Deke here. While lounging over the weekend, I was contacted by a Mr. Stephen Ferracioli who has a fascinating theory on Los Angeles Kings prospect Gabe Vilardi. The Gabester has been off the ice with a back injury for nearly a year. So here is my latest Gabe Vilardi injury update. Oh, wait – Stephen’s update.
What Could Possibly Be Ailing Gabe Vilardi?
By Stephen Ferracioli
Being the offseason and being a hockey junky checking for new information as it trickles in, I thought I would write my opinions about Gabriel Vilardi and how I look at his situation with the Kings.
Gabe Vilardi Injury Update
I know a lot of Kings fans are upset and are already considering his 1st round selection a bust pick, and I can understand why. Health and healthcare are very private and personal issues. When we hear about spinal injuries, we tend to unknowingly jump towards the more extreme assumptions regarding the potential career-ending possibility.
We don’t know what Gabe Vilardi’s diagnosis is. And given patient privacy and the NHL policy of being mum about injuries, we tend to believe that they must not be telling us because it’s bad.
I don’t want to call this research because I AM NOT a healthcare professional, but I have done some searching and reading about spinal injuries in youth sports, and I am willing to make my best-educated guess as to what Vilardi’s injury is.
I have tried to keep this as non-technical and non-medical as possible and express this in laymen’s terms as much as possible. I hope I can reset the expectations of fellow fans by explaining that spinal injuries in young elite teenage athletes aren’t uncommon. Also, these injuries aren’t necessarily career-ending if they are appropriately treated and given sufficient time to heal.
I think most importantly, what I hope to communicate is that when it comes to predicting how long it takes for a spinal injury like Vilardi’s to heal, that the timeline can vary by many months between different patients with a similar injury.
I have read many comments by fans on social media expressing shock that Gabe Vilardi is experiencing an injury that they associate with older athletes. By reading articles and watching videos by clinicians, I have become aware that young athletes are quite vulnerable to spine injuries because their bones are still growing. Repetitive overuse of the back, buttocks and hamstring muscles puts quite a strain on the spinal column near the hips.
Gabe Vilardi and Spondylolysis?
The most common chronic spine injury in children and adolescent athletes is a condition called spondylolysis. It commonly occurs in gymnasts, divers, football linemen, and even junior hockey players. The good news is that spondylolysis usually heals itself without surgery. Here’s a quick video:
Remember that the bones of young athletes are still growing and that if an athlete is going through a growth spurt, they are even more vulnerable to spondylolysis.
Gabe Vilardi is tall being listed at 6’3″ when the Kings drafted him in June of 2017. He may well have been going through a significant growth spurt at that time.
Growing bones aren’t as strong or dense as adult bones because the growing sections are softer like cartilage. The twisting and torquing of athletic activities can bend or flex those cartilaginous areas sand repetitive overuse may cause stress fractures to them.
When human bones finish growing, the medical terminology for that is ossification or fully ossified. Ossification is usually complete in adult males by the age of 25 at the latest. But ossification commonly enters its final stages around the age of 20.
Vilardi turns 20 in mid-August 2019. So he’s just now reaching adulthood from a skeletal maturity standpoint. But again, not everyone physically matures at the same rate.
Conversely, because the bones of adolescents are still growing, spondylolysis has a better chance to heal naturally in young athletes. Their bodies are still stem cell-rich and capable of regenerating skeletal tissues.
I believe that is the situation where we find young Mr. Vilardi. They want him to heal naturally, and they want his bones to ossify.
Spinal Column and Discs
The spinal column is an assembly of disc-shaped bones called vertebrae. These discs are stacked on each other and interconnected. They sit on top of the hip bone. The disc that sits directly on top of the hip bone is called L5. The disc on top of L5 is called L4 and L3 sits on top of L4. Young athletes are likely to experience damage in this area of the lower back.
These discs in the spine are round with a hole through which the spinal column flows. The rear of each disc has two bone offshoots that look like wings. Those are called the pars interarticularis. There are a right and left-wing growing off each disc.
When a hockey player fires a slap shot, he/she puts intense torque on the wing bone(s) on his/her shooting side. The pars interarticularis (wing) of the L5 disc is most commonly injured. But a player can also injure the L4 and or L3.
Sometimes those wing-like bones can become stressed and even stress fracture from repetitive torque. When that happens, this is what is known as spondylolysis.
Applicable to Gabe?
Why do a Gabe Vilardi injury update with this theory? How do I know that this is the condition that ails Gabe Vilardi? Well, I don’t. But based on what I have heard publicly and everything I’ve heard from the Kings, Vilardi’s injury is consistent with spondylolysis.
Initially, we were told that
- Vilardi had a chronic condition that was not uncommon;
- Even Wayne Gretzky had this condition early in his career;
- There is a protocol for him to follow to strengthen his core muscles and prevent the injury with a stronger core;
- There was no reason to believe that this would not heal; and
- he would go on to a productive career.
