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Abbotsford: Comeback central

by Ryan Pinder || AHL On The Beat Archive

Abbotsford seems to be the breeding ground in some pretty amazing hockey comebacks this season.

In his first year as the Heat’s head coach, Troy G. Ward has the club off to the best start in the franchise’s three-year history, and in the thick of a tight race for the hotly contested West Division, but perhaps more compelling are the improbable comebacks being staged under his watch.

One phrase continues to ring as Ward speaks about the turnstile nature of American Hockey League rosters -– picked over by NHL teams as injuries mount, and personnel changes trickle down. “The Land of Opportunity” is what Ward has dubbed the AHL, and stories from the Heat support his case.

KOLANOS’ COMEBACK

In January 2010, Krys Kolanos saw his season end as damage from an impingement in his hip joint was robbing the dynamic forward of cartilage in the joint.

Then skating for the Adirondack Phantoms, Kolanos attempted to rehab the injury for a month before scrapping that plan, and electing to undergo a complex five-hour microfracture hip surgery that put the former first-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes on an arduous and daunting recovery.

Post-surgery, the Calgary product had to keep weight off his repaired leg for three months to allow the cartilage to return to the joint, before he could begin working back toward his pro-hockey return.

Now 30, Kolanos has compiled over 350 career games in the AHL and NHL, has played two seasons in Europe, and has been a professional since the 2001-02 season. Career highlights include winning gold with Canada at the World Championship in 2003 and having scored the decisive overtime goal in the 2001 Frozen Four that crowned Boston College national champions. Faced with his hip issue, Kolanos could have easily called it a career and nobody would have questioned his decision.

Instead he meticulously followed a rehab program designed by his surgeon that was to take some time to complete but would give him the best shot at a return to full health.

The return took 22 months, costing the veteran a season and a half on the traditional "back nine" of a hockey player’s career. It’s an amount of time that would have defeated the spirits of many, but not the ultra-focused Kolanos.

On Oct. 28, 2011, Kolanos officially returned to pro hockey, playing on a tryout for the Heat in Grand Rapids. He promptly scored three goals, added an assist, recorded seven shots, and in the process alerted the hockey world that he indeed was back in the business of beating goalies, and turning on red lights. And ever since business has been booming.

“It’s very impressive,” said Ward of Kolanos’ return. “One of the great things that we have in life is the passion to do something, and Krys’ passion is to be a hockey player, and more importantly a goal-scorer. He’s has a great passion to do that, and he exhausts every resource he has to become the best he can. He’s intelligent enough to figure it out, but at the same time, it’s an amazing feat to be away that long and then jump right back in.”

Kolanos, who flourished under Ward’s guidance with the Houston Aeros during the 2008-09 season, is enjoying a superlative season in the Fraser Valley; he leads the Heat in nearly all offensive categories, sits in the top 10 in league scoring despite having missed nine games, and has been named an All-Star for the coming AHL showcase in Atlantic City on January 29-30.

Kolanos is working his way toward another shot at the NHL – with which he says he has “unfinished business.”

TAYLOR-MADE FIT IN ABBOTSFORD

Back in his hometown of Ottawa at the end of November, just having been released from his PTO with the Springfield Falcons, Danny Taylor for the first time in his hockey career was unemployed and contemplating what was next.

Having spent the 2010-11 season with the Hamburg Freezers in Germany, the puck stopper who was born in England and raised in Canada had planned on returning to play pro hockey on this side of the pond for the 2011-12 season, but suddenly was without a suitor, despite posting solid numbers over his tryout with his old team, the Falcons.

Less than six weeks later, Taylor is the number one puck-stopper for one of the top sides in the AHL. He has started 12 consecutive games – allowing just 23 goals over the stretch – and sits among the league leaders in save percentage.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

Ward knows it wasn’t easy for Taylor.

“Sometimes you fall into the numbers game in our business, and if teams have enough contracts in line, then you’re there for a little bit, but then the contract guys comeback, or they drop down, and you fall out of favour – and that is the business. I’m sure it was really difficult for him.”

