Teddy bear tosses tend to be a highlight for fans, but the charitable initiative brings back warm memories for Brady Lamb, too.
On December 15, 2012, the Abbotsford Heat defenceman stepped into a pass from T.J. Brodie and hammered a slap shot past Texas Stars goalie Cristopher Nilstorp.
That ignited an avalanche of stuffed animals thrown from the stands onto the ice at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, as is custom when the home team scores its first goal on teddy bear toss night. Hundreds of the fuzzy toys were collected for donation to the Abbotsford Christmas Bureau.
The epic celebration coincided with a major milestone for Lamb – his first goal as a professional.
“I’d never been part of a teddy bear toss game through junior or college,” Lamb recalled with a grin following Thursday’s practice. “So for my first one to be here with the Heat, and score the goal and have it be the first of my career, it was a whole bunch of cool experiences all mixed into one.
“I’m looking forward to it again, and who knows – maybe I’ll make the magic happen again.”
The 2013 edition of the Heat’s teddy bear toss is this Friday, the first night of back-to-back games vs. the San Antonio Rampage (7 p.m. start both nights, AESC). Fans are asked to bring new, unused stuffed animals.
BLUE LINE GETTING HEALTHIER
Lamb is one of three defencemen, along with Tyler Wotherspoon (concussion) and Mark Cundari (neck/back), who returned to practice this week after sitting out last weekend’s home set vs. the Utica Comets.
Lamb missed three games with a leg laceration, but in reality, he was tremendously fortunate he wasn’t out longer.
On Nov. 23 at the Iowa Wild, the Calgary native already had a goal and an assist for his first multi-point outing of the season, when an Iowa forechecker’s skate came down between the back of his skate boot and his leg.
In recent years, similar plays have resulted in sliced Achilles tendons for Kevin Bieksa of the Vancouver Canucks and Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, but Lamb escaped with just a couple of stitches.
“I didn’t think it was season-ending, because I could still use my foot, but I definitely knew something was wrong,” he said. “Luckily it wasn’t too deep to cause any serious or permanent damage. I was pretty lucky.”
The Bieksa and Karlsson injuries have prompted many players to wear cut-resistant Kevlar socks, but Lamb wasn’t wearing them vs. Iowa. He is now.
“It’s one of those things you don’t ever think will happen to you, and you don’t see much reason to (wear them) – it’s such a small area, it’s such a slim chance,” he said. “I was just wearing a normal pair of socks, and it cut right through there pretty quick. Obviously I’ve got them (cut-resistant socks) on now . . . the whole team does. Everyone has to now.”
LAFRANCHISE A ‘ROADRUNNER’
The Heat (17-6-2) lead the AHL in points with 36, and such a lofty perch is not unfamiliar at this stage of the season.
At virtually the same point last fall Abbotsford sat atop the AHL standings, but they went into an offensive tailspin in December and later lost their four top defencemen – Brodie and Steve McCarthy departed after the NHL lockout ended, Joe Piskula was traded and Chris Breen got hurt. They ended up missing the playoffs altogether.
Head coach Troy Ward said the major lesson learned last year is that the team needs more defensive depth. To that end, even though Lamb, Wotherspoon and Cundari are ready to return to the lineup, the Heat kept one of the two blueliners, Kane Lafranchise, who was recalled last week from the ECHL’s Alaska Aces. The other, James Martin, was reassigned earlier in the week.
“We’re trying to create a situation where guys know more about what we’re doing and how we go about it,” Ward said. “I don’t think anybody can just jump into the system with the way we play, or maybe our language, and understand it all.”
Lafranchise, a 25-year-old Edmonton native who was a reliable point-producer with the Aces over the past two years, gives the Heat more mobility on the back end.
“We’re not a very fluid team back there,” Ward noted. “(Chad) Billins can pick ’em up and move – after that, I wouldn’t say it’s a turtle race, but it’s not the roadrunner back there. (Lafranchise) gives us a roadrunner . . . We want to see if that can help us.”
HOT STREAK PROPELLED BY POWER PLAY
In September, Ward said he expected his youthful squad to endure some growing pains over the first three months of the season, and then make a push for a playoff berth after Christmas.
They’ve arrived ahead of schedule, Ward said, in part because they’ve had the services of experienced forwards like Ben Street, Blair Jones and Paul Byron for much of the campaign.
