John Albert looks pretty much the same as he did last season, with his boyish smile and his hockey mullet. But he feels a whole lot better.
"Everything's good right now. It's really good," said the 24-year-old St. John's IceCaps forward, who missed more than 50 games in 2012-13 due to injury, much of it because of a mysterious back problem.
The St. John’s IceCaps’ John Albert takes a hit from the Hamilton Bulldogs’ Frederic St. Denis during an AHL game at Mile One Centre last season. After a nagging back injury and a late-season broken hand limited Albert to just 24 games last year, the 24-year-old forward showed up at this year’s training camp feeling healthy and positive about the season ahead. — Photo by Jeff Parsons/St. John’s IceCaps
"This is always an exciting time of year, getting ready for a new season, but it's so much better when you're feeling right and the doctors are telling you everything is OK."
Albert, who became a St. John's fan favourite as a rookie in 2011, was looking for a strong follow-up sophomore season when he took a hit from behind during a game in early November of 2012. After a day off, he returned to action, but found that every time he was body-checked, he was left in excruciating pain.
By the end of that month, he was shut down until the new year, even though doctors weren't really sure what was causing the problem.
He returned in January, but so did the problem and within a week or so, he found himself on the IR once more. Albert tried again in March, but in his first game back, he suffered a broken hand and his season was done.
"The hand is fully healed and the doctors say the back is fine, too," said Albert, "although they never officially knew the cause, because the MRI didn't really show anything.
"They just knew I was in pain anytime I got hit."
However, he said a chiropractor later suggested the problem stemmed from his first rib being out of place.
"I don't know if I'm explaining it right, but from what I know, when you breathe, that first rib moves up and down, and when I got hit from behind that first time, that rib got stuck," said Albert. "So when I would breathe, it wouldn't move. When I wasn't playing, it was fine, but any time I got hit, it was touching on a nerve. Therapy freed the rib and got it back into it's normal position."
Albert not only got an off-season thumbs-up from medical personnel, the native of suburban Cleveland also received one from the parent Winnipeg Jets, who signed him to his first NHL contract; he had operated under AHL-only deals for his first two pro years after leaving Ohio State University.
He says that contract was never promised him by the Jets. There was only the understanding that it could be there if he merited it.
"It was more a case of me knowing I had to keep working hard and them seeing the potential in me," said Albert. "I wasn't expecting anything to be given out. So, after the year I had last year, I'm glad for what they've done, for the faith they've shown in me.
"Now, I just have to show they were right in giving me that contract."
IceCaps' head coach Keith McCambridge has expectations of that happening.
"I'm looking to see if he can regain the way he played for us in his first year. A real close second to that is looking for him to stay healthy," answered McCambridge when asked about Albert.
"Last season, with that (back) injury and then with the broken hand, it was pretty close to a write-off.
"Now, he has chance to put himself back up to the level he was at when he finished that first year in St. John's."
Albert has played just 88 professional games, but in terms of IceCaps' seniority, he's pretty high up the pecking order. In fact, of the 36 players who have been assigned to the St. John's camp this week, he's one of only three - Carl Klingberg and captain Jason Jaffray are the others - to have dressed for the IceCaps' very first regular-season contest two years ago.
"I still feel sort of young. I'm still young for hockey, I think. It's my third year, but technically, I've played less than 90 games in the AHL. But I do know what to expect in this league and that's important to be able to pass on to newer players," he said when asked if he felt ready for more of a leadership role on the team.
First and foremost, McCambridge wants Albert to stay healthy, but feels as long as he can stay in the lineup, the sergeant's stripes will naturally appear.
"If he can get back to that level I talked about - and the first impressions on seeing him in camp here and in Winnipeg are that he's close - just the way John Albert plays, his work ethic, how hard he competes, his commitment to doing the little things that not everyone is willing or likes to do, which is blocking shots and finishing checks, that makes the guys around him better," said the coach.
"That brings leadership. That's a player other players follow. He's still a younger guy, but he's one who has the ability to show those leadership skills not just on the ice, but in the room, too."