SPOTLIGHT: CHAD KOLARIK

Bruce BerletBY: Bruce Berlet

One of the Beatles’ most famous songs in a litany of platinum recordings was entitled “The Long and Winding Road.”

The creation of songwriters Paul McCartney and the late John Lennon was released 16 years before Chad Kolarik was even born, but the Connecticut Whale wing can certainly relate.

The 26-year-old Kolarik skated with the Whale on Tuesday for the first time since he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in New York Rangers training camp Sept. 20. Kolarik had surgery Oct. 5 and then began that long and winding road back with intensive rehabilitation under the guidance of Whale athletic trainer Damien Hess and strength and conditioning coach/trainer Mark Cesari.

Kolarik also received a very helping hand from college sweetheart Kylee Botterman, a gymnastics star at the University of Michigan whom he married in July during an upbeat offseason in which he also signed a new contract with the Rangers after a promising four games on Broadway and getting 17 goals and 14 assists in 36 games with the Whale after being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets for former Hartford Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers.

But Kolarik’s optimism hit the ice hard when he caught a rut in the ice on the fourth day of Rangers camp and suddenly faced six months of rehab. He quickly became indebted for the support and advice on how to handle such a major injury from Whale defenseman Jared Nightingale, who tore an ACL when his skate caught a rut on a seemingly innocent hit during his rookie pro season (2006-07) with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads.

Kolarik attended most home games with Kylee – at first on crutches – and watched road games on the AHL website until he recently began traveling with the team. He began skating on his own a few weeks ago, resumed practicing Tuesday and hopes to return to the lineup in three or four weeks so he can play a few regular-season games and help the Whale reach the playoffs for the 14th time in their 15 seasons.

“It feels good, but I’m not obviously all the way there yet,” said Kolarik, who spent time after practice Thursday working on his shooting with assistant coach Pat Boller. “I still lack a little quickness, but I’m working on it every day in the weight room. I’m trying to get back as soon as possible, but I don’t want to rush things either. Once the doctor gives me the OK, we’ll reassess things.”

Kolarik wore a yellow, non-contact jersey on Thursday, but he’s upbeat again after sometimes long and torturous rehab sessions in which he focused on small goals and gains. He even finished second in the post-practice shootout contest to defenseman Wade Redden, who returned last weekend after being out two months with an injury sustained in a 2-1 shootout loss to Providence on Dec. 17.

“I think my strength is good,” Kolarik said. “It’s obviously not 100 percent, and I don’t think it will be until training camp because they said it usually takes about a year to get your full strength back. But it’s just nice to be back. I feel a little lost out there when we’re doing the 3-on-1s and 3-on-2s and thinking a little too much, but just getting back into game situations is nice.

“It was hard going to the rink on Friday and Saturday and Sunday and not being able to play, having to sit in the (Whale) suite and watch. I’ve tried to be as much a part of the team as I can, be the biggest cheerleader that I can be. The best part of being back is being with the guys and feeling a little more part of the team with the camaraderie in the locker room and the camaraderie on the ice. That’s why you play hockey. You take it for granted when you’re playing, and you appreciate it even more when you’re not playing, so it’s just good to be out there.”

Kolarik said the hardest part of the injury was the mental side.

“Do I think I could play now? Probably,” Kolarik said. “Mentally? No. I’m not going to get any stronger until the ACL heals. It’s just mentally going out there and not being hesitant. I’m definitely non-contact, but I just ordered my brace and should have that in on Monday.”

While things have begun to get back to normal, the return of a four-year pro with 201 AHL games and six NHL games of experience will be a bonus for the Whale down the stretch and hopefully into the postseason.

“He’s anxious, enthusiastic and just happy to be back with the guys,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “Getting him back would be a real good boost. He can do a lot of things in all situations. He can skate, the puck jumps off his stick and he makes good plays. But we’re just going to let him adapt to what he thinks he can do each day.”

WHALE LOOK TO START NEW STREAK

After a 4-3 loss at Providence on Sunday ended an eight-game point streak (7-0-1-0) in February, the Whale will be looking to rebound and retain their Northeast Division lead when they face the Pirates on “Hometown Heroes Night.” All active duty military personnel, veterans and their families can purchase Upper Level tickets for $10 and Lower Level tickets for $15.