But perhaps even more crucially, the power play has made a giant leap forward this season. The Heat’s 23.9 per cent efficiency rate is third-best in the league – they were 20th at 16.1 per cent last year, and have never ranked higher than 19th in their five seasons in Abbotsford.
“You have more finishers out there,” Ward analyzed, rattling off names like Street, Billins, Corban Knight, Markus Granlund and Michael Ferland.
“Sometimes we don’t generate a lot (at even strength), and then there goes the power play and scores again. It’s been that type of first half.”
STREET KEEPING HIS HEAD UP
On Monday, Street became the first player in Heat history to win the AHL’s player of the month award, after leading the league in goals (11) and points (19) in November.
“It’s kind cliche to say it’s a team award, but if our team doesn’t do as well as it did, I don’t think I win it,” the Coquitlam native noted.
“I think they chose me as the representation of the team and how well we did.”
That said, Street has made major strides offensively this season, and improved on-ice vision may be the reason why.
“I talk with Wardo all the time about my eyes,” he explained. “I think if you play with your head down, the game comes at you pretty fast. If you can get your head up and get your eyes up a see what’s coming, you can see where your teammates are and where the open ice is, and it makes it a lot easier.”
Anecdotally, it seems to be paying dividends – last Saturday vs. Utica, Street spotted Josh Jooris and whipped a spectacular cross-ice pass which led to a goal. And while the shot-happy Street still puts a high volume of pucks on net, his shots-on-goal have taken a slight dip from 3.29 per game last year to 2.83 this season, but his overall production is up.
SIELOFF WON’T PLAY AT WORLD JUNIORS
Defenceman Patrick Sieloff’s snakebit season took another tough turn this week, as the NHL parent Calgary Flames announced he wouldn’t be available to play for Team U.S.A. at the upcoming World Junior Championships.
The 19-year-old Sieloff was the AHL’s youngest player to start the season, but was sidelined after just two games due to a lingering staph infection. The Ann Arbor, Mich. native is currently at home recuperating.
“He’s getting a little TLC from mom,” said Ward, who touches base with Sieloff about once a month.
“He’s just trying to get through a lot of the issues that are in his system. They seem to be working out in a very slow by timely manner, according to the medical side. It’s on track where it’s supposed to be, but it’s a process. His spirits are awesome, he feels good. It’s just got to cleanse itself.”
WHITNEY LEADS RAMPAGE INTO TOWN
San Antonio’s roster is highlighted by ex-NHL defenceman Ryan Whitney – the former Pittsburgh Penguin, Anaheim Duck and Edmonton Oiler has seven points in eight games with the Florida Panthers’ AHL affiliate this season as he seeks to jump-start his career.
Whitney leads a group that’s deep in big-league experience. He, along with Jed Ortmeyer, Joey Crabb, Greg Zanon and Bobby Butler, have a combined 1,617 games of NHL experience under their belt.
The Rampage, 10th in the Western Conference at 10-10-2, are led offensively by first-year forward Vincent Trocheck, who has 10 goals and nine assists in 22 games and is third in AHL rookie scoring.
TIS THE SEASON FOR GIVING
The teddy bear toss is just one of the Heat’s current community initiatives.
In recent weeks, they’ve launched a pair of charitable partnerships. They’re joining forces with the Kids Up Front Foundation, facilitating the donation of tickets to provide free access to Heat games for children and families who have been adversely affected by poverty, abuse, illness and disability. Fans unable to use their tickets are encouraged to call 1-877-452-HEAT to arrange for ticket donation.
The Heat have also started an Adopt a Family project. Fans can purchase a group of 10 or more tickets to a pre-Christmas home game and half the price of the tickets will be donated to a family in need to help them through the holiday season.
In addition, the Heat sent a contingent of players to Abbotsford Regional Hospital on Wednesday to visit young patients.
“We don’t have a requirement that a certain number of guys go – they asked for two or three, and I think nine went,” Street said. “It’s a good representation of our team, and it shows the guys here care about our community.
“If it helps those kids out and helps those families to feel a bit better for however long, it’s important for us to do that.”
MACDERMID UP, REINHART DOWN
Late Thursday afternoon, the Flames recalled winger Lane MacDermid from the Heat and sent Max Reinhart back to Abby.
MacDermid, recently acquired via trade from the Dallas Stars organization, did not register a point in four appearances with the Heat. Reinhart, meanwhile, has 12 points in 19 AHL games this season.