Aeros hoping for spark from captain’s return

By Andrew J. Ferraro || AHL On The Beat Archive

reitz2_200.jpgErik Reitz has not had the kind of career he envisioned growing up in Plymouth, Mich.

Like many budding hockey stars, Reitz had dreams of making it to the top hockey league in the world – the NHL – and staying there.

Although things have not worked out that way for the 25-year old Reitz, he still dreams of getting that permanent call from the Minnesota Wild brass. But for now, he is doing just fine helping a young Houston Aeros team find its way in the American Hockey League.

Under the guidance of first-year head coach Kevin Constantine, Reitz is learning more than ever. He looks good on the ice and is playing smarter – two things that will get him ever closer to taking that next step.

He scored five goals in his first 13 games – just four shy of a career high. And then he got hurt.

Reitz was less than a month into his best season when an upper body injury forced him off the ice and he’s been on the sideline for all but one game since Nov. 10.

The captain from the get-go, Reitz was quickly forced to lead from the sideline. The Aeros got off to a slow start and are still the last place team in the AHL’s West Division. But they have one of the best home records in the league (8-4-0-1) and are just three points away from fourth place in the AHL’s toughest division.

But there is good news.

Reitz is expected to take the ice when the Aeros open up a series of seven straight games away from home this weekend at Manitoba.

For the better part of a week, he has been working to get back on the ice. He is comfortable in practice and is ready to test it at in-game speed.

Reitz thought he was better when the Aeros took the ice for a 5-1 win over the San Antonio Rampage on Nov. 20. But it did not take him long to realize he should not have been on the ice.

“Yeah, I realized in the middle of the game that I should not have been playing,” he added.

In his last game at full strength, Reitz scored a goal, added an assist and took seven shots in a win against the Worcester Sharks. With five goals and nine assists, Reitz remains the teams leading scorer and wants back on the ice as soon as possible.

“Every time I got to a game, I want to play,” Reitz said. “Now that I am back, I just can’t wait to get out there. Hopefully the guys will keep playing the way they have been playing so that we can keep this thing going.”

One thing the Aeros need if they are going to be a real contender (just one year after missing the playoffs for just the second time in team history) is to play better on the road.

The team had points in their first two games at Iowa and San Antonio, but since then the Aeros have one just once in their last six games outside the state of Texas.

reitz_200.jpg“I think me coming back for the road trip will add some leadership out there,” Reitz said. “I have been down here for six years, so I know what to expect. I know what these road teams – especially Manitoba – and what all these teams are going to bring. I think I will be able to go out there and lead by example and show everyone that we need to be a better road team.”

Houston, San Antonio and Winnipeg are easily the most isolated cities in the AHL. Most road trips involve planes, buses and a little bit of luck to get through. But playing out West certainly has its privileges.

“I have never been here during the hottest part of the year,” said Reitz, who spends the first part of his summer vacation in Michigan before training in Barrie, Ont. “Everyone tells me that I am so lucky, because I never have a harsh winter and I really don’t get a hot summer.”

Another good reason for playing in Houston this year is getting the chance to work with Constantine, the former coach of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils.

“Kevin has been showing me different aspect of my game that I wasn’t focused on before,” Reitz said. “He showed me some things that I needed to clean up and I think I have been able to do that.

“Hopefully because of some of the things that we have been working on this year with my game, I won’t have to be worrying about those next year and I will be able to make the NHL.”

Reitz has suited up for six NHL games, all with the Wild, and is still looking for his first point. Five of those games were played during the 2005-06 season, and when injuries hit the team in St. Paul a year ago, the Wild called up the likes of current teammate Shawn Belle instead.

Instead of worrying too much about why he wasn’t picked and why he didn’t get a better look a year ago, Reitz is out to prove that he can play in the NHL.

“I have been learning as much as I can,” Reitz added. “And the coaches that we have here right now have a plan, they make us work every day and we know they are doing everything they can to help us get better.”

Andrew J. Ferraro covers the Aeros and the AHL for the Houston Chronicle.