The Whale (26-17-5-5) beat the Pirates 3-2 on defenseman Brendan Bell’s goal at 3:29 of overtime on Nov. 23 at the XL Center and lost 5-4 in overtime on Jan. 2 and 4-2 on Jan. 18 in Portland. Veteran center Kris Newbury has regained the team scoring lead with 48 points (19 goals, 29 assists), one more than All-Star rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (18, 29). Rugged right wing Andre Deveaux is third (17, 18), followed by All-Star wing Mats Zuccarello (11, 23) and new center Casey Wellman (17, 15), who has three goals and four assists in eight games with the Whale since being acquired from the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 3 for Rangers center Erik Christensen and a conditional seventh-round pick in 2013. Chad Johnson (15-10-5, 2.43 goals-against average, .919 save percentage, one shutout) started every game during the point streak. Cam Talbot (11-12-0, 2.92, .904, two shutouts) remains the Whale’s other goalie as Jason Missiaen was reassigned to Greenville of the ECHL on Wednesday. Bell missed the last two games after being injured in a 6-3 victory over Springfield last Friday night. Falcons center Cody Bass received a three-game suspension for charging Bell and will miss games against Bridgeport on Friday night, the Whale on Saturday night and at Portland on Sunday.

Center Brock Trotter, who is out indefinitely with a suspected concussion, leads the Pirates (24-23-3-3) in scoring (14, 24) and against the Whale (2, 3) and has 12 goals and 19 assists in 35 games since being acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes with a seventh-round pick in June from the Montreal Canadiens for forward Petteri Nokelainen and defenseman Garrett Stafford on Oct. 23. Trotter is followed by All-Star rookie center Andy Miele (10, 25), the Hobey Baker Award winner last year with Miami of Ohio, right wings Brett MacLean (18, 14) and Patrick O’Sullivan (9, 19) and Oystrick (9, 19), who scored power-play goals with 30 seconds left in regulation and 33 seconds left in overtime to give the Pirates a 5-4 win over the Whale on Jan. 2. The goaltending is being handled by veteran Justin Pogge (11-11-3, 3.10, .890) and rookie Marc Cheverie (3-2-0, 3.46, .889), who grew up playing with Sidney Crosby. The Pirates will also be without former Rangers and Wolf Pack wing Ryan Hollweg, who was scheduled to have surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee on Thursday, and defensemen Michael Stone and David Rundblad and forwards Alex Bolduc and Matt Watkins, all of whom are on recall. On Wednesday, the Coyotes acquired veteran center Antoine Vermette from Columbus for goaltender Curtis McElhinney, the 2012 second-round pick that the Coyotes acquired as part of the Kyle Turris trade and a 2013 fifth-round pick. If the Coyotes, coached by former Hartford Whalers center Dave Tippett, win a playoff round, the 2013 pick becomes a fourth-round selection.

The Pirates have lost two in a row, five of six (1-4-1-0) and eight of 11 (3-7-1-0) since a four-game winning streak in late January.

“We’re finding ways to lose,” Pirates coach Roy Edwards said after the loss Monday. “We’ve got a mentality right now that isn’t right, and until that changes we’re going to struggle.”

Acquisitions before the NHL trade deadline at 3 p.m. Monday could help the ailing Pirates, but Edwards thinks the loss of Hollweg has been a major loss.

“I think our team is stale, and we’re playing stale,” Edwards said. “Are there some things that we need? I think there are, sure. It would be nice to have some heavier players. We really miss a guy like Hollweg, somebody who can bang players and protect some of our more skilled guys.

“I don’t think the trade deadline means as much down here, and it does up there (in Phoenix). The trade deadline is all about Phoenix and getting the pieces (for them) to make a push. Right now, where we need is wins and if (Coyotes assistant GM) Brad (Treliving) can help us out at the deadline, I’m sure he will, but the priority is Phoenix.”

