Noah Juulsen is expected to play his first home game of the AHL season on Wednesday night against the Hartford Wolf Pack at Place Bell. He is two games into a return from a 10-month layoff.
The B.C. native was playing his 17th NHL game in 2018-19 when he took two pucks to the face against the Washington Capitals back on November 19.
He would play four more games and three more in the American Hockey League before being sidelined for the remainder of the year with a facial fracture.
“It’s been a long time, as everyone knows, I guess,” Juulsen said after a team practice on Tuesday. “I’m happy and I’m excited to keep playing here.”
“It’s good for him,” Rocket forward Alex Belzile said. “Being out for that long with an injury that was a little bit weird, in a sense. It’s really fun to see him back in the team. He’s a really good defenceman, too. He’s solid back there on the blue line. He’s a physical presence as well, moves the puck well. I think it’s a big asset for us.”
Juulsen had seen a couple of delays in his 2019 start. During training camp in September, he started complaining about headaches, which ultimately was revealed to be a “nerve-related” issue.
“We decided to shut it down,” he said. “We went from there, got a second opinion my agent set up for me. Got some results from there. I’m happy where I’m at right now and I’m feeling comfortable.”
Adding insult to injury — almost literally — the defenceman was supposed to make his season debut against the Belleville Senators on October 23, but an illness kept him from playing.
“It’s just another tough bounce,” he said. “Things happen. I got sick.”
At least he’s playing and on the ice, unlike the 10-month span which saw him away from the rink. He admitted the toughest part was waiting to see when he’d step back in action again.
“It’s tough for sure when you’re sitting there, waiting and there’s not a for sure answer yet [as to] what’s going on. There were days where that sucked. But with friends and family and a girlfriend, we found ways to build around that.
“There’s no timeline for an accident like that, so that was the hardest point for me.”
Through some media reports, it seemed his injury could be career-threatening, but Juulsen said that was never the concern.
“I’ve heard everything,” he said. “I knew that wasn’t the issue. It’s whatever. It is what it is. People are going to say what they want. That’s what people do. They try to get inside your head. For me, I just brushed that off. I knew I was going to be fine in the end.”
Belzile says the team kept the injured defenceman around the team by having him participate in off-ice activities.
“We [saw] him around. He was always trying to hang out with us. If we had team parties he was with us. He was always with us.”
Juulsen eventually played back-to-back games against Hartford and Providence this past weekend. Despite failing to register a point, he says he feels good and couldn’t wait to get back on the ice.
“To get back in back-to-back [games] might’ve helped me a little more,” he said. “With building that endurance back up and making plays on the ice.”
Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard knows that build-up to peak form needs time. “In his case, like with [Michael] McCarron, [Gustav] Olofsson, [Kevin] Lynch, these guys haven’t played last year. So you have to be patient.”
“Coming back for my first game, the timing was a little off, but I kept it simple,” Juulsen explained. “Making the first play, the simple play, and I just went from there.”