Tammela returns to hockey thanks to group effort

Syracuse Crunch

by Megan Cahill AHL On The Beat

Surgery is a strenuous process for a professional athlete. It requires countless hours of rehabilitation, strength training and patience. It also requires a world-class staff to help lay out the road to recovery. ForJonne Tammela, the path back to the ice took over year with Syracuse Crunch head athletic trainer Brad Chavis and strength and conditioning coach Mark Powell by his side.

During the 2016-17 season, the forward played two games in his first year of junior hockey with the Peterborough Petes. Years of knee issues ultimately led Tammela to Syracuse ahead of schedule, where he had dual knee surgeries performed by the team’s orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Daniel DiChristina.

Following his surgeries, Tammela worked daily with Chavis and Powell towards his goal of playing professional hockey.

Chavis began working with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization in 2008 with the team’s then-AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals.  Powell is a Syracuse native who started with the Crunch in the 2005-06 season while the team was affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks.

After teaming up together in 2012 when the Lightning brought their affiliate to Syracuse, Chavis and Powell have played a prominent role in bringing players back from injury and keeping them healthy throughout the season.

“I’m so lucky to have Mark here with me every day,” Chavis said. ‘He’s been an athletic trainer for over 30 years, he’s got a wealth of experience and knowledge and I think we compliment each other well.”

“I talk to Chavy every day,” Powell added. “It really is a team effort.”

Chavis took the main role immediately following Tammela’s surgery. He managed pain and controlled swelling to help regain range of motion before developing strength. They came up with a long-term outline, but worked day-by-day to rebuild.

“We knew coming in that there was a lot of development that needed to be done, developing his strength back to where it should be, his power back to where it should be,” explained Chavis. “We knew that we had to basically build Jonne from the ground up once his surgeries had healed.”

It was a daunting task for the rookie.

“When everything happened right after surgery, you think, ‘how long is the way back?’” Tammela said. “You have so much work to do and it was a little bit overwhelming. How am I going to be able do this? How long is it going to take? I didn’t really know, nobody really knew. As we got going, we put those kind of thoughts aside.”

Once Tammela got the go-ahead to get in the gym, Powell started him with upper body workouts and strengthened everything around the knee.

“What I do that’s a little different is a lot of posterior chain work,” Powell said. “What I found over the years is you can push fairly heavy weights without really attacking the knee. It allows the knee to heal while you’re working the muscles around it.”

While Tammela was still on crutches, he and Powell would visit the local YMCA and walk around in the pool to get him moving in a pain-free range of movement. He advanced to squats with bands to help him back up, then graduated to TRX bands. 

“Those are all processes,” said Powell. “You have to get to this stage before you can introduce the next thing. When we got strong enough in one thing, we could add another. He would work his way up to things.”

Just two months out of surgery, Powell had Tammela rack-pulling 275 pounds and deadlifting. He was going heavy and being pushed every day.

“Every time I noticed I was able to do something new, it gave me this little feeling that I’m going to be all right at some point,” Tammela said. “Mark is the kind of person that knows how to get you to push yourself.”

While the team around him was advancing to the 2017 Calder Cup Finals, Tammela was in the gym every day working towards a goal no one knew if he’d achieve.

“You come in and work for three or four hours a day with no end in sight, no games to play. Nothing. Except for this,” Powell said about the rehab process. “Everyone else was getting to play at the end of the week. He didn’t have that, just another day of work. From a mental standpoint, what he was able to do, some guys wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Tammela went home to Finland in June to continue his training before returning to Tampa for development camp and coming back to Syracuse. When he started getting back to the point of return, the coaching staff became more active in his rehabilitation and introduction back to the team.

In the fall, Tammela made his first appearance in practice, but head coach Benoit Groulx had him leave. He needed more conditioning, but the coaching staff had more than 20 other players that needed their attention.

Powell started taking Tammela on the ice every day to work on acceleration, speed and conditioning. Eventually Tammela returned in a red no-contact jersey before graduating to full contact. 

Finally, after 427 days, Tammela stepped back onto the ice on Jan. 12 against the Utica Comets.

Photo: Scott Thomas

“I was really nervous in the morning,” said Tammela. “I haven’t been that nervous in years probably, before a game.”

This game was the first true test to see if Tammela was ready to play in the American Hockey League. The ability to send the young forward back to the OHL was also still an option at the time.

“You’re talking about a 20-year-old kid who hasn’t played against men, plus it’s the middle of the season and all these guys are in great shape,” Powell explained. “For him to go out and play 10 minutes the first night and look pretty good, that was big. The testing was a big part of knowing he’d be ready to go.”

The following night, he scored.

“When Jonne scored, I almost came across the glass,” Powell joked. “That’s the excitement for us.”

“Obviously I was excited for him, but I was tending to another player on the bench, so I didn’t even see it happen,” Chavis laughed. “I had to watch it on the replay.”

Tammela is now a regular in the Crunch lineup. He’s put up five points, shows a tenacious effort on the forecheck and creates scoring chances.

Groulx attributes the rookie’s return to the relentless effort of Powell and Chavis just as much as the work from Tammela himself.

“If Jonne plays in the NHL one day, I hope he’ll bring them for that first game and he’ll take them out for dinner because I think what they have accomplished is phenomenal,” said Groulx. “When you have a long-term injury like that, it demands a lot, not only from the player, but from the staff and the conditioning coach and the [athletic] trainer. They were with him every day for a year and a half.”

The dynamic duo behind the scenes deserves more credit than they give themselves.

“All the credit goes to Jonne,” said Chavis. “I know that Mark and myself put in a lot of time, but Jonne had to do all the work. It’s easy for us to stand back and mentally come up with plans and things for him to do, but he’s the one that has to execute it and he put in a lot of work and he still has a lot of work left to do.”

“Jonne did all this work, and we helped, but he did all the work,” Powell added. “He had to show up every day and he had to push himself. I’m thrilled with where he is now. It’s gratifying to see all this work we put in. Now he can go back and play hockey. For Chavy and I to be a part of that, it’s why we do what we do.”

As recent as three months ago, it was questionable if Tammela would ever play hockey again. The recovery and rebuild was arduous, but the athletic training staff got the job done. But just because Tammela is back on the ice doesn’t mean the process is over.

“I think I’m on a pretty good path now,” Tammela said “I think I’ve been playing pretty good. Game after game, I’m feeling better and more comfortable and confident. We still have work to do. I still need to get stronger and more explosive. It’s not my best yet, but it’s going to be there after we do all this work.”

He will spend consistent time in the gym after practice and games to ensure he continues to build and maintain his strength as he works towards his NHL dream.

“My hope for Jonne is next year or the year after, this is all just an afterthought for him and it’s normal care and we’re seeing him play every day and play to the best of his ability,” said Chavis. “I know that’s what the Lightning’s goal was when they brought Jonne here to work with us.”