When Andrew Ladd played his 920th NHL game on April 7, 2018, he assumed that 1,000 games and a silver-stick ceremony were mere formalities. Despite a significant drop in production and ice time over a two-season stretch, he still had five years remaining on his contract with the Islanders.
When Ladd finally took part in that ceremony more than four years later, and more than 2,400 miles to the west, he did so with a deeper well of wisdom and greater appreciation for the milestone.
A demotion to the AHL, injuries, isolation and a trade to Arizona in which nothing went back the other way will do that to a man, but not without a lot of introspection, honesty and hard work.
“When you have a goal that seems like a pretty big summit at the time and you’re at a pretty low point where you just had two major surgeries and you’re in the minors, I would say most people have a tough time coming back from that point,” Ladd said in a postgame news conference after he played in his 1,000th game against one of his former teams, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Wednesday. “I think (I’m) just proud of how I handled myself throughout that process and then just thankful for the people around me because your support system allows you to keep going when things are tough.”
Given the mental and physical work that Ladd put in over a 3½-year stretch to earn a permanent spot in the Coyotes lineup, and given the focus that he and his wife, Brandy, are placing on the mental, physical and social well-being of youth hockey players through the Ladd Foundation’s 1616 program, the Arizona chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association has nominated Ladd for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.
The Masterton Trophy is awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Masterton is the only player in NHL history to die as a direct result of injuries suffered during a game. He sustained massive head injuries after a hit during a Jan. 13, 1968 game against the Oakland Seals.
“I know a lot of people that have been nominated for the award and they’ve gone through a lot more severe things than I have,” Ladd said. “To me, it’s an appreciation not only for perseverance and dedication, but I think everyone values the game. That’s why we keep going. That’s why we persevere and that’s why we push forward. So I think that it means a lot in that regard because at the end of the day, it just shows your love for the game.”
Ladd needed all of that love when he suffered a meniscus tear early in the 2018-19 season. He rehabbed for three months, returned for 10 games, and got hit on the same knee (left), causing an ACL tear, an MCL tear and another torn meniscus.
“There is a mental toll that it takes on you, having to get back into rehab mode again and stay determined to do everything you can to put yourself in the position to even have a chance to come back and resume your career,” Ladd told PHNX in January. “But when I came back and they told me, ‘You don’t look good, you don’t look as quick or you’re not what we need,’ that’s not an easy thing to hear when you’ve been in the league for that long, playing at a high level, and have been a big part of a few teams.”
The Islanders assigned Ladd to their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Ladd said he did not handle the assignment or the Islanders’ assessment well.
“I had a habit of just closing off everybody,” he said. “I was super quiet. I would do my work, but my wife could see it and I’m sure my kids could feel it at home.
“I probably don’t have the most joyful disposition at the best of times; a little bit of resting bitch face. Most people are like, ‘Hey, man, you’re hard to read.’ Once people get to know me, they quickly realize that’s not me, but I think being like that has a tendency to keep people thinking, ‘This guy’s pissed off’ or ‘Something’s going on there.’ You leave it up to interpretation when that’s really not what’s going on.”
After weeks of watching him stew, Brandy suggested that he talk to someone. A teammate with whom he rode to Bridgeport games and practices had been speaking with mental skills coach Dan Leffelaar and suggested that Ladd do the same.
“I could feel that I wasn’t mentally in the place I needed to be and should talk to someone so I opened up about what I was feeling and maybe the unhealthy habits that I had that weren’t contributing to me enjoying my life, my family, my kids, the different aspects of my life,” Ladd said.
“I had a bad habit of kicking the crap out of myself for mistakes or when things went wrong. As hockey players, we’re probably not alone in this but we have a tendency to be the hardest on ourselves, to beat ourselves up. I just kind of had a tendency to internalize and keep everything bottled up. Anyone who’s gone through anything hard knows that’s just such an unhealthy way to deal with those issues, so we started talking about: How can I control the situation and not let the situation control me? For me, it was a huge learning experience.”
While Ladd was working through the mental side of his game – work that inspired 1616 – he also was retraining his body with skills coach Adam Oates.
“When a pitcher gets Tommy John surgery, they have to retrain the mechanics of throwing the ball,” Oates said. “When you have a major injury, you have to retrain the mechanics of skating, and how that intertwines with your hockey stick and with your hands. It’s a complicated process; hockey rehab if you will.”
When Ladd first arrived in Arizona after a trade that also sent a 2021 second-round pick (JJ Moser), a 2022 second-round pick and a conditional 2023 third-round pick to the Coyotes, nobody figured that he would be anything more than a 13th or 14th forward, but coach André Tourigny told him that he would have the opportunity to play a regular role in the lineup, and a critical role in tutoring the team’s younger players.
“He is proactive and he never does it in a way where it’s provoked or he’s aggressive,” Tourigny said. “He’s not there to tell you what to do. He’s there to try to help you and share his experience and stuff you can do to be better. He was everything we wanted as a leader.”
Tourigny said it was both a marvel and privilege to coach Ladd in his 1,000th game.
“It’s not everybody who would have hung on and kept battling like he did,” Tourigny said. “He had injuries, surgery, all of it and he stayed with and he played with passion all year for us and he’s been a huge leader. For me, it’s really impressive. Playing 1,000 games is impressive. The way he got to the finish line, he will have my respect forever.”
Through 1616, Ladd hopes to pay forward the knowledge and strength that he gained through his battle to get back to the NHL.
“We want to give kids these tools at a young enough age so that when some adversity hits or things are inevitably going to challenge them in their lives, they’ll have a little bit of a foundation to deal with those, or to realize that if they have a conversation with someone, that can be super helpful with them getting through something difficult,” he said.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned over this process is to stay present and enjoy where you’re at and what you’re doing. If you’re thinking about the past, you’re not present. If you’re thinking in the future, you’re not present. Whether it’s with this group or with my family, I’m just enjoying the present. I think if I do that, then good things will follow.”
This story contains excerpts from a story that PHNX Sports published in January.
Top photo (Getty Images): Andrew Ladd and his family accept a silver stick from Coyotes Chief Hockey Development Officer Shane Doan during Ladd’s 1,000th career NHL game ceremony before a game against the Washington Capitals on Friday.