Panthers' Booth looks to forget head games, play hockey

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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They are essentially talking points for David Booth, delivered by rote, dispassionately and in what already seems like an exasperated tone.

And it is still weeks until opening night.

By then, Booth will have gone through his spiel many times, a necessary evil for someone in his position. But the 25-year-old Detroit native has prepared himself for it, arriving at Florida Panthers training camp knowing that there would be no choice but to accept questions about his health.

Fan favorite David Booth aims to get back on the ice and resume pleasing the South Florida crowds. (Getty Images)  
Fan favorite David Booth aims to get back on the ice and resume pleasing the South Florida crowds. (Getty Images)  
In fact, they will be the first he'll face every day. So Booth shrugs it off, mostly because he understands that nothing will change until the new season gets into full swing and he has shown the ability to handle the rigors of it.

"Goes with the territory," Booth said after his first full-contact scrimmage in six months.

No doubt. Of course, it's a fair concern considering that Booth, the most dangerous offensive player on a team that needs all the scoring help it can get, suffered two concussions last season. The second came after he had already missed five months and on what seemed like a clean and relatively harmless play at the time.

"A fluke hit," is the way his coach, Pete DeBoer, described it.

"It's not an issue because I know I'm healed," insisted Booth, who played in only 28 games last season as a result of his injuries. "I kind of knew what to do after the second one, how much time to take off and when to start working out and things so it's all good now.

"The rest, I've put all that behind me. There's no excuses. All I'm thinking about right now is getting ready for the start of the season, getting right back into it, getting physical and being a better player. It's the same mindset I had last year."

Even if the circumstances are actually quite different. And not just because the team has gone through a serious roster overhaul directed by new general manager Dale Tallon.

Booth came into Florida's training camp last fall having led the Panthers in goals during the previous season and armed with a six-year contract extension worth $25 million. And there was some leftover adrenaline for Booth from Team USA Olympic training camp outside Chicago a month earlier, because he was generally penciled in for the final roster when it ended.

He was already the most popular player in Florida; the chants of "Boooooth" whenever he touched the puck were one of the few things that kept fans awake in an often lifeless building. Booth had everything in place for a potential breakout year and started well.

Then everything came to a thundering halt late in October when he took a blindside hit to the head from Flyers captain Mike Richards.

The Michigan State alum was carried off on a stretcher and spent the next five months dealing with headaches, dizziness and double vision, not to mention the antsy feeling that comes from not being on the ice. The incident, and a later one with Boston's Marc Savard as the victim, sparked a new round of debate around the league about headshots and ultimately led to some rule changes.

In the meantime, Booth spent most of his time wondering when he would feel good enough to get back. He returned in late January, but when a check from Montreal's Jaroslav Spacek concussed him a second time a few weeks later, there were questions about whether he had returned to soon.

Booth said he never felt that way, and DeBoer said the organization was as careful with its player as it could be.

"We played that situation as safe as we could," DeBoer said. "You have to go with what the player is feeling, you're relying on self-diagnosis and self-analysis of symptoms and those guys don't come back unless they feel good. David felt comfortable. He actually wanted to come back earlier than we allowed him to."

The bright side is it allowed Booth a chance for some retribution before he had to shut it down. That came on March 3 during a 7-4 Florida win at home over Philadelphia, a game in which Booth scored a goal and four points and dropped his gloves with Richards. The fight didn't last long and Booth delivered only a couple of glancing blows, but it was a chance to put that behind him.

"I wish [the fight] went longer, but you always want a bit of revenge so I had to have it to settle things," Booth said. "Now it's over and I don't want to dwell on the past."

That's understandable considering the demoralizing season he had. For now, though, Booth's early days in training camp have everyone in the organization cautiously excited because he has skated well in the early going and taken, as well as delivered, some hits.

And he has even gotten to the point where he can handle the questions.

"I wish I could answer this one time for everyone, but I guess I'll just have to keep repeating myself," he said. "It's behind me. I'm 100 percent now."

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