The typical protocol for spondylolysis is to shut down all sports and a healing rest period followed by core strengthening rehabilitation. Does this sound familiar with Vilardi? It does to me.
We also have Vilardi’s playing history. He played in 67 games (including playoffs) during his 16-year-old year. He played 56 games during his 17-year-old year and only 48 games (16 playoff games) during his 18-year-old season. So it appears that this chronic condition has kept him sidelined often during the final two years of his junior career.
When Vilardi reported for training camp in September 2017, the Kings shut him down pretty quickly. However, he stayed in El Segundo to work with Kings trainers to rehab his back before being returned to his junior team in Kingston in December 2017.
Vilardi signed his NHL entry-level contract during his 18-year-old year. One has to wonder if he played with chronic pain because he hadn’t yet signed his agreement and wanted to prove he was okay to the Kings.
Vilardi was shut down after his 18-year-old junior season. He did not participate in the rookie skills camp in June 2018. I read a popular hockey message board where someone says that Bob McKenzie reported that Vilardi had a surgical procedure performed on his back in the summer of 2018.
Vilardi was completely shutdown for his 19-year-old season after rehabbing and competing in just four AHL games.
At this point, the Kings were faced with a choice – keep Vilardi or return him to his juniors team. The Kings chose to return him to the OHL. But shortly after that, it was abruptly decided that he should be shut down for the remainder of the 2028-19 season. Why rehab and play only four AHL games then completely shut down again for what is now six months? This decision is the most puzzling part of the decision to return Vilardi to juniors, to me.
Were the Kings and Vilardi’s doctors concerned he’d had a setback? Or did they decide not to take the risk of playing in the OHL and use the time for rest, healing and spinal and skeletal maturation?
So will we see Vilardi this upcoming season? I don’t know.
Will we see Vilardi play hockey again? Again, I don’t know, but I think so.
From everything I have read, returning to competition can take anywhere from three months to a year, and six-month shutdown is not uncommon. It’s also my understanding that if the bones in the spine are still growing (and therefore not fully ossified) that the injury could potentially reoccur. Vilardi seems to have suffered a reoccurrence. So it’s not just a matter of healing, it’s also a matter of being ready to compete without the possibility of recurrence.
Having already experienced multiple setbacks with Vilardi’s back, I believe that the decision to return to hockey will require the consultation of a spinal surgeon. Vilardi will remain shutdown until that spinal specialist believes Vilardi’s back is sufficiently stable.
I believe Vilardi’s pars interarticularis (wing bone on the disc) is healed or very close to healed. However, doctors still want to make sure his bones are mature enough not to stress fracture again and that he has fully integrated his core strengthening protocol into his daily life.
According to Kings PR, Gabriel Vilardi has not participated in any hockey activities since December. According to Rob Blake, the Kings are hopeful that he will be ready for training camp. Hopefully, we should know something this summer; whether he has been cleared to resume ice skating again. If so, expect another period of several weeks of rehab.
Conservative Medical Approach
When does Vilardi report to El Segundo and resume skating again? I am going to give the benefit of the doubt to the medical professionals conservatively advising him when he can safely return to hockey.
Vilardi cannot afford to re-injure his back again. He is approaching full adult maturity Vand he loses the benefit of natural healing after his bones are ossified.
I’ll say that I am conservatively between 50-75% confident that Vilardi has spondylolysis. I think if it were something else, then we would have heard that he was undergoing spinal fusion surgery by now. The operation reported by McKenzie was most likely minimally invasive. Most likely, Vilardi had a titanium screw inserted into the “wing” of the L5 or L4 disc to strengthen it and prevent it from stress fracturing again.
Anyway, that’s my take on Gabe Vilardi’s back. I think the Kings and we need patience to give this young man’s body the time it needs to heal. I’m sure it has to be disappointing and depressing to him to not be able to play the sport he loves. But I have optimism that we will see him in a Kings sweater in the future. And when he does, hopefully, he will have been worth the wait.
Deke here again. My previous Vilardi injury updates had been pretty negative, but I have to say, Stephen’s theory if pretty compelling? Pure speculation? Sure, but the nature of the injury and treatment course does seem to match up with what we’ve seen with Vilardi. And, of course, the excellent news is Gabe will be back on the ice eventually if the theory is correct.
Unfortunately, Stephen doesn’t have a blog or YouTube channel, but I’m sure we’ll all be following this theory moving forward. In fact, here’s an interesting situation where it appears the San Diego Padres’ Fernando Tatis, Jr. suffers a similar stress fracture in his lower back…and it is caught on film.
Welp, that is it for the latest Gabe Vilardi injury update…and theory! Looking for something a bit more lighthearted? Try our hockey jokes.