By Gene Pereira
Andrei Svechnikov stood outside the Barrie Colts dressing room at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga going through his traditional post-game stretches.
Fresh off his first game in nearly two months, the talented Russian forward, who is touted to be one of top two selections in the 2018 NHL draft, was sporting his usual friendly grin when he was approached by a familiar reporter. The grin disappeared and a look of frustration came over his face when asked how he felt about his performance in Barrie’s 3-2 win on Dec. 8 over the host Mississauga Steelheads. His right knuckle, sporting a 2-3 inch scar from the surgery nearly eight weeks ago, was just fine. The return to his usual dominating performance on the ice, though, requires more time.
“Yeah, that was a tough game for me, not having played in (two months),” admitted Svechnikov. “I couldn’t find my game and it was hard for me.”
On Monday, Svechnikov and Colts teammate Alexey Lipanov were both invited to take part in Russia’s World Junior Championship selection camp when it shifts to North America on Dec. 17.
On Dec. 9, at the Barrie Molson Centre, in front of a national TV audience on Sportsnet, Svechnikov looked anything like a player trying to shake off two months of rust in Barrie’s 5-0 whitewash of the Oshawa Generals. The 18-year-old collected a pair of impressive assists and was dominant at times.
He would score in the 5-2 loss, Dec. 10, in North Bay, but playing three games in less than three days took a toll on the 17-year-old native of Barnaul, Russia. His game is coming, but work still remains to return to the forward who was turning heads when he opened the year with 10 goals in his first 10 games.
“For sure it’s tough,” said Svechnikov, who, along with his teammates, kick off the final weekend on the OHL schedule before the Christmas break against the Owen Sound Attack at home on Dec.14. “I was a little nervous at first. (Friday) was my first game after surgery. But (the hand’s) OK. I just need to find my game now.”
The return of the star forward to the lineup was a welcome sight for the team and head coach Dale Hawerchuk.
“He’s such a threat all the time,” Hawerchuk said. “He’s missed a lot of hockey here, so the timing of game situations takes a while. You could tell he was getting a little frustrated a couple of times, but he did a lot of good things.”
Hawerchuk added this year’s first overall import pick wasn’t getting his feet moving.
“You kind of lose pace when you’re out of it,” he said. “Once he gets his pace back, he always pushes the pace. There’s nothing more difficult then when you come back from injury and you can work as hard as you want, but there’s nothing like game shape. It’ll take him a little while to get that under his belt.”
Before his return, the last game Svechnikov played before surgery was at home against North Bay back on Oct. 14. But the six-foot-three, 184-pound forward says he actually injured his hand back on Sept. 30 against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
“I fell on my arm and my knuckle moved,” explained Svechnikov, who still managed to rack up seven goals and two assists in the next five games.
He had suffered what is known as “Boxer’s Knuckle.”
“It wasn’t broken,” Colts head athletic therapist and strength coach, Jimmy McKnight, explained. “The ligament that holds the tendon on the knuckle, he tore the ligament. The tendon then sat between the two other knuckles and wouldn’t sit in line, so every time he made a fist it would displace itself.”
Svechnikov had never suffered this lengthy an injury before.
“I couldn’t believe it when I found out I couldn’t play,” he said. “Now I’m so happy I’m back and I just need to find my game.”
He would return to the ice two weeks after surgery, but didn’t start shooting until two weeks ago.
Svechnikov and Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin are considered the top two prospects for this year’s NHL Draft. Dahlin is rated first overall by most draft experts and while the Russian would love to go first overall, he says all he was focused on was getting healthy and back in the lineup as soon as he could.
“I’m not worried about the draft right now,” Svechnikov said. “I just need to worry about today and not the next day. I just don’t worry about that.”
Hawerchuk said there’s a mental side when it comes to dealing with a lengthy injury like that, but he only had to watch Svechnikov day-in-and-day-out to know he would be fine.
“I didn’t even have to talk to him about it,” the coach said. “He was going to use that time to get everything else stronger. We talked about it when it first happened, but he’s not a guy you have to push. He’s pushing everybody else.”
As for a return to his game, Hawerchuk believes Svechnikov should be OK now that he has a weekend of games under his belt.
“I feel for him because I know when I’ve been injured I come back and it’s frustrating,” explained the Hockey Hall of Famer. “Your head is telling you one thing to do and your body is like, ‘Right, I just can’t get there.’ It can be frustrating.”
You can work hard in practice, do all the extras, but returning to true game form can only come from playing games.
“He does work hard, but there’s nothing like a quick twitch,” Hawerchuk added. “You can’t think out there, right? It’s got to be reaction and those muscles haven’t been used for quite a while. Once he gets used to it again he’ll be firing on all cylinders.”
Svechnikov wants to make an impact in Barrie’s three games on the final weekend of 2017 before heading off to worlds where he and Lipanov will play key roles in Russia’s drive to capture gold in Buffalo, N.Y. over the holiday season. The idea is get in a few games and he’s back to being that dominant player that Colts fans saw early this season.
“I hope so,” he said, that big grin returning to his face.
- Miranda Zilkowsky Photo