One of Allison Dorsett’s favourite stories about her husband is one of her first.

She was studying childhood education at Ohio State University when this guy she had just met invited her to a hockey game. So Allison took a friend to watch Derek Dorsett play a pre-season game for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“Derek was in the penalty box for 27 minutes,” she says. “I was laughing like, geez, you would think if this guy wanted to impress me, he’d actually play on the ice. He sat in the penalty box the whole time. I got to see the back of his head. I still laugh about it. But from that moment on, I knew what I was in for.”

Yes, Derek Dorsett is tougher than February in Kindersley, Sask, which is where he is from.

You have to be tough to play in the National Hockey League as a six-foot (possibly measured in skates), seventh-round draft pick and build a career by out-battling opponents who outweigh you by 20 or 40 pounds.

You have to be tough to go into spinal surgery, as Dorsett did last December in Los Angeles, knowing doctors were going to cut through the front of his neck, pull his vocal chords aside, remove a damaged disc between his C5 and C6 vertebrae, replace it with a washer and chunk of bone from his hip, then screw the vertebrae together so the tissue could fuse.

And that wasn’t even the toughest part.

“I let everyone believe I was fine,” Derek says. “I think that’s what we do as hockey players; we put the strong face on. But there were definitely doubts in the back of my mind: Am I going to be able to play the way I’ve always played?

“I’ve always believed in myself and never backed away from a challenge, and I think this was just another challenge I had to get through. But it was the hardest challenge of my life.”

Dorsett wore a neck brace for eight weeks, couldn’t lift his sons — Dylan and Ethan are both under three — for much of that time, had to rebuild the muscle mass in his upper body and rehabbed for six months before he was allowed to absorb contact.