FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

By Bruce Berlet

HARTFORD, CTKen Gernander had been all through the routine nearly 13 years ago, but that didn’t make it any easier.

In fact, in some ways, it was harder.

Gernander missed the first two games in his four-year Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale head coaching career last week because of blood clots in his legs and lungs.

“It’s not scary, but it’s dangerous,” Gernander said after the Whale’s morning skate for Wednesday night’s game against the Springfield Falcons at the XL Center. “There wasn’t a moment where it happened. I think it’s been happening for some time.”

Gernander, who returned behind the bench for the first time since a 2-1 overtime victory at Portland on Feb. 21, should know about dangerous. He sustained a pulmonary embolism in the Calder Cup playoff conference finals in 1998, the end of the Wolf Pack’s first season. After the Wolf Pack and Saint John Flames split the first two games in New Brunswick, Canada, Gernander was hospitalized. The Flames swept the three games at the then Hartford Civic Center to advance to the Calder Cup finals, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phantoms in six games.

Gernander said he felt similar symptoms after the Whale’s morning skate Thursday in Charlotte, N.C. He checked into a local hospital that afternoon and didn’t leave town until Monday, a day after the team flew home, but watched 5-1 and 1-0 losses to the Charlotte Checkers on a computer.

“I thought we played better the second night, obviously,” Gernander said. “We worked hard, but the offense was a little tough to come by, and when we did get chances, the goalie (Mike Murphy) was pretty darn good.”

Though the Whale’s playoff drive over the final 20 games was important, the health of the man who has been a player/captain, assistant coach or coach since the inception of the franchise in 1997 also was significant.

“I notice more shortness of breath than I did the first time,” the 41-year-old Gernander said. “And the last time around I didn’t notice any swelling in my legs, and we didn’t find any evidence of any clotting, at least that we could identify.

“Last time I just thought it was an isolated incident, kind of a freak deal, but this time it seems like it’s something that I’m going to have to monitor regularly. But the symptoms are so vague that it’s hard to really get a handle on them. There’s a little swelling in my legs and shortness of breath, but they’re all pretty vague symptoms. You just have to know yourself. If there’s an abnormality, you have to be pretty conscientious.”

Gernander said the clots have to be dissolved by the body, and that could take 3-to-6 months. He has started to take Coumadin, a blood thinner, which he couldn’t take while he was playing.

Gernander’s voice continued to echo through an empty XL Center Wednesday morning during practice, but one of the things that he has to eliminate for now is his post-practice workout skates.

“When I went in (the hospital), things were very vague,” Gernander said. “It was like you’re just not quite yourself. I’m still not quite myself, don’t have the lung capacity that I normally do, but I’m feeling much better.”

The fans of the only Wolf Pack/Whale player to have his number retired (12) are feeling better now that Gernander is out of the hospital and back where he belongs.

MITCHELL JOINS, COUTURE REJOINS WHALE

One of Gernander’s first post-practice duties was a chalk talk session with the team’s two newest newcomers, center John Mitchell and right wing Derek Couture.

The parent New York Rangers acquired Mitchell on Monday from the Toronto Maple Leafs for a seventh-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft. The Whale signed the 26-year-old Couture to a professional tryout contract after he had eight goals, 11 assists and 76 penalty minutes in 25 games with the ECHL’s Victoria Salmon Kings. He had 11 goals, nine assists and 104 PIM in 67 games with the Wolf Pack last season after signing a PTO on Oct. 31, 2009.

“We were reluctant to bring (Couture) back at the start of the season because of his veteran status, but we don’t have that problem now,” Gernander said.

The 26-year-old Mitchell had two goals and one assist in 23 games with the Maple Leafs and one goal and four assists in 10 games with the Toronto Marlies this season. The Oakville, Ontario, native has 20 goals and 35 assists in 159 career games with the Maple Leafs, who selected him in the fifth round in 2003. The 6-foot-1, 204-pound Mitchell also has 42 goals and 67 assists in 215 AHL games with the St. John’s Maple Leafs/Marlies and played in Toronto with longtime friend and All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams, the Whale’s leading scorer.

