It’s been a frustrating couple of months for Greg Nemisz, but the Abbotsford Heat forward can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the third-year pro was a full participant in practice for the first time this season. He suffered a lower-body injury just days before training camp, and is only now nearing a return.
There’s a chance Nemisz could suit up this weekend, as the Heat host the Hamilton Bulldogs in a Friday-Saturday set (7 p.m. both nights, Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre).
“It’s exciting – this is my life, my job, and it’s just nice to be back around the guys and competing every day,” said Nemisz, the Calgary Flames’ first-round draft choice (25th overall) in 2008. “I feel really good right now – no pain or anything like that.”
Pain is one thing, but there’s also the small matter of getting his conditioning up to snuff and adjusting to game speed.
“My legs feel good, but it’s putting that together with big guys coming at you all the time in practice,” Nemisz said. “And it’s another level up in a game, too. I feel good right now, but it’s definitely going to be a test when I step in the lineup.”
Heat head coach Troy Ward had hoped to dress Nemisz twice during the Heat’s upcoming four-game homestand, but after watching him in practice Wednesday, said he may take a more cautious approach.
“He might need a little bit more time yet,” he said. “In fairness to him, when we get him back, I want to make sure he’s back the whole year and that he’s really ready, both physically and mentally.”
BAERTSCHI FEELS WINTERHAWKS’ PUNISHMENT ‘OVER THE TOP’
Heat rookie forward Sven Baertschi’s former junior squad, the Portland Winterhawks, was hammered by the Western Hockey League on Wednesday for illegal player benefits.
The WHL fined the club $200,000, suspended head coach Mike Johnston for the balance of the season, and stripped the team of nine future bantam draft choices, including their first-rounders for the next five years.
The league did not disclose the precise violations, but the Winterhawks, in a subsequent release, stated they were disciplined for providing flights to players’ families, paying for summer training programs, and providing a cell phone to its team captain.
On Thursday, Baertschi said he didn’t believe any of the Winterhawks’ violations were on his account, and said he felt the WHL’s punishment was too harsh.
“I thought the fines were a little over the top,” he said. “It’s just little things – they didn’t even know they did something wrong sometimes.
“That’s the way it is. Sometimes you try to be as good as you can as an organization – for a lot of people you try to make their life easier, and stuff like that happens. It doesn’t change anything. I’m still thinking it’s the best place to play in the whole CHL.”
HEAT NEED MORE FROM KOLANOS: WARD
The Heat (12-2-4, 28 points) lead the North Division and AHL overall standings, and one of the most surprising elements of their hot start is that they’ve done it with Krys Kolanos frequently on the sideline.
Kolanos, the Heat’s scoring leader last season, has been a healthy scratch for eight of the team’s 18 games this year. It’s partially a product of the team’s veteran logjam – the Heat have six players with more than 320 games of pro experience, and can only dress five.
But it’s telling that forwards Ben Walter and Quintin Laing, and blueliners Steve McCarthy, Joe Piskula and Joe Callahan have gotten into the lineup more often than Kolanos.
Quizzed about the choice, Ward didn’t mince words.
“If you’re not going to take care of the things that you need to do to play hard for our organization, then you’re not going to play,” he said. “It’s a tough thing right now – we have six vets, and I think the five other guys are (playing) way harder, and they give us a better chance on a night-to-night basis.”
Kolanos fashioned a heartwarming narrative last year, resurrecting his career after missing the entire 2010-11 season due to microfracture hip surgery. He racked up 30 goals and 31 assists in just 47 games with the Heat, and his points-per-game rate of 1.30 was second-best in the AHL. He also had his AHL contract upgraded to an NHL two-way, and he suited up for 13 games with the Calgary Flames.
Kolanos, who has four goals and four assists in his 10 games this season, took an upbeat outlook on his recent scratches and the whole veteran bottleneck in general.
“I think it’s great for the veterans, because I think it allows guys to be more ready,” he said. “I don’t think it’s such a negative to not play a game. You should be fresher, and helping your teammates in practice when you don’t play.
“I’m just always looking to round out my game, push the limits in all areas. Every day I strive to be a more complete player, and just be a good teammate. The harder you work in practice, you help the guys who are playing, and it trickles down to the rookies. That’s how I look at it.”
WARD SHUFFLES THE DECK
Ward clearly plays no favourites when it comes to getting his message across, and he offered further evidence of that during last Sunday’s road game vs. the Houston Aeros.
The Heat’s top line of Baertschi, Walter and Roman Horak (pictured right) didn’t see a single shift in the third period, nor did No. 1 defenceman T.J. Brodie. It’s telling that the offensive-minded quartet had combined for just a single shot on goal in the first two periods.
“They’re responsible for us to score goals, and if you’re not going to score goals . . . you’re not hitting anybody, so what good are you?” said Ward, whose team rallied with the stars on the bench to force OT before falling 3-2 in the extra session.
“I bench our hitters, I bench our shot-blockers, I bench our guys who play in hard areas for not playing hard. If you’re a skill guy and you’re not creating anything for our team, well, then you can watch. That’s the way it is.”
The benchings, not coincidentally, came with the Heat’s offensive production at a low ebb. They’ve mustered just four goals over their past four games, and haven’t scored more than three in a game since Nov. 2 against Oklahoma City.
To remedy the issue, Ward revamped his top two lines during Wednesday’s practice. Baertschi was playing with Paul Byron, with Kolanos and Dustin Sylvester rotating on right wing, while Tyler Ruegsegger was with Walter and Horak. The third line of Laing, Ben Street and Brett Olson, the Heat’s best over the last few weeks, was left intact.
“I wanted to get Baertschi a little more speed, so I put Byron with him,” Ward explained.
HEAT HOST HALL OF FAMER COURNOYER
The Heat’s weekend set with the Bulldogs features a pair of unique promotions.
Friday is the team’s second Legends of Hockey night of the season, and Hockey Hall of Famer Yvon Cournoyer will be at the AESC. Cournoyer was a 10-time Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens – the Bulldogs’ NHL parent club – and was a member of Canada’s legendary 1972 Summit Series team.
Saturday is the Heat’s second annual Pucks N’ Paws game. Fans are invited to bring their dogs to the rink, and each $5 dog ticket goes to support the Abbotsford SPCA.