After 18 months, Chad Kolarik was nervous and anxious before stepping on the ice.
And it took some time before he found his groove. When he rifled a shot off the crossbar in the second period of the Whale’s first preseason game Wednesday night, he began to feel like his old self.
“Got my legs jumping a little bit,” Kolarik said.
After missing an entire season with a torn ACL in his left knee, Kolarik was returning for his first game. Skating on a line with 2011 first-round pick and top prospect J.T. Miller, Kolarik was energetic and tenacious.
He was also a bit rusty, which is not unexpected. But after sitting out for a season and not playing in a game for 1 1/2 years, Kolarik was just thankful for the opportunity.
“It makes you realize how much you really do miss it,” Kolarik said. “You take it for granted. You get in the thick of things, you’re in Game 55 and you kind of maybe take a night off or you’re not quite as sharp … But this makes you realize that you’ve got to be sharp every night and kind of play every game like it’s going to be your last. I know that’s cliche but you’ve got to do it.”
At 26, Kolarik figures to be a veteran leader for the Whale and could play himself into the NHL. The former University of Michigan player was drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes before he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets, skating for San Antonio and Springfield in the AHL.
In his third AHL season, the Rangers acquired him and he joined the Whale in January 2011.
He scored 17 goals in 36 games for the Whale and impressed the Rangers in four games with New York.
So when he reported to training camp a year ago, Kolarik was seen as a candidate for an NHL spot. But he hurt his knee in the second day of camp and wound up missing the entire season.
Kolarik spent all of last season in Hartford, working with the Whale’s staff and remaining part of the team. He was physically ready to play in the playoffs, but was barred from playing because of a technicality -- Kolarik was not healthy when the Whale submitted their “clear-day’ roster on Feb. 28, so he was not eligible for the AHL playoffs.
That only added to the anticipation that built throughout the summer. With the NHL locked out, Kolarik is in training camp with the Whale and skating with a brace on his knee.
“First period was little sluggish,” Kolarik said after the Whale’s 3-1 loss to Albany Wednesday. “But you’ve just got to make smart plays out there and not try to do too much. I think that’s what I was trying to do in the first period, just trying to do a little too much. … Once I got that break there, hit the crossbar and my legs got going. Didn’t even realize I was wearing that brace anymore, so it kind of felt really good and in the third period I felt fine.”
Before the game, Kolarik tweeted “Can’t wait for the first shift. #nerves feel like a rookie again.” And he appeared excited as he walked around Champions Skating Center, bouncing through the arena in the hours leading up to the game.
“I know it’s just a preseason game, but I’m excited just to get back in here,” Kolarik said. “It’s been a long time coming. Eighteen months is a long time to wait to play the sport you love. To do your job, really. So I’m excited to be back.”
Whale coach Ken Gernander said Kolarik (5 feet 11, 185 pounds) played with “fire in his belly,” just as he always did throughout his career. But the coach isn’t expecting instant result from a player who’s been away from game competition for so long.
“It’s going to be a long road,” Gernander said. “Just because he’s cleared and he’s healthy, doesn’t mean he’s firing on all cylinders. I think there’s going to be some rust and some timing issues, and it’s going to take him a little bit of time to get acclimated. So we can’t think that just because he’s been medically cleared that he’s firing on 100 percent and that his timing is where it needs to be right now.”Copyright © 2015, CT Now