FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

The XL Center could have made some serious money selling programs Tuesday if Connecticut Whale practice was open to the public.

Coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daignault and Pat Boller were in scramble mode again thanks to a plethora of injuries and illness that had a substitute goalie in one net and two defensemen playing forward with a junior player rehabbing with the Whale after offseason shoulder surgery.

First, the good news. Veteran Wade Redden and rookie Jyri Niemi, a defensive pairing for much of the season, each participated in a full practice for the first time in at least 10 days and likely will be available when the Whale hosts the North Division-leading Hamilton Bulldogs on Friday night at 7.

Redden has missed six games with a strain in his left side sustained when he took a hard swipe at a one-time shot after having two assists in a 6-2 victory over the Providence Bruins on Jan. 1. Niemi sat out the last two games with an ailing hip flexor sustained in a 3-2 overtime victory over Norfolk on Jan. 8.

“It’s come a long way,” said Redden, who resumed skating last week, including a session Friday in Portland, Maine. “I wouldn’t have skated today if I didn’t feel it was improved.”

Niemi resumed skating about the same time and said, “I’m feeling good.”

Unfortunately for Gernander and the Whale, Redden and Niemi were playing at forward with left wing Andrew Yogan, the New York Rangers’ fourth-round pick in June who had surgery on his left shoulder Sept. 20 and will be with the Whale for several weeks before returning to the Erie Otters, his junior team in the Ontario Hockey League.

“We have six healthy defensemen, and Redden and Niemi are coming back, so there’s an abundance of defensemen and shortage of forwards,” Gernander said.

Redden, Niemi and Yogan were needed to help fill four lines because All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams (undisclosed injury), whose 21 goals are tied for the league lead with former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes, and centers Tim Kennedy (flu) and Todd White (undisclosed) didn’t skate. Neither did rookie goalie Cameron Talbot, who will miss at least games against Hamilton and at Springfield on Saturday night after he sustained a high ankle sprain when a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton player fell on him in the final minute of a 6-3 victory Sunday. Williams and Kennedy are expected back Friday, but White could take longer to recover.

“I mostly just have to let it rest because there’s really not much you can do for it,” Talbot said. “I have full mobility, but it just needs to heal itself. (Trainer Damian Hess) has me in a walking boot just as a precaution to kind of keep it immobilized. I’m just fine walking; I don’t have a limp or anything. But they just want to make sure it doesn’t move too much and maybe make it worse. (Hess) said the hardest part will be going down, so the real test will be the butterfly. If I can butterfly with no pain, then I’m good to go. Hopefully it’ll be less than a week, but we’ll see. Maybe take this week off and hopefully start skating again next week.”

Craig Height, who played at Central Connecticut State University and works at Connecticut Crease at the Champions Skating Center in Cromwell, filled in for Talbot as Gernander was “scouring the globe” for a backup to Chad Johnson. It was more bad timing for Talbot, who is on a 7-1-0-2 roll during which he has stopped 239 of 261 shots and notched his second pro shutout. In his first shutout, a 41-save beauty in a 3-0 victory over the Providence Bruins on Oct. 17, Talbot sustained a groin injury midway through the game and sat out the next seven games.

At that time, Dov Grumet-Morris was called up from the Greenville Road Warriors of the ECHL to replace Talbot (8-3-0-2, 2.38 goals-against average, .920 save percentage, two shutouts), but he isn’t available now because he signed a professional tryout contract with the Grand Rapids Griffins last week. But Gernander “scouring” landed Pier-Olivier Pelletier, 23, the Phoenix Coyotes’ second-round pick in 2005 from St. Louis du Ha!Ha!, Quebec. As a rookie last season, Pelletier was 10-6-3 with the Laredo Bucks of the CHL and Elmira Jackets of the ECHL, and he was 6-9-4 with a 3.33 GAA, .895 save percentage and one shutout in 21 games with Laredo this season.

MCGRATTAN GETS SUSPENDED ONE-GAME FOR HIT ON TESSIER

Bruins enforcer Brian McGrattan received a one-game suspension for his blindside blow to the head of Whale forward Kelsey Tessier on Saturday night. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound McGrattan caught the 5-9, 177-pound Tessier as he skated through the neutral zone with 4:14 left in the game and got a 5-minute major for checking to the head, 10-minute misconduct and game misconduct for leaving the bench and unsportsmanlike conduct.

