Greg Nemisz and Ryan Ellis have accomplished an awful lot in their hockey careers while wearing the same jersey.
They played four seasons together with the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires, winning back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010 on what is considered one of the best teams in Canadian junior hockey history. They were also teammates on Canada’s silver medal-winning entry at the 2010 World Junior Championships.
This weekend, their paths will cross for the first time as pros, as Nemisz’s Abbotsford Heat host Ellis’s Milwaukee Admirals (Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre).
“We’re really good friends – it’ll be weird for the first few shifts, but it’s exciting,” Nemisz said with a grin Wednesday. “It’s a challenge to play against a guy who’s that special of a player.”
Indeed, during his junior days, Ellis fashioned a resumé as one of the all-time great offensive defencemen at that level. Over the course of three appearances at the World Juniors (2009-11), he scored points than any other blueliner in tournament history, and he’s Canada’s all-time assist leader. He was named the Canadian Hockey League’s player of the year last season, after racking up a mind-boggling 100 points (24 goals, 76 assists) in the regular season.
Ellis, the 11th overall pick in the 2009 NHL entry draft by the Nashville Predators, has two assists in his first three games as a pro this fall with the Admirals.
“There’s not too many players in the game who can read things offensively the way he does,” Nemisz noted. “For us to be successful this weekend, we’re definitely going to have to limit his time and space.”
Nemisz, for his part, is off to a solid start to the season. The sophomore forward is tied for the Heat scoring lead with Brendan Mikkelson with four points (two goals, two assists) in four games, while showcasing his defensive chops on the penalty kill.
Heat head coach Troy Ward said Nemisz has been “effective in all phases of his game,” and noted he was impressed to see him drop the gloves with Kyle Beach of the Rockford IceHogs last Friday.
“Having the big 6’5″ tough guy who’s going to do all the fighting has kind of gone away over time with the new rules and the size of players,” Ward asserted. “It’s a business now where you have to not only have skill, you have to be able to stand up for yourself.
“I think it’s important that players understand how to protect themselves and defend themselves, so I was happy for Greg in that respect.”
NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN
Speaking of tough guys, the Calgary Flames assigned Raitis Ivanans to the Heat on Thursday morning after he passed through waivers unclaimed.
The 6’4″ enforcer from Riga, Latvia has amassed 569 penalty minutes in 281 NHL games with the Montreal Canadiens, L.A. Kings and Flames. He missed the vast majority of last season after suffering a concussion in a scrap with Steve McIntyre of the Edmonton Oilers on opening night.
Ward, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t see the necessity of designated scrappers, so Ivanans will need to “fit in as a player,” he said.
“Our job is to welcome him to our family and our group, and then help him make his game what it needs to be so he can get back up and play in the National Hockey League,” Ward said. “He doesn’t have to do any mopping up of anybody, or come down here and fight.”
ARMSTRONG AIMS TO MAKE IMPRESSION
John Armstrong wasn’t a happy camper when he was sent down to the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies on Oct. 1.
Ultimately, he decided it was counterproductive to waste energy being upset about it, and he feels that’s a big part of the reason why he was recalled by the Heat on Tuesday.
“When some guys go down there, they’re all, ‘Oh no, I’m down in the East Coast,’ and I think those are the guys who get buried down there,” Armstrong said. “If you go down with a determination to get back and just play the game as hard as you can, good things are going to happen for you.
“The first day there, I wasn’t too happy. But as I realized that I’m still playing hockey, I tried to stay positive. I knew people were going to be moving up and down, and I just worked my bag off and tried to get back here.”
Armstrong notched a goal and an assist in two games with the Grizzlies prior to his recall, and there’s a good chance the versatile forward will crack the lineup against Milwaukee. That’s because Ward has been dissatisfied with his fourth line – the trio of Gaelan Patterson (-2), Ryan Howse (-2) and Logan MacMillan (-3) are the team’s only three forwards on the negative side of the plus-minus ledger.
“That’s not kosher to being a winning team,” Ward noted. “We need to make some changes there.”
WAHL NEEDS TO PLAY
Mitch Wahl was assigned to the Grizzlies to make room for Armstrong, and Ward said it was simply a case where the sophomore centre needed to see some game action.
Wahl, a second-round pick by the Flames in 2009, is coming off a season where he missed all but 17 games due to head injuries sustained in a collision with Aaron Volpatti of the Manitoba Moose, and he’d been a healthy scratch for the Heat’s first four games this fall.
Ward explained the Seal Beach, Calif. native wasn’t able to crack the Heat lineup because he’s a pure centre who needs to play on one of the top two lines. Ben Walter and Paul Byron have a hammerlock on the top two spots on the depth chart.
“It wasn’t necessarily that Mitch did anything wrong here,” Ward said. “He’s got to get down there and play – get his game going, get his confidence going.”
BANCKS ON THE WAY BACK
Carter Bancks skated with the main group at practice on Wednesday for the first time since training camp. He’s been out with an upper-body injury.
All the way along, Ward has said he’d like Bancks to be at 100 per cent before he returns to the lineup – a nod to the kamikaze style he plays. He said there’s “a chance” he could play this weekend.
“He’s got to get through another day, for me, and see how he does,” Ward said. “I’m a little bit concerned about his conditioning level.”
Krys Kolanos was absent from practice Wednesday. He’s coming off major hip surgery, and is battling a lower-body injury.
ADMIRALS A STIFF TEST
The Milwaukee Admirals arrive in Abbotsford this weekend as one of only two remaining unbeaten teams in the AHL, along with the Worcester Sharks. Under the tutelage of rookie head coach Kirk Muller, the Predators’ affiliate has raced out to a 3-0-0 start.
“They’ve always been a classy organization, top-to-bottom through Nashville,” Ward said. “I’m not surprised they’re undefeated.
“We’ll have our hands full this weekend, and it’s about what we need, too. We need to find out where we stand within this league, and it’ll be a good measuring stick as to where we’re at.”