Just as Taylor was contemplating his future in hockey, the Calgary Flames felt the need to add some depth to their organizational goaltending cupboard. The fit seemed natural. With a rookie netminder (Joni Ortio) behind last season’s team MVP Leland Irving, the Flames wanted to find a more known entity to help spell Irving in Abbotsford; Taylor fit the bill.

Taylor’s first start came on Dec. 4, just two days after meeting his new teammates. His debut was sterling; Taylor stopped 25 of 26 earning an afternoon win in Chicago to help the Heat collect their third victory in 48 hours, with Irving watching from the bench.

That night Calgary goalie Henrik Karlsson injured his knee, Irving was recalled, and suddenly Taylor was the man for the Heat.

Taylor back stopped the Heat to an impressive December that saw the team go 9-1-1-0, set a franchise mark with six consecutive wins, and close the gap on the AHL-leading Oklahoma City Barons, all despite a half dozen call-ups by the Flames, the injury bug biting the Heat, and numerous ECHL and CHL players littering the Heat roster.

Along the way Taylor has proven he can be a number-one goalie in the American Hockey League.

IVANANS BACK

January 5 was an ugly day for the Calgary Flames. In Boston for the final contest of a seven-game road trip, the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins had their way with the road-weary Flames, winning 9-0.

While there weren’t many positives that came from the loss, the game completed a 15-month journey for Raitis Ivanans, who got back to the NHL.

Concussed in a fight in the first game of the 2010-11 season, and his first game as a member of the Flames, Ivanans’ career was in jeopardy as he suffered from post-concussion syndrome. Ivanans took a heavy punch from Steve MacIntyre in his first engagement in the Battle of Alberta, hit the ice, and didn’t get back onto an NHL playing surface until Jan. 5 in Boston.

Ivanans, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound Latvian who moved to North America for his 17-year-old season in pursuit of his hockey dreams, has amassed over 500 PIM in both the AHL and the NHL. Raitis has carved out a fine professional career as a tough guy, but he’d never suffered an injury of the severity of his head injury suffered in October of 2010.

This past fall, a full calendar year after suffering the injury, Ivanans still hadn’t been cleared for contact on ice, and he missed the majority of training camp with the Flames as a result. On Oct. 21, Calgary sent Ivanans to Abbotsford, where the hulking forward has resumed work on his hockey career.

“There were doubts, but it’s always going to be that way when you miss that long of a period of time,” said Ivanans after his long awaited return to play on Oct. 22 in Abbotsford against the Milwaukee Admirals. “But I’m glad it all worked out, and I’m back on the ice.”

Nowadays, life has gotten back to normal – which in Ivanans’ world means occasionally scrapping with 250-pound men, like Matt Kassian in Houston with whom Ivanans engaged in his first fight with, over a calendar year after his career was up in the air.

Heat coach Tory Ward smiled when asked about Ivanans’ trip to Boston, saying, “To get another opportunity to go up and play in the NHL – that dream coming true – for a 33-year-old man with a wife and a couple of kids it’s pretty cool. It’s a pretty exciting time for him and his family.”

The hulking forward has played a big role in the Heat’s success this season giving the fourth-line an identity and wearing down opponents with physical play. Ivanans ended up finishing the game in Boston with 11:05 of ice time and a relatively sound minus-1 rating for the Flames considering the lopsided final score.

Ivanans was thrilled on game day in Boston. "I can’t really explain it. It feels great. You don’t realize how much you take it for granted when you’re here. When you’re down and come back, you just want to grab it and never let it go."

An immensely popular figure in hockey circles, Ivanans is part of group of veteran leaders on the Heat that have the third-year outfit in the upper echelon of the AHL.

It’s been a season of special comebacks for the Heat. Don’t bet against a few more as the team faces it’s next patch of adversity, they’ve shown they’re able to overcome the improbable.