September 14, 2012 7:20 AM
He knew this might happen, but the wait still didn’t come easily for Justin Soryal.
Recently cleared to resume playing hockey after breaking a bone in his leg in March, the 25-year-old forward signed a new one-year AHL deal with the Checkers on Friday. Previously, the team’s reigning penalty minutes leader and resident enforcer had spent the summer as a free agent hoping to find a place to play - a difficult proposition for someone not able to skate.
“No one’s going to sign you when you’re hurt,” said Soryal, whose 164 penalty minutes last season were right in line with his average over four AHL seasons. “The fact that I didn’t clear until three weeks ago meant that I was seeing guys with similar roles signing contracts all summer.”
In the end, he got what he was hoping for. Though his previous contract with the Hurricanes expired back in July, it turns out that the only thing preventing him from getting a new one from the organization was the final seal of approval from doctors.
“The entire time Charlotte and Carolina told me that they were interested and that I just needed to get cleared,” he said. “Once that happened, it was pretty simple.
“All the conversations that my agent was having with the team said that once I was able to play, there would be a job for me.”
Still, it was a long process to get to that point. He had to use crutches for six weeks after he first suffered the injury and could only gradually begin to rehab over time. Even when he was finally able to resume regular motion, he still had to build up the strength to be able to skate as he normally would.
“When you don’t do something for a while, it’s crazy how fast the muscle disappears,” said Soryal.
Since receiving the green light, he’s been skating competitively with a group of fellow pro players back home in Ontario and has reported no issues whatsoever.
“It feels good to go,” he said. “It was a slow process sitting and waiting, and it’s been nice to get that strength back and start feeling like an athlete again.”
To this day he’s not sure exactly how his collision with Mike Duco of the Chicago Wolves resulted in a break of his tibial plateau, which is located at the top of the shin. He said he knew right away that something wasn’t right, but the lack of previous experience didn’t fully prepare him for the level of severity.
“Usually my injuries are from fighting,” said Soryal, who dropped the gloves 13 times last season.
However, the seriousness of his situation quickly became apparent, as did the reality of missing the team’s stretch run and having to enter the free agent period still months away from recovering from a significant injury. At the very least, concerns about his long-term health were alleviated by conversations with several players who had previously suffered different injuries to the area surrounding their knees, including then-teammates Chris Durno and Mathieu Roy, and reported no lasting effects.
Naturally, the biggest comfort came in his reassurances from the team. Coach Jeff Daniels, who personally pitched the idea of signing Soryal to Hurricanes management the previous summer due to his ability to play the game as well as police it, was complimentary of his play throughout the season, maintaining those thoughts even after the injury.
“As soon as the season ended, Jeff told me that I did my job the way they were hoping I would,” said Soryal. “As the season went on he showed more and more trust in me, and it’s just a snowball effect for your confidence.
“There are guys in my role that have to be healthy scratches or kept off the ice because they’re a liability, but I feel like I can be in every game.”
The fact that the organization never filled that particular role shows that they were serious about re-signing Soryal and picking up where both sides left off after an initial season that proved to be a good fit for both parties.
“I don’t want to say I’m an old guy because I don’t feel old, but Charlotte is a young team with a lot of skill,” said Soryal, who quickly assumed a leadership role last season. “Not that the team is a target, but we need that grit to make sure those guys can play their game.”
With the injury behind him, Soryal, whose 10 points tied his career high from his rookie season, hopes to continue filling that role on a nightly basis, effectively picking up where he left off.
Early indications are that his return will be well received.
“Over the summer I’ve been talking to people on Twitter and Facebook, and when the fans, your teammates and the team all want you back, that’s huge,” he said. “There’s no better feeling than that.”