Whale enforcer Justin Soryal, upset with McGrattan’s reaction as Tessier lay on the ice, came to his teammate’s defense and also received a 10-minute misconduct and game misconduct as he and McGrattan didn’t immediately go to their respective locker rooms.

Gernander, who called the hit “a cheap shot” after the game, sent a tape of the incident to the AHL office, which announced its ruling Tuesday afternoon.

“I don’t get any kind of satisfaction (from a suspension), but you don’t want to see that in the game,” Gernander said. “There’s no cause for it, and it’s fortunate that Tess wasn’t hurt.”

“Whatever the league gave (McGrattan), I’ll accept,” Tessier said. “I didn’t see him coming. I passed the puck to (Ryan) Garlock and wanted to go back to the bench because it was a long shift, but, boom, he came from that (blind) side a couple of seconds late. I think he definitely deserved a suspension. I’m lucky that I didn’t get anything wrong and didn’t get a concussion or didn’t get hurt.

“Those are the situations that have been going on in the NHL, the hits to the head that are a couple of seconds late. I know the job of a big guy like that is to hit, but when he doesn’t hit throughout the game and then he throws one of those when they’re up 3-0, I think it’s a little lack of respect. I think you just have to be smarter out there.”

McGrattan, who has one goal and 66 penalty minutes in 21 games, missed the Bruins game Tuesday night against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

YOGAN FEELS BETTER ON DAY TWO WITH THE WHALE

The 6-3, 202-pound Yogan skated for the first time since surgery on Monday with Redden and Niemi. Yogan, who has one more season left in juniors, participated in the Rangers’ post-draft, rookie and main training camps before the prospects tournament and then deciding to have his shoulder repaired.

“I’d had a couple of fights and figured I’d get it fixed because it was going to fall out if I tried to straighten my arm out,” Yogan said. “There’s no set timetable for my rehab, but I want to get back for the (OHL) playoffs.”

Last season, Yogan had career highs for goals (25), assists (30) and points (55), penalty minutes (97) and games played (63). He has been rehabbing for four months and had a skate to forget Monday when he became ill at the end of the workout under the watchful eye of Boller, who handles the forwards. Soryal and Devin DiDiomete, two of the Whale’s major pranksters, couldn’t resist giving Yogan some friendly grief about the finish of his first day.

“He can’t handle it with the big boys,” Soryal said with a chuckle. “But he made it to the bathroom and got the jersey off in time.”

Being a good sport, Yogan smiled and admitted he had been barely able to finish but had had a much better Day 2.

“I made it off the ice OK,” Yogan said. “The guys have been nice, and I look forward to getting back (playing).”

VIRTUE, HALL VISIT AND SIGN AS WHALE’S HOMESTAND ENDS

A three-game homestand ends for the Whale against the Bulldogs (23-13-1-4) on Friday night, when former Hartford Wolf Pack standouts and close friends Terry Virtue and Todd Hall of Hamden will sign autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m. and then drop the ceremonial first puck. Virtue is an assistant coach with Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League, whose owners include former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid. Hall is an assistant coach with the third-ranked Hamden High hockey team, which won the state Division I title the last two years.

Virtue will be making a pit stop on his way from his home in Tara, Ont., to Worcester, Mass., where he’ll be one of the first six inductees into the Worcester Hockey Hall of Fame on Saturday at the DCU Center. It’s “Salute to the IceCats Night,” the former name of the Worcester Sharks, and Virtue will be inducted with former Whalers wing Scott Young, Kelly O’Leary, Eddie Bates, Larz Anderson and Marvin Degon Sr., father of former Wolf Pack defenseman Martin Degon.

The Bulldogs have won two in a row despite their top two All-Star scorers, center David Desharnais (10 goals, 35 assists) and former New Canaan High School and Taft School-Watertown star wing Max Pacioretty (17, 15), being on recall to the Montreal Canadiens. The remaining top offensive threats are center Ben Maxwell (6, 19), right wings Aaron Palushaj (5, 17) and J.T. Wyman (10, 9), and defensemen Brendon Nash (2, 17) and T.J. Wyman (10, 9). Center Ryan Russell, the Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2005 who never played in the organization, has five goals and six assists and is plus-8 in 39 games. Veteran Curtis Sanford (15-7-1), who will make his AHL All-Star debut next week, is No. 1 in the league in goals-against average (1.74) and save percentage (.938), which improved Friday night when he won a classic goaltending duel with Jean-Philippe Levasseur of Syracuse 1-0 in a shootout. Sanford made 22 saves in regulation and overtime, while Levasseur had a season-high 46 stops. After surrendering an opening-round shootout goal to former Avon Old Farms standout Nick Bonino, Sanford stopped the Crunch’s next four shooters to notch the win. Ben Maxwell and rookie Alexander Avtsin scored for the Bulldogs as Sanford got his third shutout of the season. Levasseur also got credit for a shutout, his third of the season.

It will be a special Family Value Night and “City of New Britain Night” at which New Britain Rock Cats mascot Rocky will be on hand with Whale mascots Pucky and Sonar. There will be an autograph signing with a Rock Cats player and a Rock Cats giveaway, and the New Britain High School marching band will perform the national anthem and during the first intermission. Tickets in the lower level are $16 and include a soda and pizza slice or hot dog. Visit www.ctwhale.com. … The Whale’s eighth Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival, presented by Aetna, is at the XL Center on Sunday from 4-7 p.m. Dinner provided by area restaurants will be served by the Whale players, who will be available for autographs and pictures and competing for “tips” to benefit Gaylord Specialty Healthcare at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford. The event also will include a silent auction and inflatables and games in a carnival setting. Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for children, and walk-ins are welcome. For more information, contact Lori Lenihart at 860-728-3366.

RECORD-SETTING HELMER IS AHL PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Oklahoma City Barons defenseman Bryan Helmer capped a memorable week with the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week Award for getting three goals and three assists and being plus-5 in three victories.

Helmer began the week with two goals and an assist in a 7-2 victory at Peoria, including his 520th career point to make him the AHL’s all-time leader in points by a defenseman. The following night, Helmer had another three-point performance with a goal and two assists in a 4-1 victory over the Rivermen. Then on Saturday night in San Antonio, Helmer was plus-2 as he was on the ice for both of the Barons’ goals in a 2-0 victory.

The 38-year-old Helmer has three goals, seven assists and is plus-5 in six games since signing with the Barons as a free agent on Jan. 7. A native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Helmer has 123 goals and 400 assists in 988 regular-season AHL games over an 18-year career. He is 12 games shy of becoming the seventh player to reach 1,000 games.

The Whale nominated right wing Chad Kolarik, who had two shorthanded goals and two assists and was plus-4 in the first period of Sunday’s win over the Penguins. He set a franchise record for shorthanded goals in a period and tied team records for shorthanded goals in a game and points in a period. Other nominees included Sanford and Sound Tigers defenseman Brett Motherwell. … Whale defenseman Michael Del Zotto also was plus-4 against the Penguins after being minus-3 in both a 3-0 loss to Portland on Friday night and 3-2 loss to Providence on Saturday night. Since being reassigned on Jan. 3, the Rangers’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2008 has four assists, including two that set up game-winners, and is minus-1 in six games. … Eastern Conference All-Star starting goalie Brad Thiessen (18-4-0, 2.12 GAA, .918 save percentage) of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had allowed only six goals on his previous 134 shots faced (.955) before allowing four goals on 10 shots in the first period Sunday against the Whale. … Former Wolf Pack wing and Darien native Hugh Jessiman’s goal at 8:23 of the third period was the winner in Rockford’s 2-1 victory over San Antonio on Monday. It was the third goal in 19 games for Jessiman, who missed most of the season after offseason shoulder surgery. He is the only first-round pick (12th overall) in the 2003 draft not to have played in the NHL. … Charlotte Checkers forward Nick Dodge’s consecutive games-played streak ended at 201 games on Friday. Dodge’s teammate Chris Terry and Grand Rapids’ Jamie Johnson now share the AHL lead at 123 straight games. … The Sound Tigers are 0-5-2-0 in January being 8-3-0-1 in December. … San Antonio (4-0) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (4-0) are the only AHL teams not to lose a shootout this season. … People are still talking about how Norfolk Admirals fans helped 8-year-old Elizabeth Hughes when the microphone cut off midway through her rendition of the national anthem before a game against the Whale on Jan. 7. Classy move by the fans, and the inspiring video is available on YouTube. … Merchandise for the AHL All-Star Classic Jan. 30-31 at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa., is now available at www.ahlstore.com.

