it’s baby steps for the Kings’ prospect. A long-awaited return to game action is a good start.
“I’m honestly pretty nervous,” Vilardi said. “I don’t really get nervous for games but I haven’t played in so long. I don’t really know what to expect. I don’t know how I’m going to be, if I’m going to make the play. I could sit here and talk all day. But I can’t really tell you until I get out there and see how I’m reacting.”