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Markus Nutivaara Doesn’t Miss Playing Hockey, Describes How His Body Broke Down

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Credit: Hockey Shots/Dean Tait

Markus Nutivaara doesn’t miss playing hockey.

“When somebody asks, ‘Do you miss hockey yet?’ I don’t,” the 29-year-old, who officially announced his retirement two weeks ago, told San Jose Hockey Now. “I don’t want to feel the pain anymore. It reminds me everyday, so that makes it easier for me to stay away.”

Before Nutivaara’s hip began to bother him in 2019-20, he was an up-and-coming puck-moving defenseman. In Mar. 2018, the then 23-year-old signed a four-year, $10.8 million extension with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

But that 2019-20 campaign, his last in Columbus, was the beginning of the end for Nutivaara’s once-promising career.

“When the hip didn’t get better, my back started to fail, and I started to get other problems,” Nutivaara told Finnish outlet Yle recently. “I skated on one leg for three years.”

In the summer of 2020, the Blue Jackets traded Nutivaara to the Florida Panthers. Nutivaara managed to suit up for 30 games during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign but appeared in just one contest the next season. That summer, he inked a one-year contract with the San Jose Sharks, intent on finding his form in teal.

And during training camp, things were looking up. Nutivaara was initially paired with eventual Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, and his hip was holding up, so much so that he dressed for the Sharks’ pre-season opener against the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 25.

“When we go back [to] before the game, I felt great,” he recalled. “I was so happy [that] I was playing again and in a real game, where you can compete.”

But then?

“Halfway through the game, I feel like my hip is not okay. And I’m playing 80 percent of my game. I wanted to take it easy, see what’s going on,” he reported. “After the game, I was pretty sore, of course. The next day, I was limping a little bit. The day after that, I couldn’t really practice on the ice.”

That pre-season game was the last NHL action that Nutivaara would ever see.

“The hip has been operated on twice. They tried to fix the osteoarthritis, and plant, put in new cartilage,” he noted. “The doctors told me that now, we cannot help you anymore.

“I really did turn every stone, and I flew all across the United States to see different specialists. But when you can’t even shovel snow anymore, you know it is all over.”

Despite that, Nutivaara doesn’t regret a thing – well, not most things.

“I am not sad, but happy that now I can open a new chapter in my life,” he said. “I turned every possible stone in my hockey career and was not given anything for free. I can walk out there with my head up high.”

Nutivaara opened up to SJHN about his final NHL season with the San Jose Sharks, how grateful he is to the organization, regretting taking painkillers, training with Joe Thornton, and how his body is coping now.

Sheng Peng: How are you physically right now?

Markus Nutivaara: It’s still pretty bad.

I feel like I can golf once a week. I like to play tennis, I like to compete, but I can’t right now. [That’s] one thing I need to make sure I can do two years later: I want to compete somehow, some way, with friends. They can go golfing twice a week. Just doing whatever you want, when you want, that will be nice.

But that’s a question mark: How the hip is going to feel? But it’s not good right now. It’s not good.

30-minute walk, you’re limping and sore. It’s still pretty bad.

When somebody asks, “Do you miss hockey yet?” I don’t. I don’t want to feel the pain anymore. It reminds me everyday, so that makes it easier for me to stay away.

SP: Can you take us through your last game in the NHL, that pre-season game with the Sharks?

MN: When we go back [to] before the game, I felt great. I was so happy [that] I was playing again and in a real game, where you can compete. So, I was really excited.

I remember the first period, that was good. I didn’t feel anything. And then halfway through the game, I feel like my hip is not okay. And I’m playing 80% of my game. I wanted to take it easy, see what’s going on.

After the game, I was pretty sore, of course. The next day, I was limping a little bit. The day after that, I couldn’t really practice on the ice.

So I went to talk to [head trainer] Ray [Tufts] and he took me off the ice. After that, I saw a lot of specialists.

It’s just the one game, but I got to play with Erik Karlsson, so that was cool.

SP: Can you describe what the middle of that game felt like to you?

MN: I was just focusing on getting my legs moving, because I’m sore. I’m [thinking], “Okay. Now I need to sit down on a bench” during the shift. After that, [a] couple of strides, and I’m in pain.

But, I’m like it might be just the first game, so I’m just gonna roll it out and suck it up. But at the end, I’m skating 50 percent of what I actually have. Then, I’m like, I feel like I’m so bad right now. I can’t contribute.

You get angry that you can’t be yourself out there. It was mentally pretty hard there in the third period.

SP: Did you feel good in training camp up to this point?

MN: Yeah. I feel like you can only push yourself on a limit, in a practice. And then [it] becomes a game.

And that’s where I feel like I can find the other level, other gear. And on that gear, I couldn’t play.

SP: Moving on to the season, you were around the San Jose Sharks a lot, working out, and of course, seeing specialists all over the country. But I get the sense that you didn’t really feel a part of the team. Like you were there, but not there.

MN: You’re dead on it. It was hard. You don’t know your teammates. It was a horrible feeling, when you feel like you’re taking away from the team, and you can’t give anything back. It eats you up during the day.

