Blackhawk down

Competition for playing time at forward will be fierce when Adam Burish returns. Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

The boys were off again, this time to Boston, and as they filed out of the United Center in their travel best on Wednesday, Adam Burish looked like the kid who was grounded and had to miss all the fun.

"Some days are harder than others," said the Blackhawks' injured right winger, taking you on a stream-of-consciousness ride that only partially describes his rehab from surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee on Sept. 25.

"Some days you're at the rink and you're doing your rehab, you have a bad day, you don't feel good and you go home and you're kind of miserable the rest of the day," Burish said. "You fight with yourself, then you have to go to a game at night and watch and you can't be a part of that and you feel miserable all day. Then the next day, you feel good and you have a great day in the gym and you feel like you're making progress."

Until the next day, of course, and another stab in the heart over missing a truly magical Blackhawks season.

"People think every day gets easier," Burish said, "but I'm watching for 42 games now and it doesn't ever get easier to watch a game. I don't care if I wasn't injured and I was just sick one day and couldn't play; it would stink to watch."

For Burish, who hopes to return in March, or as soon after the Olympic break as possible, his lowest point may have come last week when the Hawks were slugging it out in St. Louis, a game in which the two teams took a combined 24 penalties for 107 minutes in the box.

"Oh, I was ticked," he said, looking as if he still was. "I texted the video guy and said, 'I wish I was there right now. I'd take down three or four guys and make it look like I was in 'Braveheart' out there.' I get pretty fired up when you watch those games and you see a guy hit Kaner [Patrick Kane] or grab Tazer [Jonathan Toews] and smoke Sharpie [Patrick Sharp] like he did. I got all fired up. I wanted to be there. That's when I have the hardest time watching."

But talking to Burish about the pain of rehab has to be taken in relative terms. At 17 years old, he shattered his left knee and destroyed the surrounding cartilage and ligaments in an accident that should have killed him, if not ended all dreams of a hockey career.

Traveling from Madison, Wis., to a hockey tournament in Minneapolis, the BMW that Burish, his sister Nikki and mother Helen were riding in spun out of control, rolling four times, careened into a ditch and threw Adam some 40 feet from the car.

When his father asked later in the hospital if Adam would ever play hockey again, a doctor not-so-nicely replied, "Let's worry about him walking again."

Six weeks later and midway through an excruciating rehab, he took off his knee brace to go on a boat ride, slipped getting off the boat, and fell on the bad leg, literally tearing off his kneecap.

"That was a lot worse. I missed a year of hockey, but it's the same kind of idea," he said of comparing then to now. "You miss the majority of the season; go through uphill battles with yourself trying to find a positive every day."

He finds it, he said, by committing to return as a stronger, faster, improved version of the player he was when he was injured.

"I want to get better every day, to do something to make myself better," he said. "Some days you say 'I'm tired of going to the gym every day, I'm tired of skating in circles; I wanted to practice with the guys, I want to be around the guys. I want to go on the trip today. I want to go to Boston.' But I made myself better today, so I feel good about myself."

Watching his team seemingly improve every game is motivation enough. And so he works and he watches, usually the second and third periods from a suite above the United Center after rehabbing downstairs.

"You can shut your mind off and be miserable but I've kind of chosen to go a different way," he explained. "I'm good friends with Jerry Kelly, who's a PGA golfer and who told me, 'Whenever I'm not playing, I watch and visualize every single little part of the game I want to do.' So I find myself doing that and seeing the way guys are playing or things they're doing that I like or I don't like.

"I think you can learn a lot from watching and paying attention and bringing it into your own game. And I think I'll be better because of that."

More often than not, Burish will pick one teammate and isolate on him.

"I kind of joked the other day, 'All right, Toews, I'm going to have the iso-cam on you tonight, so put a show on for me,'" Burish said. "He said, 'After the game, tell me what I think.'"

Burish tries not to overdo it. The Hawks have won 20 of 25 games at home this season, after all.

"Every once in a while, I'll say to Sharpie, 'Hey, take it for what it's worth, you score more goals than I ever do, but I saw this,' or 'Try this out there' and guys like that," Burish said. "Maybe it's garbage, maybe it's not, but it's somebody else watching you play and seeing what they see from above because everything's so much slower when you're watching from up top. It's fast and violent down there."

More than anything, it's the little moments that are still tough.

"Usually, I'll skate an hour before the [team] gets there at the start of practice," he said. "Then they'll come off the ice and if it's just a short morning skate, I'll still be sitting there in my gear and they're like 'What are you doing? Take your gear off.' But I just want to hang out."

He admits it was nice to get some company when Dave Bolland, whose back injury sidelined him in October, joined him on injured reserve.

"You never want to see another guy hurt, but it's nice to have another guy to go to the gym with, to watch games together -- just to hang out with," Burish said.

Nicer still when they can return to the ice. But until then, Burish said, he is getting a pretty good idea of what has made the Hawks so irresistible to their fans.

"A big part of it, I think, is people get excited to see some kids having fun," he said. "In pro sports, that's one of the turnoffs is when you see it as a business, a bunch of men just going out there and playing. With this team and the young guys we have, it's all real emotion, guys having these huge celebrations when we score. When you see them jump and fist pump and get excited, it's young guys people can relate to.

"And it's fun to watch. You see pretty goals, not goals going off somebody's shin pad, and exciting hockey. The way this season has gone, you never know what you're going to get with us. You probably can count on a win, but it might be 5-4 in overtime or an 11-round shootout, it may be coming back from 5-0. You never know what's going to come next."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist with ESPNChicago.com