CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- For the past five months Panthers veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski has patiently participated in practices and morning skates in a courageous effort to continue his 17-year NHL career following major hip surgery last April.
Finally, on Thursday following a physical practice at Saveology.com Iceplex, the team's medical staff cleared Jovanovski to play, according to a source. And on Saturday night against the Nashville Predators the Panthers will get their captain back for the first time since March.
"The way he practices he looks ready," Panthers coach Peter Horachek said after practice, but before Jovanovski was cleared. "You're kind of working on (uncharted) ground that hasn't been worked on before with this surgery, having a hip replacement."
Jovanovski underwent hip resurfacing, which is an alternative to a complete hip replacement, and less invasive because most of the femur bone is left intact.
It's believed that no athlete from any of the four major professional sports has ever come back successfully after this relatively new procedure.
Former Lightning center Tim Taylor underwent hip resurfacing at 37 after the 2007 season and never played another NHL game. Bo Jackson, an NFL and MLB star, had a hip replacement in 1991 and was forced to retire at 29.
"I don't think it's ever happened," said Dr. Audie Rolnick, a Plantation, Fla., hip surgeon. "Hockey of all sports, has a huge amount of stress on the joint and the hips, so I think it's going to be pretty rough for him at 37 to come back.
"His skating will be fine, but it's the crashing into the boards and other players crashing into him. The crashes will loosen up the prosthesis and cause pain. I would never let anyone go back to playing a sport like this."
Jovanovski, the Panthers' first overall draft pick in 1994, was a key ingredient to their 1996 Stanley Cup finalist team. He was traded to Vancouver in January 1999, that brought Pavel Bure to the Panthers. Jovanovski, a five-time All Star, was brought back by General Manager Dale Tallon in July 2011 for $16.5 million over four years.
At one point, Jovanovski's hip was so painful he couldn't bend down to tie his shoes. He flew to Germany last March for advanced Platelet Rich Plasma therapy, but it didn't last.
"I just love the game, love being around it," Jovanovski said earlier this year. "I don't know anything differently. My passion is hockey, it is everything. It's the competition, the opportunity to be able to compete day in and day out. And there's the camaraderie. ... I'm just driven to play."
The timing of his return is perfect because Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who practiced Thursday in a caged helmet to protect his surgically repaired orbital bone, is out for about another two weeks.
UPSHALL TO PLAY
After missing his last three games with an upper-body injury, Panthers left wing Scottie Upshall returned to practice Thursday and is eager to play Saturday against the Predators, his original team.
"I know I'm excited to play Nashville. I didn't get to play them earlier this year. We have a big game," said Upshall, who was benched by then coach Kevin Dineen in the Panthers' 4-3 loss to Nashville on Oct. 15.
HUBERDEAU IN SLUMP
Forward Jonathan Huberdeau, the first Panther to win the Calder Trophy last season after putting up 14 goals and 31 points in 48 games, has just four points in his last 18 games.
"It's hard when you can't complete any, don't score or do anything to help the team, so it's hard to have fun sometimes," said Huberdeau, who has 15 points in 39 games. "I'm at home thinking about it. ... I just need one game to get things going. A pass in front of the net or get a tap-in goal to get your confidence up."
Huberdeau, 20, was demoted to the third line in practice with veterans Marcel Goc and Tomas Kopecky.
"He had a great rookie season and I think frustration came in when he didn't start lighting it up from the beginning," Horachek said. "What's important for him is to focus on his play, rather than the result of how many goals and assists he's getting."
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