Like a pedestrian on windy Sumas Prairie trying to brace against a rare blast of winter, the Abbotsford Heat are trying to weather the storm right now.
The local AHLers are working through a relentless wave of injuries – every time a wounded player returns, another goes down. The injury bug, it seems, is a ravenous insect.
On Thursday, for instance, forward Dustin Sylvester and defencemen James Martin were full participants at practice for the first time after extended absences. But their healing came hot on the heels of injuries that befell standout forwards Greg Nemisz and Jon Rheault last week.
Nemisz banged up his shoulder last Tuesday against the Texas Stars, and his recovery will be measured in weeks rather than days. Rheault, who sat out Monday’s game at San Antonio with a variety of aches and pains, won’t be out as long, but he’s not expected back this weekend when the Heat host the Charlotte Checkers at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. both nights).
Exacerbating the situation is the fact the NHL parent Calgary Flames are also a dinged-up unit at present – winger Curtis Glencross, with a knee injury, was the latest to go down – thus depriving the Heat of the likes of Lance Bouma and Paul Byron.
“We started out fine as far as injuries this season,” Heat head coach Troy Ward noted, “but Calgary’s managed a lot of injuries, and it’s had a domino effect here as well. We’ve sent guys up, and that’s our job, but at the same time, that just puts more strain on people down here. As they get tired going through the road trips, they get more susceptible to injuries.
“We have a big picture of Mt. Baker in our locker room, and we look at it every day. We’re going through different peaks and valleys this season, and we know we occasionally have to set up camp and regain energy with bringing new people in to help us. That’s just how we’re approaching it.”
The Flames placed blueliner Brett Carson on waivers on Thursday, and if he clears, he’s expected to be assigned to Abbotsford Friday morning.
But it’s up front where the Heat need reinforcements most, with Nemisz, Rheault and Ryan Howse (shoulder) sidelined. They dressed just 10 forwards on Monday at San Antonio, and were down to nine at one point when Guillaume Desbiens went to the dressing room after absorbing a big hit. He returned, though.
Ward said more moves could be on the way Friday.
“It just depends on what happens up above us (in Calgary) – that’s what I’ve been dealing with all day on the phone,” he said. “We don’t have enough bodies, unless I play both Sylvester and Martin and use them both as forwards.”
Neither Sylvester (knee) or Martin (broken thumb) have suited up since before Christmas, though, and Ward isn’t sure whether either player is mentally ready to play yet.
Sylvester, for his part, is raring to go.
“I feel good, but it’s obviously up to the coaching staff,” he said. “I think I’m ready.
“I’ve been working hard all week on my conditioning, so I don’t think that was a question. It’s just about getting back into practice mode and getting back out there with the guys, and it felt good.”
Through all the adversity, the Heat (24-13-3-0) are still tied for second in the West Division, just two points back of the Oklahoma City Barons for first place in both the division and the Western Conference.
CHECKERS A NEW GUEST AT AESC
The weekend set vs. Charlotte marks the Heat’s first-ever games against the Carolina Hurricanes’ affiliate. The Checkers (23-14-2-2) come in leading the Midwest Division with 50 points, and boasting the Western Conference’s fourth-most potent offence with 116 goals.
How a team located in a state that borders the Atlantic Ocean ended up in the Western Conference is a head-scratcher, but that’s an issue for another time.
Ward said that playing a new team will be a nice change of pace for the Heat, who have spent much of the season slugging it out against West Division rivals.
“We’re excited about the change in scenery,” he said. “This is refreshing for us as much as it probably will be for the fans.
“They’ve got an entertaining team, meaning they can score goals and get up the ice quickly. They’re good at managing the puck, so we’ll have our hands full defensively.”
Checkers forward Brett Sutter makes a return to Abbotsford this weekend – he suited up for the Heat back in 2009-10, and was their most productive forward in the run to the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs.
Sutter, who was traded to the Hurricanes the fall of 2010, has split his time between the NHL and AHL this season. He has three assists in 15 games with the Hurricanes, and five goals and seven helpers in 28 games with the Checkers.
COLD WEATHER A WAKEUP CALL?
The Fraser Valley’s current spate of snowy weather might have been a shock to the system for the Heat players, who arrived back in town Wednesday after a road trip through Texas and Oklahoma.
That’s been of little concern to Ward, though.
“It’s right up my alley,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m from Minnesota, so this isn’t even a snowstorm to me. It’s like a normal day.”
Additionally, Ward is hopeful the weather will shake his team out of its usual pattern of struggling in the first game back home after a road trip.
“It’s out of the norm we’re used to coming back to, so hopefully it’s given us a bit of a wakeup call,” he said. “I welcome the change, because the norm has been for us to fall back and think we’ll warm up over time.”