Mitchell and Williams were in the same draft class in 2003, with Mitchell selected in the fifth round and Williams in the seventh by the Maple Leafs. They played together in prospects camps for three summers and joined the St. John’s Maple Leafs at the end of the 2003-04 season after completing their junior seasons with Plymouth of the Ontario Hockey League and Swift Current in the Western Hockey League.

They then spent time with the Marlies and Maple Leafs before Williams was in Mitchell’s wedding on Aug. 16, 2008. Mitchell will reciprocate in Williams’ wedding on Aug. 6.

Mitchell said he learned about his trade while watching TSN at home with his wife in Toronto. He had requested a deal and was still hopeful even after the 3 p.m. deadline passed.

“I was a little surprised because I literally had no idea it was going to happen, it came out of the blue,” Mitchell said. “My agent and I had asked for a trade because obviously the opportunities in Toronto weren’t happening for me. We were welcoming any opportunity to go somewhere else, but (the Maple Leafs) hadn’t talked to me.

“It went past 3 o’clock, but that’s usually when all the trades kind of filter in, and I was actually the first one (announced) after 3. When my wife and I heard it, we kind of looked at each other, and then 15 seconds later, I got a call from Dave Poulin, the assistant general manager in Toronto. Obviously the opportunity had arisen to get me out of there, and they took advantage of it.”

Mitchell’s playing time had diminished a bit the last few weeks, but he now helps fill a void left by the loss of Kris Newbury (recall to Rangers), Tim Kennedy (trade to Florida Panthers on Saturday) and injures to Todd White and Ryan Garlock.

Mitchell arrived in Hartford on Tuesday night and took a crash course in Whale hockey during and after the morning skate.

“Coach (Gernander) said I’d get plenty of ice time,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also kills penalties and played with Newbury on the Marlies and Maple Leafs.

“They thought I was lonely,” Williams joked about being without Newbury the last few weeks.

GOALIES JOHNSON, TALBOT SWAP PLACES; GRUMET-MORRIS SIGNS AHL DEAL

Goalies Chad Johnson and Cam Talbot swapped places Wednesday, and Dov Grumet-Morris signed an AHL contract with the Whale.

Johnson joined the Rangers for the first time this season, while Talbot returned to Hartford after backing up Henrik Lundqvist in a 3-2 loss to Buffalo on Tuesday night.

Talbot was 8-3-2 with a 2.42 goals-against average and .919 save percentage with the Whale before missing 13 games with a high ankle sprain and then doing a two-game conditioning stint with Greenville of the ECHL, where he was 1-0-1 with a 2.46 GAA. Talbot, who is in his first full pro season after playing collegiately at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, was called up after Martin Biron sustained a broken collarbone in practice on Monday that likely will sideline him for the remainder of the season. Talbot will now share goaltending duties with Grumet-Morris, who was on a second professional tryout contract after spending most of the season with Greenville of the ECHL before signing the AHL deal.

Before Wednesday night’s start, Grumet-Morris was 4-3-1 with a 2.16 GAA and .919 save percentage in 10 games with the Whale. In 24 games with Greenville, the sixth-year pro also was 15-8-1 with an ECHL-leading 2.32 GAA, second-best .922 save percentage and three shutouts, tied for the league lead.

The Harvard graduate was a fifth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2002 and is 12-15-6 with a 2.50 GAA, .915 save percentage and four shutouts in 37 AHL games with six teams. He also is 46-19-5 with a 2.48 GAA, .915 save percentage and three shutouts in 72 ECHL games. Before this season, the 29-year-old Grumet-Morris played two seasons in Austria and Slovenia.

