It probably has more to do with the time off than with the healing powers of turkey, but the Abbotsford Heat are a healthier group coming out of the Christmas break.
Forwards Jon Rheault and Raitis Ivanans returned to practice as the Heat reconvened in Abbotsford on Tuesday following a four-day holiday hiatus.
Those impending returns are a huge boon to a Heat squad which was missing 10 regulars due to NHL recalls or injury in their last game, Dec. 22 at the Chicago Wolves.
“These guys understand our systems and the way we play, that’s probably the biggest thing,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said. “We win by committee, and getting these two back helps our committee.”
Rheault, the Heat’s third-leading scorer with 21 points in 28 games, sat out three contests with an unspecified lower-body injury suffered on Dec. 16.
It was a jarring turn of events for the 25-year-old, who said he’s only missed one game due to injury in his entire hockey career prior to this month. But the always upbeat Rheault found a silver lining.
“It’s tough watching games when you want to be out there with your team,” he noted. “But to take a positive from it, watching a few games from the press box, you actually learn a lot. And I have a renewed sense of wanting to be out there, playing. I’m really rejuvated, I’m rested, and I’m excited to get out there.”
Ivanans’s injury history is a far cry from Rheault’s – he missed virtually the entire 2010-11 season due to a severe concussion. The hulking Latvian has was sidelined the past four games due to what Ward termed a “concussion-related” injury, but he passed the concussion test last Thursday prior to the Chicago game. The Heat head coach said that based on Ivanans’s history, the team elected to give him some extra days off rather than rush him back to the lineup.
The Heat still have three players on the mend – Dustin Sylvester (lower body), Carter Bancks (hand) and James Martin (thumb). Sylvester suffered his injury on Dec. 21 road game at the Grand Rapids Griffins, while the other two have been sidelined for 13 and seven games, respectively.
Five other players who have spent extensive time with the Heat this season – goalie Leland Irving, forwards Paul Byron and Greg Nemisz, and defencemen T.J. Brodie and Joe Piskula – are currently up with the NHL parent Calgary Flames, who have also been bitten by the injury bug.
HEAT ADD ALIU
The Heat are hoping that Akim Aliu, once a high-profile prospect with the Chicago Blackhawks, can provide some depth for the dinged-up squad.
The 22-year-old right winger was re-assigned to Abbotsford on Wednesday by the Winnipeg Jets – a transaction reminiscent of the loan which saw the Flames send Heat centre Mitch Wahl to the Hamilton Bulldogs in November.
“It’s similar to the Wahl situation,” Ward said. “He’s been given a few opportunities, and it didn’t work out.”
The Heat did not make Aliu available for interviews after practice Wednesday, as the transaction was still being finalized.
Aliu was picked in the second round by the Blackhawks in the 2007 NHL entry draft. He was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers in the summer of 2010, in the salary-dump deal which saw Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel land with the soon-to-be Winnipeg Jets franchise.
This fall, Aliu spent some time with the Jets’ AHL affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps, but did not see any game action. He played 10 games with the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles (2g, 4a, 28 PIM), and suited up for three games with EC Red Bull Salzburg, an Austrian club.
According to Ward, Aliu was back home in Toronto when the loan to the Heat came through.
“Calgary knew we were short on bodies, and felt they’d like to take a look at him,” Ward said.
Aliu’s career has been tumultuous at points. Most notably, back in 2005-06, early in his junior hockey career with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, he was involved in an altercation during practice with Steve Downie, an older teammate. The highly publicized incident was reportedly related to a hazing episode which Aliu refused to participate in.
STARS IN TOWN
The Heat return to action on home ice this week, as they host the Texas Stars (Thursday and Friday, 7 p.m. both nights at the AESC).
“Texas has a leg up on us,” Ward said, noting the Stars played Tuesday at home against the San Antonio Rampage.
To shake off his team’s Christmas rust, Ward ran uptempo scrimmages at practice on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Heat bench boss had considered bringing the group back together on Boxing Day, but decided to give his charges an extra day off.
“I felt with the break, we needed to take a bit more time because of the way we travel here,” he said. “I wanted family to be a part of their lives. I erred on the side of long-term (benefit) rather than short-term.”
The Heat’s forward lines at Wednesday morning’s practice are as follows: