On a recent weekday morning, John Negrin was ripping a series of slap shots at an empty net as the Abbotsford Heat’s practice was winding down.
As Negrin leaned into a blast from the blue line, his composite stick snapped in two, and the bottom half made a looping flight over the glass, narrowly missing a Heat staffer who had dropped in to watch.
Negrin turned, eyes wide and glove over his mouth, apologizing profusely while trying to suppress a chuckle.
The grin on the 21-year-old defenceman’s face mirrored his sunny outlook these days. Two injury-riddled seasons have severely tested the gregarious West Vancouver native’s patience, but after recovering from three surgeries, he’s savouring every opportunity to be on the ice with his teammates.
“At times, it was tough,” Negrin said, reflecting on his injury-related tribulations. “When you’ve spent your life playing sports, being on crutches and sitting at home is a change, for sure.
“So after being out for a year and a half, to be back in the lineup and back around the guys is great. I’m really enjoying it.”
Negrin’s injury odyssey began in January 2010, when he suffered a broken right wrist. As he was preparing to return to the Heat lineup, he realized something was wrong with his left knee. Turns out, he’d suffered a fractured kneecap back in November, but that injury had been originally misdiagnosed. The ensuing surgery shelved him for the rest of the season.
He returned to the Heat lineup in October, but his comeback lasted just three games when it was discovered one of the screws in his knee had broken off. That necessitated a second procedure last fall to remove the screws and a bone fragment.
During his convalescence, Negrin had a lot of time on his hands. But rather than mope, he began to pursue another passion – music. An avid guitarist and singer, he connected with a music producer in North Vancouver and started writing songs. He’s recording one of his tracks this month.
“It’s mainly acoustic, pretty laid-back, easy-going music,” said Negrin, who compares his sound to that of Jack Johnson.
“I enjoy doing it, and I had the opportunity to play for someone who’s in the music industry. It’s a passion of mine, so I figured why not? I’ll give it a shot.”
Without a doubt, music provided an avenue for Negrin to blow off steam during his extended recovery period(s). His Heat teammates have prevailed upon him to sing at team functions in the past.
“It’s good to have an outlet,” he noted with a grin. “Hockey is our job, but there’s more to life, and there’s other things you can do. In my case, it’s nice to relax by playing some music.”
Negrin’s physical rehab was the polar opposite of his laid-back musical vibe. After being cleared to skate again a couple months ago, he’d show up at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre for early-morning on-ice sessions supervised by Heat assistant coaches Steve O’Rourke and Troy Ward.
“It was a long process for him, and we started at Square 1,” O’Rourke related. “It was almost like hockey school all over again.
“There were some basic skating issues that we had to start with, just with opening and pivoting, because a lot of that movement had kind of shut down on him. A lot of his rehab was in a linear position, not opening up his hips. I know there were a lot of days there where I think he was questioning what was going on.”
Negrin’s fluid skating ability had always been a hallmark of his game, and re-learning his stride was an odd process.
“All the muscles in my leg had pretty much just tightened up,” he said. “Some of the stuff that came easy to me earlier in my career, I had to work at to get back. I’m still working on stuff, trying to get all the kinks out.”
The final quarter of the regular season, to be sure, is an intense time of year to be finding one’s game, but Negrin has done a commendable job. In his first 12 games back, he posted five assists and a +2 rating.
“It’s always tough to come back in the second half of the year when everything’s ramped up and you haven’t got that same level,” O’Rourke observed. “But I think he’s responded well. He’s given us some good minutes.”
The Heat are in the midst of a pressure-packed stretch drive, needing to overhaul as many as three North Division rivals over the final nine games of the regular season in order to qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs. Negrin is thrilled to be an active participant.
“It’s an exciting time of the year, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” he said. “I think with our team, we’ve got to be the hardest-working team on the ice. We don’t have the most skill, but we have a lot of heart, we have a lot of guys who have great work ethics.
“As long as we work hard and believe in each other, the possibilities are endless.”