Johnson is 16-19-3 with a 2.72 GAA and .901 save percentage in 40 games with the Whale this season. He was 1-2-1 with a 2.35 GAA and .919 save percentage in five starts with the Rangers last season and is likely to remain on Broadway for the foreseeable future or the Blueshirts will have used up their four recalls after the Monday trade deadline except for defined injury emergency conditions. The Rangers used three recalls Monday by recalling defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forwards Newbury and Mats Zuccarello after they had been assigned to the Whale in paper transactions that would allow them to be eligible for the Calder Cup playoffs.

Johnson is expected to make his first Rangers start this season at Ottawa on Friday night. There is no NHL roster limit after the trade deadline, and the restriction on recalls expires with an AHL team’s final game, including the playoffs.

The AHL’s Clear Day deadline, when all 30 teams must submit their 22-man lists, is Monday at 3 p.m. Only those players listed on a Clear Day roster are eligible to play in the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs unless emergency conditions arise as a result of recall, injury or suspension. Teams also can add signed junior players or players on amateur tryout contracts, but only after their respective junior or college seasons are complete.

FORMER WOLF PACK MOORE MAKES FALCONS DEBUT

The Falcons also had a new face Wednesday night, former Wolf Pack captain Greg Moore, whom the Columbus Blue Jackets acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers/Adirondack Phantoms with center Michael Chaput on Monday for Tom Sestito, who had been on the Falcons’ No. 1 line with center Kyle Wilson and another Wolf Pack captain, left wing Dane Byers.

Moore had seven goals and 13 assists in 57 games with the Phantoms after not scoring in his first 32 games after being signed as a free agent in the offseason. His resurgence coincided with that of the Phantoms, who started the season 4-26-1-1 and remained last in the East Division until last week.

“Adirondack has played good hockey since Christmas, but it’s nice to come to a team that’s in the playoff hunt,” Moore told the Springfield Union-News. “When you get traded, it can be stressful at first, but the upside is, I get a fresh start with a new organization.”

Moore made an immediate impression on his new team as he won a shootout competition in his first practice with the Falcons on Tuesday. The Falcons hoped it was a good sign after losing two of their power forwards and key offensive cogs in Sestito and Byers, who was assigned to the San Antonio Rampage on Wednesday. Ironically, the Whale and Falcons, battling for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, have five meetings left this season, starting with a home-and-home set Wednesday night in Hartford and Saturday night at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.

“We lost a lot of bite (Sestito and Byers) going into Hartford, but we gained a solid guy in Moore,” Falcons coach Rob Riley told the Springfield Union-News.

The Falcons also added right wing Petr Kalus, whom the Blue Jackets acquired from the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday for future considerations and assigned him to Springfield. The 23-year-old Kalus has four goals and one assist in 11 NHL games with the Wild and Boston Bruins. He also has 39 goals, 40 assists and 312 penalty minutes in 203 AHL games, including six goals, two assists and 68 PIM in 34 games with the Houston Aeros last season. He didn’t arrive in Springfield until late Wednesday afternoon and will be available for the rematch Friday.

Kyle Neuber returned from a lengthy stay on the disabled list and was paired with Moore and Michael Ratchuk. Theo Ruth also returned from injury to bolster the Falcons’ defensive corps.

As Gernander and the Whale have learned all season, things change quickly in the AHL.

“A couple of weeks ago, we had plenty of forwards and we were short on (defensemen),” Riley said. “Now it’s the other way around.”

DRURY LIKELY TO MISS REMAINDER OF REGULAR SEASON

The season to forget for Rangers captain and Trumbull native Chris Drury is apparently over – unless the Blueshirts hold on to their precarious playoff spot.

Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather told New York reporters that he didn’t expect the 34-year-old Drury to return before the end of the regular season.

“That’s the biggest question mark (about our injured players),” Sather said. “I don’t think he will be back.”

Drury, who has no goals and four assists in 23 games, had missed a total of 20 in the past eight seasons. After sitting out 31 of the first 32 games with a twice-broken finger, Drury underwent surgery on his troublesome left knee earlier this month.

