Tyler Johnson’s success story provides more evidence for the effectiveness of disc-replacement surgery

The 31-year-old Blackhawks forward feels “unbelievable,” with no back pain for the first time in years, after following in Jack Eichel’s footsteps and becoming the second NHL player to have the surgery in December.

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Tyler Johnson on Sunday played his third game for the Blackhawks since his return from surgery.

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Blackhawks forward Tyler Johnson can sleep on his stomach now.

Most 31-year-olds take that for granted. Johnson doesn’t because, for years, he couldn’t.

But three months after undergoing artificial disc-replacement surgery (ADR), he feels a level of comfort and flexibility on the ice, in bed and everywhere in between that he wasn’t sure he would experience again.

‘‘Since doing it, I feel unbelievable,’’ Johnson said Sunday. ‘‘The whole procedure — rehab, everything — [has] just gone so smoothly. . . . It’s honestly crazy. I don’t wake up in the morning with a stiff neck anymore, so I’m pretty happy about it.’’

Johnson suffered his initial injury in 2017 or 2018, he estimates, while playing for the Lightning. The following years brought some ‘‘really bad’’ days and some completely painless days. He convinced himself the situation was normal.

After all, the alternative was disc fusion — the traditional surgery used to treat the issue for nearly a century — and he couldn’t stomach considering that.

‘‘It would’ve been such a long recovery that I don’t think anyone really wants to say those words,’’ he said. ‘‘The road to recovery after [fusion is] a lot harder. I would have been done all year, for sure, [and] likely a lot into the summer, as well. And then who knows what I would have felt like next year? Being as young as I am, [I’d be] looking at another fusion or even two fusions the rest of your life.’’

But a series of events in 2021 changed things.

First, Jack Eichel singlehandedly pushed ADR surgery — which was approved federally in 2009 but never had been performed on an NHL player — to the forefront of the hockey world. Eichel’s feud with the Sabres about his freedom to have the surgery culminated in November with his trade to the Golden Knights and subsequent operation.

Second — and third — Johnson’s own issue worsened during a preseason game with the Hawks, then reached a figurative breaking point after he suffered a major injury Oct. 29 against the Hurricanes.

‘‘I had numbness and tingling in my arm for about a month without it going away, so it felt like I needed to do something for it,’’ he said. ‘‘The first doctor I spoke to [described ADR as] the ‘last resort’ type of thing. So I probably would have been leaning the other way a little bit more, just from that initial talk. But as I started to ask more and more doctors about it [and] got more and more information on it . . . that led me a lot more to the ADR.’’

Johnson eventually had ADR surgery Dec. 3, about two weeks after Eichel did, with the Hawks’ full support. He was immediately thankful he did: His surgeon, after opening everything up, found Johnson’s affected disc was in ‘‘way worse’’ shape than previously known.

As Johnson gradually worked his way back to working out, then skating, then participating in Hawks practices, he and Eichel leaned on each other through lengthy phone calls.

‘‘[Jack] was unbelievable in the whole process, even post-operation, explaining to me what he was doing recovery-wise and what his plans were going forward so we could put things together,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘It was nice having somebody else going through it at the same time as me to be able to lean on and say: ‘Hey, did you have this? Did you feel this?’ ’’

Johnson made his long-awaited return to the Hawks on Thursday against the Oilers, playing a little more than 11 minutes without any setbacks. Eichel made his debut with the Knights on Feb. 16.

Interim coach Derek King started Thursday monitoring Johnson’s ice time, then relaxed once he saw he ‘‘kept going to the net, jarring at faceoffs and finishing his checks,’’ King said. Clearly, he was fine.

King since has noticed Johnson’s presence making a difference on the bench. The 10-year veteran leans on his extensive experience with the Lightning to share advice and ‘‘make sure everybody’s accountable.’’ To drive home the point, Johnson received his 2021 Stanley Cup ring from his former teammates before the Lightning-Hawks game Sunday.

But no one has appreciated Johnson’s return to the lineup more than Johnson himself.

‘‘I’m just super-excited to be back on the ice and be able to battle,’’ he said. ‘‘It sucks to sit there and watch these guys go through everything [when] you can’t really contribute. So I’m just glad to be back.’’

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