TAMPA — Ryan Callahan will not realize his ultimate dream. He has to hang up his skates without having won the Stanley Cup.
Every player wants to end his career on his own terms, but Callahan did not get that option.
Doctors have advised him to no longer play professional hockey due to a degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, the Lightning announced Thursday.
The Lightning will put Callahan, 34, on long-term injured reserve for the final year of his contract, which will alleviate some of its salary cap issues. Callahan was due to make $5.8 million next season, the last of a six-year deal signed in June 2014.
Hearing the doctors’ recommendation shocked Callahan, who had planned to play for a few more years and wanted his name on the Cup.
Callahan’s back issues go back a few years, but he previously found ways to manage the pain. This season it became unbearable.
“It was literally taking it day-by-day, seeing how I felt when I woke up,” Callahan said. “If it’s a game day, you just try to keep it loose as possible and hope nothing happens. Sometimes it did.”
His back problems emerged as a more serious problem when he missed two games in December. Callahan’s back locked up during warmups in Vancouver. At the time, he said it usually took a day or two for his back to settle down.
The same problem cropped up a few more times over the season, including an instance that forced Callahan to be pulled out mid game in the regular-season finale and miss the first two games of the first-round playoff sweep loss to the Blue Jackets.
Callahan had tests during the year. He and the Lightning’s medical staff constantly tried new things to address the stiffness he felt.
“I truly thought there could be a solution,” Callahan said.
He doesn’t need surgery and plans to address the issue with physical therapy, but he doesn’t expect to return to the ice.
He’ll need to manage the condition for the rest of his life, but out-of-season, Callahan said, he mostly feels fine day-to-day. He has no problems playing with his three kids, Charlotte, 7; Evelyn, 5, and Dominick, 21 months.
He and his wife, Kyla, had to figure out how to tell their kids that Daddy won’t play hockey anymore. Only Charlotte understood. She was sad, Callahan said, until he told her he’d be around more often. Then she flashed a big smile.
The doctors didn’t say how the problem came about, but Callahan figures it had to come from hockey, including 13 seasons in the NHL. His body took a lot of hits, and delivered them, especially with Callahan’s aggressive style of play.
“It’s wear and tear of everyday use, but hockey makes it a lot worse,” he said.
Callahan’s tenure with the Lightning may have been coming to an end anyway. The coaches took him out of the regular lineup after the All-Star break, and his big contract made him a likely trade candidate.
Callahan plans on remaining in Tampa with his family at least for the next year. He’s not sure what will happen after that but would like to be involved in the organization in some form.
What does this mean for the salary cap?
Putting Callahan on long-term injured reserve does open up some cap space for the salary-squeezed Lightning.
However, the move doesn’t simply take Callahan’s $5.8 million off the books. It gives the Lightning the ability to exceed the salary cap by up to $5.8 million.
It’s a complicated process, but basically it gives the Lightning relief if its average payroll begins to exceed the upper cap limit.
The Callahan move does give the Lightning money to work with right now. That’s important to re-sign Brayden Point, for example. Point can be a restricted free agent July 1 and is due a big raise from his salary of $686,667 this season.
Contact Lightning beat reporter Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.