By Tris Wykes
The Virginian Pilot
NORFOLK, Va. – “So then,” Jim Henkel said after a recent Norfolk Admirals practice, “I went on my merry way.”
Henkel was speaking of a time when another AHL club cut him, but the phrase fits the Admirals’ utility man perfectly. For not only has he played for 11 teams in the last 10 years, but he’s been happy to be with every one of them, no matter his role.
That he’s playing at all after a severe injury suffered last season is enough to make the 26-year-old Henkel grin. That he’s earned a regular shift in Norfolk as a penalty killer and defensive specialist is gravy.
The ECHL’s 2003 Rookie of the Year after scoring 68 points in as many games, Henkel was doing his best to cement his AHL status with the Lowell Lock Monsters last winter when he absorbed an open-ice hit in a game. The initial contact broke his arm; his face-down landing dislocated his wrist and tore one of its tendons. While most of us can have our hands and forearms form a right angle, the best Henkel’s left wrist can manage is about half that.
Surgery left him with two pins and a screw in his arm and wearing a cast for three months. He couldn’t work out until July or skate until August, and he hadn’t played in eight months when he took the ice at the Admirals’ training camp in late September.
But Henkel had several factors in his favor. First, he’d rehabilitated hard and skated constantly once he could. Second, he previously had played for new Admirals coach Mike Haviland, and general manager Al MacIsaac had liked his work in Lowell.
But perhaps the best thing going for Henkel when he arrived from his native New Jersey was his attitude: upbeat, competitive, gregarious and willing to go with the flow.
If minimal ice time was offered, fine. If he couldn’t yet shoot with authority, then he’d be a defensive demon, breaking up passes, staying in perfect position and beating opposing forwards down ice to the Norfolk net.
“His smarts on the ice have really impressed me,” said Admirals captain Ajay Baines, who made the team six years ago in much the same fashion. “He’s got a good sense of the game. He does the little things well, and that makes him hard to play against.”
Hockey-wise, Henkel had the hard luck to grow up on the Jersey shore, about an hour north of Atlantic City. It wasn’t an area rife with teams or competition, but as a 15-year-old, Henkel earned a spot on the American Eagles, a midget-level outfit coached by a young, passionate Haviland.
Working for a snack-food company by day and coaching by night, Haviland helped Henkel develop to the point he also played high school hockey for Christian Brothers Academy, helping it win three consecutive New Jersey titles.
Henkel then investigated junior hockey, and Haviland pointed him toward a team in Springfield, Mass., that served as a springboard to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a respected NCAA Division I program that has produced NHL players such as Adam Oates, Joe Juneau and Daren Puppa.
The NHL’s Los Angeles Kings used an eighth-round pick on Henkel in the 1998 draft but did not sign him when his college eligibility expired four years later. Once again, Henkel turned to Haviland, who was in his second year coaching the ECHL’s Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies.
Coach and rookie protégé helped the Bullies win the 2002-03 Kelly Cup, and Henkel was off on a roller-coaster ride of AHL promotions and demotions that saw him play in Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Worcester, Providence and Lowell.
“I all but lived out of my car,” Henkel said. “Pack a suitcase and go.”
The ride crashed with the injury last winter, and Henkel counts himself fortunate not to have been forced to retire. The first four doctors he consulted told him his playing days were done. But the fifth thought the damage could be repaired, and Henkel ran with that prognosis.
“A lot of people will be pessimistic in certain situations, and that’s why I think a lot of other guys who got hurt the way I did wouldn’t be playing anymore,” Henkel said. “I don’t know if a lot of people would be willing to go through what I went through to make it back.”
That struggle and his natural love of the game mean Henkel isn’t sweating his contract status. He’s still playing under the professional tryout contract he signed on Oct. 4. Unlike a standard contract, in which a season salary is guaranteed, a tryout pact can be voided any time.
Such a tenuous existence would make many players tentative and irritable, but not Henkel. He’s got a management degree from RPI and figures if he’s cut, ECHL teams will line up to sign him. Sure, the pay will be less, but he’ll still be playing with pucks and riding the bus with his buddies. Life could be a lot worse.
“Jimmy’s contract situation doesn’t have anything to do with his performance,” Haviland said. “It’s more about how many guys we have and what they’re signed to.
“If you’re deserving, it’s tough to get rid of you, and he won’t give you a reason to get him out of here.”