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Bears’ Willis still has an eye on the NHL

Twenty-three years old, the National Hockey League career of Shane Willis was shaping up nicely when the 2000-01 regular season came to a close.

His Carolina Hurricanes had qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Having struggled to established a presence in the Triangle area of North Carolina, the Hurricanes had a new building and a growing foothold in the region.

Willis?

His first full NHL season had been a prosperous one that saw him finish with 20 goals. Willis was carving out a spot for himself among a core of Hurricanes that starting to gel. Carolina, after all, would put together a run to the Stanley Cup Finals the following spring.

Two of the NHL’s fiercest hitters derailed Willis’ career from that point. The peak of Willis’ professional career soon took a nasty dip when he crossed paths with Scott Stevens in the series with New Jersey.

Willis cut across the middle of the ice, meeting Stevens at full speed. The resulting hit left Willis with a concussion that ended his season.

Then in November 2001, Willis met up with Bryan Marchment – then patrolling the San Jose Sharks’ blue line – and came away with his second concussion.

“You always try to come back healthy, but I think there’s always a part that’s kind of nagging you. You’re kind of out of pace.”

When he returned to the lineup, he was slotted in a checking role that hardly suited a player with his scoring touch.

“It’s not like you’re [just] going to get your job back,” Willis said of the shift in job description.

Willis managed a mere seven goals in 59 games in the 2001-02 season before Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford packaged Willis in a deal with Chris Dingman that sent him off to Tampa Bay for Kevin Weekes.

Dealing with the shock of his first professional trade, the move did little for Willis over the rest of that season. The Edmonton product notched just four goals in 21 games with the Lightning.

That season was enough to land Willis back in the AHL for 2002-03, a league in which he had not played since the 1998-99 season, when he was named the circuit’s outstanding rookie.

What followed was another modest season, this one with the Springfield Falcons. Willis’ 16 goals in 56 games were respectable numbers, though certainly nothing approaching his 30-plus goal average at the minor-league level. And while junior numbers often do not count for much in the AHL, Willis had finished his Western Hockey League career with 114 goals in his final 131 regular season games, time split between Prince Albert and Lethbridge.

The Lightning struck a deal with the Hershey last summer to supply the Bears with the bulk of Tampa’s prospects for this season. Tampa general manager Jay Feaster has enjoyed a long relationship with the Bears going back to his AHL days, and the set-up has benefited both sides.

It was expected that the Lightning would supplement the existing core of Colorado prospects. Willis, however, has been far more than a mere supplement for head coach Paul Fixter‘s club.

This season has been the first campaign since that successful NHL rookie campaign that Willis has started to get back on the NHL track, and Willis has been doing it for Fixter’s Bears.

Sitting in the middle of the AHL in goals per game, the Bears have relied heavily on Willis for production. Willis has delivered to the tune of 20 goals in 39 games, numbers that project out to the 40-goal mark over an 80-game season.

Pushing 26 years old now, the right wing needed a good season to stay afloat as a solid NHL prospect.

Hershey has been a good fit for Willis. “It’s a great organization that [Bears president and general manager] Doug Yingst runs here.”

Still, much work remains to be done.

“You’re kind of back to square one,” Willis said of being back in the AHL after an NHL run. “You’ve got to get back to work, get back to your game. Putting pucks in the net, picking up points. This year I’ve been able to get back on track to what I was doing in my first year in the AHL.”

Lightning management has seen fit to ease Willis back into the NHL scene. Willis spent a month with the Lightning earlier this season. He logged 12 games with the Lightning in his first NHL stint since that 2001-02 season. No goals came about for Willis, but he did string together six assists while with the Lightning.

“It’s always an experience [being recalled],” Willis said. “You want to get your excitement when you’re called up. I thought I played well up there.”

For now, back in Hershey, Willis is gearing up for a playoff race with the Bears that will tighten up in March. Binghamton, Norfolk and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton are all chasing the Bears for playoff spots.

“Coming back here with the great group of guys we’ve got here makes for a very positive atmosphere. Doug Yingst treats us like NHL people. Whenever you’re on an AHL team, that’s what you want to have because that’s what you’re going to need to get back to the NHL.”