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Carl Stankowski will not return to play for the T-Birds this season

Seattle goalie Carl Stankowski will not be able to return this season (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

The number one question surrounding the Seattle Thunderbirds this year has been ‘where is Carl Stankowski?’

The goalie, whose unprecedented run through the WHL Playoffs as a rookie last year will forever be part of Seattle’s hockey lore, had not been able to play this year due to injury. It was reported that he had been injured in camp this past summer with Team Canada as he prepared to play in the Ivan Hlinka tournament.

Since then, he has been listed on the injury report each week. At first he was going to being out month-to-month and then later week-to-week.

Stankowski was at the ShoWare Center this past weekend, along with his father Brent Stankowski, and it was the first time that the goalie had been back since winning it all last season.

“It was really cool,” Stankowski said about being back. “The first thing I did was look up to see the banner and it was great to see the guys again. I hadn’t seen them in a while. There are some new faces but they’re all good guys.”

He and his father are aware that there has been a great deal of speculation and intrigue as to his injury status and they wanted to set the record straight about what has been happening this year. They also indicated that Stankowski would not be able to return to play this season.

The situation started early last season as Stankowski turned in a strong preseason and made the Seattle roster as a 16-year-old. He was playing through some pain and after a strong showing for Canada at the U-17 tournament in November, the pain intensified. He returned home to California to have it diagnosed and it was determined that he had a slight labrum tear in his right hip.

Rather than surgery, the decision was made to treat it with physiotherapy and Stankowski responded well to the treatment. That allowed him to return to the T-Birds just prior to his historic playoff run.

As the playoffs progressed however, the pain returned. This time it showed up in his back and Stankowski’s therapist was brought in to work with him through the playoffs. He was not only able to manage the pain, but play at a high level as he backstopped Seattle to its first WHL Championship in franchise history.

With that play, there were high expectations coming into this season and Stankowski headed to Team Canada’s goalie camp to prepare for the Hlinka tournament this past summer. He had been feeling better but at the camp, the pain returned and intensified.

The family brought in top medical experts to try and diagnose the pain and find a solution for a way to fix it. An MRI proved that he had a small disc herniation in his back, along with severe inflammation. The decision was made to have surgery to repair his back.

The surgery was performed at Queens University in Ontario and MRI’s showed that it was successful, although Stankowski still had some inflammation and pain. He returned home to California to start rehabbing and originally it was thought he would return to the Thunderbirds in November.

“I felt good after the back surgery and I was feeling stronger but something wasn’t right,” Stankowski says. “We had some blood tests done and other stuff came up. It was more a priority of getting my health back than injury.”

The blood tests showed that he had a parasite and was positive for HLA-B27, which is a genetic marker for Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), a rare autoimmune disease that presents itself as inflammatory arthritis. While on one hand the Stankowski’s say they were relieved to know what was behind Carl’s pain, they were also worried about what this meant for his future.

“There’s not a cure for it,” Brent Stankowski says. “But with enough discipline and the right environment around him, it can be managed…we’re optimistic that he’ll be back in goal again and doing what he does.”

After the AS diagnosis, Stankowski began an intense treatment program to get it under control.

The program included a strict zero starch diet, an intense two-to-three hour daily workout regime, supplements, intravenous treatments, bi-weekly blood tests, pulsating electromagnetic frequency treatment, an aggressive mesenchymal stem cell regenerative program, and trying to find the right pharmaceuticals that didn’t have negative side effects.

After a month of this treatment program, the Stankowski’s say that Carl’s condition is in remission with his blood levels returning to normal and the inflammation has been reduced. More importantly, the pain and stiffness that had hampered him has all but been relieved.

With this good news, Stankowski was finally able to get back on the ice this past week to begin getting ready to play hockey again.

“It was exciting,” he says. “It was more of a relief getting back on, feeling the ice out, and I was really happy. Right now I’m training for next year. Trying to get in the best shape.”

It’s been a long road back and Brent Stankowski says there was a time where he thought that maybe Carl should focus more on school and other pursuits, and not on hockey. He says that Carl quickly and defiantly dismissed that notion and was dedicated to get back on the ice and continue his dream of playing in the NHL.

He said that was enough to convince him to do what he could to support his son’s dream.

“If he plays one more game of hockey, I’ll be happy,” Brent says. “Seeing him play hockey is a gift, whenever we see him on the ice, it’s a gift.”

While there is much relief with Stankowski’s progress, there is still work to be done. His condition is manageable but not cured. The Stankowskis stress that moving forward he will need to monitor his condition and that will require a strict diet and training routine.

The family wants to make sure that Carl has a safe environment to play in for this coming year.

“The issue with AS is that if it’s unchecked and you don’t manage it properly, your hip will fuse with your back and it’s nasty,” Brent Stankowski says. “A lot of what he has to do is stretching, which is good for a goalie anyway, but it’s a real discipline. The clean and jerk, not a good idea.”

It’s been a long year for Stankowski, who says he’s been watching Thunderbird highlights and checking the standings all season, but he is excited to finally be back to focusing on hockey again.

He has learned a great deal about how to manage his condition and is looking forward to stopping pucks as soon as possible. He also knows that it will take some extra work and preparation.

“For AS, it will come here and there,” he says. “It’s more about monitoring it and making sure it doesn’t spike up too high. It’s kind of a full time job.”

Watching Stankowski play last year it was hard not to notice his calm demeanor in the net. He never seemed rattled, no matter the chaos swirling on the ice in front of him. It’s that same demeanor that he is attacking his situation with and there is no reason to believe that he can’t handle it all.