By Bob Crawford
By the time T.J. Hensick played his first game in a Hartford Wolf Pack uniform Saturday night in Wilkes-Barre, he had been through a whirlwind of change in the previous 72 hours.
The seventh-year pro center had been over in Sweden, experiencing European hockey for the first time with the Modo club of Ornskoldsvik, before being offered an opportunity to return to North America, on an American Hockey League deal with the Abbotsford Heat, the westernmost member of the AHL.
In order to play in the AHL after starting the season in Europe, though, a player has to clear AHL waivers, and the Wolf Pack took advantage of the chance to bolster their offense with Hensick’s skills, putting in a waiver claim and thereby changing the former Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blue’s destination to the far eastern edge of hockey’s top development loop.
“It was a long three days,” Hensick said Sunday in Bridgeport, before he suited up for his second game with the Wolf Pack, “but I’m excited to be back in the American Hockey League and be in Hartford. It’s a good feeling when you get claimed off waivers, it means the team obviously wanted you. It just feels good to be back in North America and in the American Hockey League.”
Playing with the Wolf Pack is likely to be a different experience, though, than Hensick’s earlier AHL stops. Having logged a total of 321 previous AHL games with the Lake Erie Monsters and the Peoria Rivermen, Hensick is certainly familiar with the league, but he has never played in the Eastern Conference, meaning that he is going to be seeing a lot that is new to him.
“I’m excited to see the new buildings, play teams that I’ve never played in my seven-year pro career, and see the mix,” he said. “You always hear from the West side that this is a little more physical in the East, or a little more scoring, or the West always wants to be better than the East. It will be fun, it’ll be exciting to see new buildings. The buildings here I think are a little bit newer maybe than the West, but I’m looking forward to it, in every game, every building, every chance to play.”
One thing that Hensick knows will be a definite positive for him is the travel in the Northeast Division, which is much less burdensome than what he underwent in Cleveland and Peoria.
“I was shocked when they said it was only a 40-minute drive down the highway to Bridgeport,” he laughed. “It’s great, it feels good. You feel energized, you don’t have to worry about waking up early, catching a flight. You don’t have to worry about getting your bags to wherever you’re going. Last year I remember in Peoria I played in Milwaukee on Friday, bused to Chicago to play a game Saturday night in Oklahoma City and then bused from Oklahoma City down to Austin to play Texas. So the travel will definitely be easier, and I’m looking forward to that, for sure.”
The Wolf Pack are certainly looking forward to having Hensick juice up their attack, and his 100 career AHL goals and 337 points in his first six years indicate that he should be a real shot in the arm for Ken Gernander’s crew.
“I like to think of myself as a skilled guy that can make plays, make room for other guys on my line with the hockey sense I have,” Hensick said when asked how he sees himself as a player. “I like to be a guy on the power play that’s a go-to guy that can help the team score there and be a difference. That’s usually been my game in the past.”
Hensick showed exactly those attributes in his first two games with the Wolf Pack this past weekend. The University of Michigan Wolverine product chipped in a goal and an assist in his debut in Wilkes-Barre, then had a helper in the Pack’s 6-3 loss at Bridgeport Sunday. His first Wolf Pack linemates were Jesper Fast and Ryan Bourque, and Hensick has enjoyed that combination.
“Any time you get new linemates, a new situation and a new environment, you definitely have to build some chemistry with your linemates,” he said. “But I think with my skills, and playing with the wingers I played with, I think we’ll be able to create a lot. It’s going to be a chemistry thing, you’ve got to get used to where guys are going to be on the ice at all times and be able to trust the situation.”
As for Hensick’s Swedish sojourn, it turned out to be short, but sweet. After six years back and forth between the NHL and AHL, the timing seemed right to give the European route a whirl.
“It was something in the back of my mind,” he said. “The setting that came up last summer (with Modo), it just felt like the right time to go try it out and see how it went. I enjoyed every minute of my time in Sweden. It’s a great league, just from a personal standpoint, I thought it was better for my career to come back here and be in the American Hockey League and hopefully continue on, next year hopefully find a two-way (NHL) contract back home. But I’ve got nothing to say but good things about the Swedish League. It’s a really good league. Obviously the biggest difference is the ice, the ice is way bigger (in Europe). I felt (Saturday) when I came out for warmups, I thought I was running into guys. That’s the biggest adjustment, but I enjoyed my time, my wife enjoyed her time over there. Just for me, I thought it was best to come back.”
Having been in the Western Conference for his entire AHL career, and coming in from Europe, Hensick had no preconceived notions about the Wolf Pack and its personnel, and his overall first impression is quite positive.
“It seems like a good group of guys,” he said. “Obviously it’s a little nerve-wracking walking into a locker room, especially being claimed off waivers, being a veteran guy. You don’t know where the mindset is, the mood. You don’t want to be the guy that disrupts anything, but it seems like it’s a great mix, and I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone a little bit better as the season goes on.”