WHALERS AND BRUINS LEGENDS FACE OFF FEB. 19

Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, and Brad Park headline the Bruins legends team that will play against the Hartford Whalers legends Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. before the Whale faces the Providence Bruins at 7 p.m. The doubleheader is part of the “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest” on Feb. 11-23 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, where construction of the rink begins Thursday. In case of bad weather, the Whale-Bruins game will be played Feb. 20 at the XL Center.

Other early commitments for the Bruins team are former captain Rick Middleton, who played 12 season in Beantown and two with the Rangers, Reggie Lemelin, Ken Hodge, Don Marcotte, Rick Smith, Bob Sweeney, Lyndon Byers, Cleon Daskalatis, Jay Miller, Bob Miller (no relation) and Ken “The Rat” Linseman, who was a member of the Whalers for a moment as he passed through in a multi-player trade with Philadelphia and Edmonton that included Mark Howe leaving Hartford for the Flyers. Early commitments for the Whalers team are WHA Hall of Famer Andre Lacroix, Bob Crawford, Chris Kotsopoulos, Jim Dorey, Jordy Douglas, Ray Neufeld, Gordie Roberts, Darren Turcotte, Nelson Emerson, Mark Janssens and the Babych brothers, Dave and Wayne. Emile “The Cat” Francis, a coach and general manager with the Rangers and Whalers, will be back behind the bench again.

“This outdoor game is really exciting,” Middleton said while signing autographs with Lemelin before the P-Bruins’ win Saturday night. “There were more than 25,000 people for an alumni game we played the day after the Bruins Winter Classic game (against the Flyers) at Fenway Park, and I don’t think many people knew about it. It was the most people that I ever played in front of. We split up the alumni and had some celebrities on each team, but this will be the Bruins against the Whalers. It’ll be a fun game, but when it gets late, I’m sure the competitive juices will be rising.”

Celebrities scheduled to play with one of the teams include Michael Keaton, Alan Thicke and David E. Kelley, son of New England and Hartford Whalers coach and general manager Jack Kelley and the writer of the 1999 hit film “Mystery, Alaska,” which was produced by Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Howard Baldwin and his wife, Karen. “Mystery, Alaska” cast members slated to appear are Michael Buie, Scott Richard Grimes, Jason Gray-Stanford, Kevin Durand, Fred J. Dukes and Cameron Bancroft, along with Neal McDonogh, Kevin Zegers and the Hanson brothers – Steve, Jeff and Dave – who played for the Minnesota Fighting Saints and were the comedic linchpins of the classic movie “Slap Shot.”

Tickets ($20 to $85) for the doubleheader can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com and the Bushnell box office in Hartford on Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. or by calling the Whale at 860-728-3366. They also can be purchased online and printed immediately at Ticketmaster.com. … Former Wolf Pack forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan were involved in quite different bits of news Monday. Dubinsky was fined $1,000 for grabbing Edmonton’s Colin Fraser from the bench during a Nov. 14 brawl ignited when Avery knocked down Ladislav Smid. Callahan, who has missed 14 games with a broken left hand sustained when he blocked a shot against Pittsburgh on Dec. 15, has been cleared to skate while holding a stick, but he isn’t expected to return until a Feb. 1 game against the Penguins in the first game after the All-Star break. Forwards Vinny Prospal (separated shoulder) and Erik Christensen (knee) are also expected to be back then, so center Kris Newbury and right wing Dale Weise, who are on recall from the Whale, and another player will have to be reassigned to Hartford unless the Rangers make a trade.

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