The Rangers initially said Drury would miss about six weeks, putting him on track to return in late March. But this latest setback shouldn’t come as a surprise in a season in which the Rangers have had a staggering 246 man-games lost to injury with five weeks still left in the regular season, compared to 78 last season. But it is a sad occurrence for a classy guy who suffered through the season from hell. Here’s hoping his teammates can squeeze out a playoff spot and give Drury a final shot to salvage something from 2010-11.

JERSEY AUCTION TO BENEFIT MARCH OF DIMES

March 12 could be a hat trick of pleasure and benefit for Whale fans.

They not only can watch their favorites hopefully win just their second XL Center game since Feb. 4 in a key Atlantic Division game against Worcester, but they also can win players’ jerseys and help a great cause at the same time.

During the game, fans can bid on jerseys on display throughout the evening. Winners will be announced at the end of the game and invited on the ice to receive their jersey, meet the players and have photos taken. Proceeds will benefit the March of Dimes, which works to help develop stronger, healthier babies. The auction has raised nearly $20,000 in the first two years.

“The annual jersey auction has been a great event for our March of Dimes family and the hockey community,” said Deb Poudrier, executive director of the March of Dimes Greater Hartford Division. “The Whale organization has been an incredible supporter of the March of Dimes, not only with the jersey auction but as a March for Babies sponsor and team as well. They truly are a great community partner.”

The March of Dimes is the leading non-profit organization for pregnancy and baby health. With chapters nationwide, the March of Dimes works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality. Visit www.marchofdimes.com or www.nacersano.org for the latest resources and information.

HOCKEY MINISTRIES NIGHT AT WHALE GAME

Hockey Ministries International Northeast is sponsoring 2011 Faith & Family Night at the Whale’s game against the Charlotte Checkers on March 25. Upper bowl seats are $10, and Scarlet Fade will perform a postgame concert. Group tickets should be ordered by Monday.

To order tickets, contact AHL Chapel Coordinator Rick Mitera at 860-817-6440 or rmitera@hockeyministries.org. When someone buys a ticket through Hockey Ministries, they receive a $2 coupon for parking. For more information on Hockey Ministries, visit www.hockeyministriesnortheast.org.

WHALE TO HONOR HOWE FAMILY ON MARCH 26

The Whale will host “Howe Family Night” at the XL Center on March 26 against the Sound Tigers. The No. 9 of “Mr. Hockey,” one of seven numbers in the XL Center rafters, will be lowered and then raised and re-retired as he and his sons, Mark and Marty, whom he played with for seven seasons in Houston and Hartford, look on. The matriarch of the family, Colleen Howe, who died in 2009, will be honored.

“That old (jersey) is a little worn,” Baldwin Jr. said. “I think we’ll have a big crowd. I’m not a morbid person at all. I love Ronnie Francis (the only Hall of Famer to play mostly with the Whalers), but Gordie is the one who put the team on the map. He needs to have the respect of the people coming out to see him, and it’ll be a great opportunity for it.”

Howe’s No. 9 is in the rafters with the Whalers’ No. 2 (Rick Ley), 5 (Ulf Samuelsson), 10 (Ron Francis), 11 (Dineen) and 19 (John McKenzie). Gernander’s No. 12 is the only number to be retired in the 14-year history of the AHL team.

The Howes played together for the first time with the Houston Aeros in 1973 before coming to Hartford and signing with the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers in 1977. Howe ended his legendary 32-year career in the Whalers’ first NHL season (1979-80), when he had 15 goals and 26 assists and was named a NHL All-Star for the 23rd time while helping the Whalers make the playoffs at 52 years old.

Fans who did not attend the Whale’s game against Providence at Rentschler Field in East Hartford because of the weather can redeem their tickets for one to “Howe Family Night” or another game of their choice. If fans want to redeem a ticket, they should contact Baldwin at hlb@whalerssports.com.

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