And when you really don’t know the team, [and] you haven’t been together enough to win or lose or going through those motions, you can’t get into the group. It was hard. It was hard, but the teammates were awesome. They were always taking me in, and I was trying to keep smiling and push forward. Show them I’m working hard, so I’m giving something back.

Every day it was a little bit harder. Mentally, not too easy.

SP: Did you know anyone well on the San Jose Sharks before coming here?

MN: No, nobody.

SP: Which Sharks helped you the most?

MN: Everyone. There were a couple of Finnish [players] there. [Kaapo Kakhonen] and I are really close. Oskar Lindblom was there and Timo [Meier] and a lot of guys. [Steven] Lorentz. Everyone.

There wasn’t like single person, everyone was right there. They were always asking how I’m doing, when I’m [going to be] back, and stuff like that. So it was always nice to go to [the] rink.

SP: However, I have to imagine that it was tough to constantly be asked when you were coming back?

MN: When you’re out the whole season and expecting the worst, then somebody asks, “When’re you gonna be back?” I’m like, “I’m trying to do my best and give my 100 percent. I’ll be right there.”

But in the back of your head, you think it’s gonna be a long road.

SP: Was it also tough to watch Karlsson go off like he did, thinking, you could’ve been a part of that, paired with him?

MN: Yeah, that didn’t help. That didn’t help at all. (laughs) He was playing amazing, so it was fun to watch too. I was on the bike in the locker room, so he helped me in that case too.

SP: Now, you’re back home in Finland, and you want to help other players. It sounds like you’re doing it now with countrymen like Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi, hanging around while they train in Oulu.

MN: They train in the summers, in the same group, in my hometown. I’ve been there. I’ve been coaching and filling up the bottles.

I asked them, can I just come? I want to learn and sometimes maybe coach them. I feel like that’s gonna be the next passion of mine.

SP: You mentioned that you want to warn young players off taking painkillers. You had said that in your last year in Columbus in 2019-20, you took them often.

MN: I was taking it everyday, because I was so sore. And I wanted to take those, that was my decision. I wanted to play.

After that season, I felt it’s not good for you. You go [a] full season with painkillers, and otherwise, you couldn’t play. It didn’t feel right. I had some stomach pain. I decided after that, that’s over. I’m not gonna go with the painkillers. If I can’t go without the painkillers, I’m not gonna play. It’s not healthy.

So I went through that one season, but I think that was it. And after that, I decided that there’s a line somewhere.

SP: How can you help your fellow players with that?

MN: I feel like there’s a lot of Finnish guys who don’t know English. They might be in the same position as me. They don’t have the courage to say, “I’m taking the day off.” Rather, “I’m gonna take the painkiller.” Maybe educate that way.

Don’t be like me. I wanted to play that single game during the season. It doesn’t mean anything after seven years.

So, you have to have the courage to say, “I can’t play.”

Maybe take two weeks off, and then you’re back even better and healthier. I feel like that’s what I want to say to those young guys, especially from my hometown.

All those young guys who are coming up, let them know there’s another path.

SP: Did the San Jose Sharks ever encourage you to take painkillers?

MN: No, they were perfect. Perfect.

That was the nicest thing. And of course, Jumbo was there working out with me.

SP: What was it like to work out with Joe Thornton?

MN: That was good times. It was always nice to see him work out and still going on. Same buzzing and same energy, so he helped me out too.

I’m the one getting paid for training and working out, and I feel like Jumbo always beats me on everything. He’s just a machine.

SP: So how would you summarize your time with the Sharks?

MN: I just wanted to say, the San Jose Sharks organization, I went to talk to [Mike] Grier and I told [him] how I feel, and they did everything they could to do that’s right for me. I feel very thankful for that, because you got a one-year contract, you’re a new guy, they didn’t have to [be that understanding about my injury and rehab situation]. But they were really nice to me.

I didn’t see my future there with my hip, so they didn’t have to do all that, but they did, and I’m really thankful for what they did and how they were. They helped me a lot.

Mentally, I don’t know if I could have gotten through that season without them.

SP: Congratulations on your career, Markus. Best of health to you. Let’s end on a positive note: What’s your favorite hockey memory?

MN: Might be back here in Finland, when we won the championship [in Liiga in 2015]. It was kind of the breakout year for me. And when you win the championship, back home, in your hometown, I feel like that’s still the best feeling I’ve had.

You get to share it with so many friends and family.

We didn’t win anything when I was there in the US. I can’t compare, but I think that winning is always the best. So that’s still on top.

SP: How about with the Sharks?

MN: The feeling, going to the rink with all the teammates, and the organization: Everything felt right. Everything was nice. You feel like everybody supports you. You feel your confidence is building and all the coaches and trainers, they were just dead on with what they had to do. I really liked that. That was the best memory I think I had.

And the breakfast, that was good too. (laughs)

SP: Go-to breakfast?

MN: I changed it up a lot. I really loved the sausage and eggs. I go heavy on breakfast. Everything. I mixed it up and it’s a buffet, you feel so spoiled when you go there.

Special thanks to Josh Frojelin for his transcription help and Jouni Nieminen for his translation help.

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