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Hit that ended player's career follows Lightning's Cote

TAMPA — There is so much to Jean-Philippe Cote's story, it is difficult to know where to start. So, perhaps, it is best to begin at the end of a 2,875-day journey.

That is how long it took Cote to get back to the NHL after playing for the Canadiens on Feb. 4, 2006. Cote (pronounced COH-tay) played 358 games for five minor-league teams after that and 77 games for two teams in Germany.

The Lightning called him up from AHL Syracuse on Wednesday. On Thursday, in his ninth career NHL game, the 31-year-old defenseman — whose Twitter account identifies him as "the oldest prospect on Earth" — got his first NHL point, a secondary assist on Alex Killorn's goal in a 4-2 win over the Predators at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

"It feels good," Cote said, "to not have a zero in that column."

For Cote, though, no matter what he does — no matter how notable his tale of perseverance — he always will be connected to that miserable day when his devastating, though clean, check helped end the career of Canadiens prospect Blake Geoffrion.

The hit into the side boards on Nov. 9, 2012, sent both players flying. Geoffrion landed on Cote's skate, causing a bloody skull fracture 2 inches above his left ear.

At the hospital, the Hamilton forward who had a history of concussions went into convulsions. Doctors removed pieces of skull from his brain.

In July, the grandson of NHL legend Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion retired at age 25.

"It was an unbelievable hit," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, Cote's coach at Syracuse and AHL Norfolk. "Everybody is fired up. He's fired up. And then the player is really hurt. It sucks the life out of everyone. It definitely shook him up."

• • •

The hit was clean. Even Geoffrion said it when he finally spoke to reporters. Now a scout for the Blue Jackets, he reiterated Friday through a spokesman that there are "no hard feelings."

Still, Cote, known for his rugged style, said it took several weeks to clear his head.

"For a couple of weeks, at least, I held down my body checking," Cote said Friday.

He and Cooper spoke about it often, with Cooper reminding him the hit was "within the rules" and "a hockey play," and such injuries can be part of the game.

Cote, though, said his reconciliation process was personal. He reached out to Geoffrion and kept up with his progress through the trainers at Hamilton, where as a ninth-round draft pick of the Canadiens, Cote played from 2003-08.

But Cote said he also reminded himself of this: "I know that mentally when I know I'm going to get into a body check, I feel like I'm not a dirty player who is going to hurt the other guy. I really convinced myself of that."

In his AHL career, he has been suspended only twice for a total of three games.

• • •

When Cote got his assist Thursday, those on the Lightning who played with him at Norfolk and Syracuse rejoiced.

"Right away, I was so excited for him," defenseman Mark Barberio said. "Me and (Pierre-Cedric Labrie) were jumping up and down."

"He's just one of those guys you want to have success," center Tyler Johnson said. "I can't say enough good things about the guy. For him to get his chance here is just awesome."

Cote will be with the Lightning at least through the roster freeze that ends Dec. 28. That means, perhaps, two more games, perhaps including tonight against the Hurricanes.

But no matter what he does, the Geoffrion hit is part of his legacy, though Cote said he is determined it will not define him.

"What matters to me are my teammates, my coaches. They know what I bring every night to the table and how hard I compete," he said. "I'm sure that's what they'll remember. For the general public, I'd much rather they remember I got called up seven years later. That's a much better story."

Hit that ended player's career follows Lightning's Cote 12/20/13 [Last modified: Saturday, December 21, 2013 12:31pm]
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