Hockey is a fast-paced, violent sport. Players crash to the ice. They bang into the boards - and each other. Injuries are inevitable, and those injuries can derail a player's career.
Steelheads forward Adrian Foster knows these facts all too well.
Foster was selected in the first round of the 2001 NHL Draft by the New Jersey Devils. A rash of injuries prevented him from playing a single game in the NHL.
But those injuries didn't squash his spirit.
"You try to control the things you can control," Foster said Thursday as the Steelheads prepared to take on the Colorado Eagles in an opening-round ECHL Western Conference playoff game. Game 6 of the series, which Idaho leads 3-2, is Friday night at CenturyLink Arena. "I've had a really good career, even though I had to battle through some injury problems."
That career includes 200 games at the AHL level and five seasons overseas with some elite European leagues. He finished last season in Germany before returning to the United States and signing a one-year contract with the Steelheads in October.
He made an instant splash with Idaho, tallying four assists in his ECHL debut.
With his pedigree and skill level, Foster looked like a sure bet to be one of the Steelheads destined to get called up to the AHL after the NHL lockout ended. But - you guessed it - an injury in early December derailed those plans. Foster tested the injury, which he preferred not to disclose, two different times in the next month.
"I tried to play with it, and the only solution, really, was to take a prolonged break," Foster said. "So I went home and just kind of regrouped, and just tried to let it heal."
Coach Brad Ralph wasn't sure if Foster would return to the team, or what kind of player he would get if he did return.
"There was a lot of uncertainty going into the playoffs and whether he was going to be able to play," Ralph said.
Foster returned to play in the second-to-last game of the regular season. He had two goals and an assist in a 5-0 win at San Francisco. He has produced at least a point in every playoff game for Idaho and leads the team in the postseason with seven points (two goals, five assists).
"When he's going, he's certainly a difference maker," Ralph said. "When he's going, our team is going."
Captain Ben Ondrus has been the team's steady leader all season. He said adding Foster to the mix in the postseason is perfect timing.
"He's a really good player, and with his professional experience and his life experience, he has a lot to pass down to these new guys," Ondrus said. "He's confident, he's experienced and he's not afraid to speak his mind."
If there's a message Foster has for his teammates, it's this: He didn't battle to come back from yet another injury to play in just a few playoff games.
"I would be pretty disappointed if we didn't go deep in the playoffs. I spent a lot of time rehabbing this, and I could have have called it a year and let it heal up properly," said Foster, who plans to pursue his options overseas next season. "But I was coming back with the mind-set that we could go deep in the playoffs. I'm really looking forward to keep playing."
In the midst of another playoff run, the expectations that followed him a decade ago are a distant memory.
"You've seen it countless times with high draft picks and injuries. That's life," Ondrus said. "He's here now, he's helping us and he's happy playing hockey."