After facing the Pirates, the Whale visits the Falcons (24-25-2-2), whom they’ve beaten in their last two meetings and against whom they are 7-2-0-1 in their 12-game series this season. Audy-Marchessault has a staggering 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) in 10 games against the Falcons, while Newbury has 10 points (five goals, five assists) in only six games. Center Martin St. Pierre (10, 38) leads the Falcons in scoring, followed by All-Star rookie right wing Cam Atkinson (29, 16), a Greenwich native and former Avon Old Farms and Boston College standout, Giroux (18, 22) and Byers (13, 14). Atkinson leads the Falcons in scoring against the Whale with nine points (six goals, three assists), while Byers has four goals, including last Friday night. Veteran Manny Legace, 39, the Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993 with an 11-17-1 record, 2.74 GAA and .875 save percentage, and rookie Paul Dainton out of UMass (6-4-0, 3.19, .886) are doing the goaltending now.

The Whale is off Sunday and Monday before hosting Worcester on Tuesday at 11 a.m. Fans can purchase tickets on game day for $10 at the Public Power ticket office at the XL Center.

BICKEL GETTING SOME DOUBLE DUTY

A decade ago, Gernander and Craig Weller proved especially valuable commodities for the Wolf Pack at wing and on defense. In fact, when several defensemen were injured one season, they formed one of the most successful pairings on the team.

Stu Bickel, who started the season with the Whale, has become similarly valuable for the Rangers. Though he usually plays the fewest minutes on the team, coach John Tortorella has been using the defenseman at right wing the last six games after Ruslan Fedotenko sustained a suspected concussion when hit in the head by former Wolf Pack and Rangers center Dominic Moore on Feb. 9. Moore was fined $2,500 but not suspended because he didn’t actually hit Fedotenko in the head, though his blow did cause Fedotenko’s stick to strike his head.

Bickel has even played wing the last two games ahead of Wojtek Wolski since Wolski and defenseman Jeff Woywitka returned from two-week conditioning assignments with the Whale. And even when Fedotenko is ready to play, Tortorella reiterated he wants Bickel to remain with the Rangers so the staff can continue working with him at both positions.

“I think it’s something that intrigues me a little bit because he brings toughness, willingness, he gives us some flexibility and depth in those types of positions, defense and wing, so it’s something I want to explore,” Tortorella said after the Rangers lost 2-0 at Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. “But if you start getting healthy, if Feds is healthy, then I’m not sure what happens. But I want him with us because I want to continue working with him to see where we go with it at both positions … And it’s nothing against Connecticut Whale coach Kenny Gernander. I just want (Bickel) with the National Hockey League team so we can continue working with him at both positions.”

The Rangers (38-15-5), who lead the Eastern Conference and are third overall to the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks with games in hand, visit the New York Islanders on Friday night. The Islanders (25-27-8) are tied for 13th in the conference and were seven points out of the eighth and final playoff spot before games Thursday night, when the Canucks visited the Red Wings.

FORMER WOLF PACK DEFENSEMAN NEARS MILESTONE

When the Portland Pirates visit the XL Center on Friday night, former Wolf Pack defenseman Dean Arsene will be closing in on a milestone.

The Pirates captain is scheduled to play in his 499th AHL game in his 10th season in the city where he played No. 1, though he’s questionable because of an upper-body injury sustained in a 5-3 loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Monday. But if Arsene does play, he could reach milestone game No. 500 Saturday night in Worcester, Mass.

“It’s shocking me to that I’ve played this many games,” Arsene told Pirates director of communications and broadcasting Jeff Mannix, in an article published on theahl.com. “When I first started playing, I was just trying to break into the league. To be able to have played professionally this long is a real accomplishment.”

Arsene went undrafted after a five-year junior career in the Western Hockey League with Regina, Edmonton and Kootenay. He helped Kootenay, coached by former Wolf Pack coach Ryan McGill, win the WHL championship in 2001 and then played with the Charlotte Checkers in the ECHL in 2001-02. He got his first shot in the AHL in his only season with the Wolf Pack, 2002-03, when he had one goal, three assists and 94 penalty minutes in 50 games.

“As an undrafted player, I had to work for everything I got,” said Arsene, who signed a one-year contract with the Phoenix Coyotes on July 6, 2011. “It’s been difficult at times, but I’ve had some really great moments and gotten to play for some really great teams.”

That was especially true at his second stop with the Hershey Bears, where he won Calder Cup titles in 2004 and 2006 and had a major impact on the community, being so popular he earned the nickname “Mayor of Chocolatetown.”

