By A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
By most standards, Lake Erie Monsters forward T.J. Hensick has already experienced a lot in his three years as a professional. He’s twice been named an AHL All-Star and already has 99 NHL games under his belt, plus two in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But nothing could have prepared Hensick for the travel odyssey that it took for him to arrive at his most recent AHL All-Star Classic last week in Portland, Maine.
Hensick, a third-round draft choice by the Colorado Avalanche in 2005, was in the middle of a five-game road trip with the Monsters when he learned of his selection to the PlanetUSA AHL All-Star team.
Lake Erie played a pair of games in Abbotsford, B.C., on Jan. 15 and 16, just prior to the All-Star Classic, which occurred on the other side of the continent Jan. 18-19.
The Monsters flew from Vancouver to Chicago, and from there, most players scattered in different directions for the All-Star break. Hensick, six teammates, and the team’s coaching and training staffs were left to continue on to Cleveland, but bad weather canceled their scheduled flight.
With Hensick needing to somehow get to Portland, the group hopped in a van and drove the 360 miles from Chicago to Cleveland rather than risk another flight cancellation. They arrived late Monday morning.
“The only problem was my equipment was still in Chicago,” Hensick recalled. “So we had to wait. I missed my flight in the morning from Cleveland to Portland while waiting for the equipment, and it finally showed up around 11:30 or 12 (on Monday).”
Hensick quickly ran to the rink, gathered his things, boarded a new flight from Cleveland to Boston, and caught a two-hour ride north to Portland in the snow.
He arrived as the Skills Competition was already underway and got half-dressed – only to find out he had mistakenly packed two right skates.
Undaunted, he managed to track down a correct pair of skates and made it onto the ice in time to participate in the final two skills events.
“It was like one thing after another… Once I got there, I had a good time, it was relaxing, but getting there was (an adventure).”
That Hensick was even in a position to participate the AHL All-Star Classic may have been met with surprise if you had told him at the outset of the season.
After an All-Star showing as a rookie for Lake Erie in 2007-08, Hensick spent the bulk of his sophomore campaign with the Avalanche and contributed 21 points in 61 games last year. The experience of spending a full season in the NHL – and being around Avalanche icon Joe Sakic – was a dream come true.
But after being scratched for all but seven of Colorado’s contests over the first two months of this season, Hensick was assigned to Lake Erie on Nov. 26 to get in some game action as much as anything.
“It was frustrating getting sent down, but I think it might have been more frustrating (being scratched so often in Colorado),” Hensick said. “You want to play, whether it’s in the AHL or NHL, you just want to get to play. The news wasn’t so shocking to me, because I knew something was going to happen.”
Hensick added that he was excited about the prospect of not only playing, but playing a heavy load of minutes for Lake Erie. He’s taken full advantage of the time thus far, racking up 35 points (nine goals, 26 assists) in just 26 games to move into a tie for first on the Monsters’ scoring list.
After going scoreless in his first two games back with the Monsters, the Lansing, Mich., native and University of Michigan product has picked up a point in 20 of 24 contests since.
“Points-wise, that stuff will just happen if you play the right way,” Hensick said when asked about his consistent production. “I think the biggest thing for me is moving my feet, skating the way I can skate, and when I do those things, I usually find myself in scoring chances. I don’t necessarily focus my attention on getting points, but (they seem to come) if I’m playing at the top of my game.”
Since returning to Lake Erie, Hensick has benefited from being reunited with first-year Monsters head coach David Quinn. The two met when Quinn was involved with the U.S. National Team and Hensick was suiting up for the under-18 squad from 2001-03.
Though Quinn never directly coached Hensick at that level, they developed a working relationship and were already familiar with each other when Hensick arrived in Cleveland this year.
“(T.J.) is an offensive threat every time he’s on the ice, but the thing that’s most underrated about him is his hockey strength,” Quinn said. “He’s very hard to knock off the puck, he’s got a low center of gravity, and when he has (the puck), usually good things happen.”
Hensick says the tutelage and attention given him by Quinn has been as much of a reason as any for his success in the AHL this year.
The two regularly break down video in an effort to fine-tune Hensick’s strengths – speed, agility, and playmaking ability – and improve on his defensive game and his play away from the puck.
Quinn and his staff frequently reinforce to Hensick that the NHL game is so fast now that pressuring the puck and constantly moving are more important than ever.
“Having him as my coach has helped me a lot,” Hensick said of Quinn. “He’s pretty personal with me, helps me out (a lot) when need be.”
The 24-year-old Hensick is blossoming this year playing on the Monsters’ top line alongside Darren Haydar – one of the most decorated AHL players of his era with two Calder Cups and rookie of the year and league MVP awards on his resume – and Ryan Stoa, who is tied for the AHL rookie lead with 18 goals.
While acknowledging that he wasn’t immediately in the greatest state of mind upon his return to Lake Erie, Hensick appreciated the opportunity to play with a talent like Haydar.
His coach doesn’t mind having the potent combination at his disposal, either.
“When you have a guy like that and you can put him with Stoa and Haydar, when they’re on, that’s as good a line as there is in the league,” Quinn said.
“Having him come down here and be able to put him in as our first-line center, play with those two guys, gave us a line that every time they’re on the ice, the other team had to be concerned.”
Quinn also noted that Hensick’s presence and subsequent production seemed to energize the entire team, and everyone began to elevate their games.
And Lake Erie has been rewarded in the standings. The Monsters, who were in last place and eight points back of the field at 9-17-0-3 on Dec. 19, have gone 12-4-0-1 in 17 games since to pull within three points of a playoff spot in the North Division.
“Confidence for us is huge,” Hensick said. “If we can play with the same confidence, we’re capable of beating anyone in our division… and can challenge for a playoff spot.”
Growing confidence sure has been a theme this season, for Lake Erie as a team and for Hensick as an individual.
He’s having the type of campaign that he hopes will springboard him back to the NHL for good. When that happens, you can bet it will take more than a minor travel issue to rattle him.