TORONTO — There was a time — about three months ago, to be exact — that Mattias Ritola believed his pro hockey career was over.
The inner-ear problem, diagnosed as Meniere's disease, that had so disrupted his season was believed to be exacerbated by pressure changes during plane travel.
"And if I can't fly," Ritola recalled thinking that early December day when he was told, "I can't be in the NHL."
It seemed so long ago Monday, after the Lightning wing scored twice in a 6-2 win over the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.
Add that it was Ritola's 24th birthday and that he said he hasn't had an attack from the disease since Feb. 3, and you understand his emotional belief in a fresh, and perhaps healthy, start.
"It is," Ritola said, "an unbelievable feeling."
"He certainly has the hands," coach Guy Boucher said. "He's strong physically. He doesn't get bumped off the puck. There's no panic in traffic. Those are a lot of tools. Let's build on that."
Ritola, claimed off waivers in September from the Red Wings, wasn't sure what was wrong in October when he began experiencing sporadic but intense ringing in his right ear, dizziness and headaches.
By a process of elimination, Lightning doctors decide it was Meniere's, which the National Institutes of Health says is caused by a buildup of fluid in the inner ear and a constriction of blood vessels similar to what causes migraines.
Ritola went on several medications, got earplugs to help mitigate pressure changes during flights and started wearing a hearing aid for his right ear, the eardrum of which he ruptured last summer diving into a pool while vacationing in Turkey.
He is deaf in his left ear from a childhood illness.
"When you can't hear anything in the locker room, it's really frustrating," he said.
And stress, he was told, could cause attacks, one of which forced him to be a last-minute scratch from a Feb. 3 game with the Maple Leafs.
"It's been tough, for sure," Ritola said. "But you know what the worst part was? Hearing from all the doctors who had different things to say."
Things changed after his Feb. 9 demotion to AHL Norfolk, where, Ritola said, he began seeing a chiropractor twice a week.
"He said my neck was a mess," Ritola said, adding he hasn't had an attack since.
That makes Ritola believe he never had Meniere's.
Lightning head athletic trainer Tommy Mulligan couldn't go that far but said it is possible chiropractic corrected the problem, or the Meniere's turned dormant.
"It's a real gray area," Mulligan said. "The biggest thing is keeping the symptoms at bay however we can."
And to be safe, Ritola said, "I'll keep taking the pills."
Whatever the situation, it seems Ritola, recalled from Norfolk on March 3, finally can fully concentrate on improving his game, the best of which showed up Monday in his first multigoal game in the NHL.
"Not only did he bury his scoring chances, he did everything else," teammate Nate Thompson said. "He was getting it deep, finishing his checks. He was strong on the boards. He was good all over the ice. It was good to see."
Boucher wants to see it again.
"He gives you just enough to think, 'Oh, my goodness, we've got something here,' and all of a sudden he takes it back," the coach said. "Can he do it on a consistent basis? He hasn't yet, but we see sparks."
"That's the key," said Ritola, 6 feet, 192 pounds, with four goals and eight points in 29 games. "I have to keep building up. I have to keep doing the right things."
His career, after all, is just getting started.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.