“Hershey is like a second home to me,” Arsene said. “I was fortunate to get to spend six years of my career getting to play for one of the best organizations in the league. I’ve made lots of friends there, both inside the organization and in the community.”

Besides being a leader on the ice, Arsene got involved in community charitable efforts, especially those involving children.

“You never say ‘no’ when someone asks you to see sick kids in the hospital,” Arsene said. “It’s a small amount of time out of your day, and it brings so much happiness to the kids. I really enjoy interacting with them. I’m always happy to do it.”

Arsene previously did it with visits to the UConn Children’s Medical Center in Hartford and has also done it in his new home in Portland, Maine, accompanying teammates to the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital several times this season. Arsene’s leadership is also demonstrated on the ice, where he is now a captain with his fourth AHL team, having previously worn a “C” in Hershey, Springfield and Peoria.

“It’s humbling,” said Arsene, a native of Murrayville, B.C., who has two goals, eight assists and 96 penalty minutes in 48 games with the Pirates. “It means a lot to me that the coaching staffs of each team think enough of you to give you the opportunity to be a captain. It’s a lot of responsibility, and it has its ups and downs, but I’ve learned something from every team I’ve been the captain of. I relish the opportunity to lead and teach young players.”

Arsene said he has special memories from each stop, starting with his first AHL games in Hartford after he spent his first pro season with the Checkers. While with Springfield, he got his only call-up to the NHL, playing 13 games for the Edmonton Oilers in the 2009-10 season. When he was in Peoria, Arsene played in the Western Conference for the first time and saw new cities and arenas.

In Portland, Arsene said he has “never eaten better in my career.”

“There’s a lot of good restaurants in town and my wife and I have gone to a lot of them,” he said. “But there’s so many, you just can’t get to all of them. Portland was always one of my favorite places to play as a visiting player. Now that I’ve gotten a chance to play here (as a Pirate), it’s been a tremendous experience. It’s really a hockey town. The fans expect you to win and they know their hockey. As a player, it makes you want to compete hard for them.”

Arsene has made countless close friendships, especially with Pirates defenseman Nathan Oystrick, whom he played with in Peoria last season. He also has remained in touch with former Wolf Pack wing Chad Wiseman, Graham Mink, Jeff Finger, Brennan Evans and Andrew Gordon, and hopes to stay in pro hockey as long as possible.

“I hope I get to play another 500 games,” Arsene said. “I get paid to play a game. I don’t think there’s any better job than this.”

Here’s hoping there’s always a place for a guy like Arsene, one of the hardest-working, hard-nosed and most upbeat players in the game.

HOCKEY ’N HEELS LADIES NIGHT ON WEDNESDAY

The Whale is hosting its first Hockey ’n Heels Ladies Night on Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Russian Lady in Hartford. Appetizers and drink specials will be available as several Whale players will be on hand to offer insight on hockey.

Doors will open at 5:30 p.m., and $35 tickets will include a ticket to the Whale game against the Sound Tigers on March 9, a picture with the players and a Hockey ’n Heels T-shirt. Fans must be at least 18 years old, and tickets must be ordered by Monday. For more information or to order tickets, contact Ashley Ford at 860-728-3366 or Ashley.ford@ctwhale.com.

College students can get discounted Whale tickets to weekday games with a “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket office can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

With Joey McDonald playing so well on recall from Grand Rapids and Jimmy Howard back after missing three weeks with a broken right index finger, former Wolf Pack goalie Ty Conklin was waived by the NHL-leading Detroit Red Wings and assigned to the Griffins. Conklin, 35, was 3-5-0 with a 3.40 GAA and .878 save percentage and was pulled from his last start when he allowed three first-period goals in Edmonton on Feb. 4. McDonald has won six in a row since being promoted Feb. 3 and is 6-1-1 with a 1.66 GAA and .934 save percentage.

Fans can bid on AHL All-Star Classic jerseys, helmets, gloves and pucks at TheAHL.com. Zuccarello, Audy-Marchessault and Atkinson were on the Eastern Conference team, which was captained by former Wolf Pack left wing Boyd Kane, captain of the Hershey Bears.

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