There’s never an opportune time for the injury bug to bite, but when Greg Nemisz went down with a shoulder injury six weeks ago, it was a particularly discouraging turn of events for the Abbotsford Heat forward.
During his convalescence, the Calgary Flames, the Heat’s NHL parent club, weathered a wave of casualties in their forward corps. At one point, four erstwhile Abbotsford forwards – Krys Kolanos, Roman Horak, Paul Byron and Lance Bouma – were up with the Flames at the same time.
There’s a strong chance that Nemisz, if healthy, might have gotten the call for an extended audition – the sophomore pro had already gotten into two games with Calgary earlier in the season, and he’s been one of the Heat’s best and most consistent forwards.
But rather than sulk, Nemisz threw himself into his rehab with Heat strength coach Mike Thompson, and he’s returned with a vengeance. The Courtice, Ont. native has averaged a point per game since getting back into the Heat lineup, notching four goals and two assists in six contests.
“It was pretty tough,” Nemisz said, reflecting on the potential NHL opportunity that his injury robbed him of. “You can’t really think like that, though. Hockey is a really up and down game, and you’ve got to stay even-keel or else you’re wasting energy. And then you might not come back as well-prepared.”
After posting 33 points in 68 games as a rookie in 2010-11, Nemisz has boosted his rate of production this season, with 25 points in 38 games.
Heat head coach Troy Ward said the 6’3″, 205-pound forward’s improvement is directly linked to his fitness.
During his junior days, Nemisz was part of one of the greatest teams in Canadian junior hockey history – his Windsor Spitfires won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010. But those long playoff runs and subsequent short off-seasons limited his summer workout time.
After the Heat missed the post-season last spring, Nemisz threw himself into his workout regimen, and the sweat investment has translated to the ice.
“You never want to not be in the playoffs,” Nemisz noted, “but last year I had a lot of time off and took advantage of that. My trainer back home, Jeff Larsh, did an amazing job with me in the summer, and I feel the better than I’ve ever felt on the ice.
“We work on a lot of legs – power and explosion stuff. For a big guy, you always have to work on speed and core strength.”
Ward said he was encouraged when training camp rolled around, and Nemisz showed up having shed “a little bit of baby fat.”
“It wasn’t until this last summer that he really changed physically, which has allowed him to have a better start here,” Ward analyzed.
“(Former Heat head coach) Jim (Playfair) played him a lot here last year, which he deserved, but his body couldn’t handle those minutes. This year, he’s been able to handle those minutes because of his physical conditioning. That’s allowed him to be a better player.”
While emphasizing that it’s not entirely fair to compare Nemisz to Brett Hull, Ward likens Nemisz’s physical reshaping to a similar process that the Hall of Fame sniper underwent early in his career.
“Nobody remembers Brett Hull was drafted by the Calgary Flames,” Ward noted. “But he didn’t emerge on the scene until St. Louis, and that was when the body fat percentage changed. He was in the mid-20s in Calgary, I believe, and St. Louis wouldn’t let him come to camp until he was under eight. All the goals started to happen because he became more focused in his training.”
Ward said that Nemisz’s improved fitness base allowed him to be effective immediately coming off of the recent injury. The Heat bench boss loves a good metaphor, and in this case, he compared Nemisz to a bookshelf.
“He didn’t have to remake the bookshelf (when he was injured) – he just had to get a can of Pledge and wipe it down,” Ward said. “A year ago, he would have had to rebuild the shelf.”