When Joël Teasdale’s 2020-21 season ended abruptly with a knee injury, it was the second major injury to his knee in his short professional career.
In August 2019, weeks before his professional career was set to begin, he suffered a knee injury in training that kept him out until the season was cancelled due to COVID-19. The next season, he finally made his AHL debut, and had eight goals and 10 assists in 26 games before a second major knee injury on April 23.
Now, almost 10 months later, he is set for another return to the ice when the Laval Rocket take on the Texas Stars for the first of back-to-back games on Friday night.
For the 22-year-old, it would be easy to get negative when faced with the prospect of another long rehab, but Teasdale actually said the second rehab was easier because he knew it was possible to come back strong since he had already done it.
“He was realistic,” said Rocket head coach Jean-François Houle. “Once you get to that point, you have no choice. You need work every day and work hard to prepare to be a professional athlete.”
He practiced on the fourth line with the Rocket this week. With a different head coach from last year and many new faces, on top of the long recovery, Teasdale is getting eased into the lineup. He sees it as a positive challenge.
“I don’t mind starting from the bottom and working my ass off to get to the top,” Teasdale said earlier this week. “I did a good job last year so I know I can do it.”
Teasdale plays a hard game, and is involved physically, in the tough areas of the ice. It would be understandable if a player had concerns about returning, but not for the Rocket forward.
“After my first injury, my style of play never changed and that’s what I plan on doing again,” he said. “I have no concerns about the knee. That’s why we do 10 months of rehab, to come back ready.”
When Teasdale does suit up for the Rocket, he will be wearing a new number, #24. Jake Lucchini had that number when Teasdale joined the Rocket, so he wasn’t able to have it. With Lucchini traded before the season started, he can now go back to the number he’s had for years.
“Apart from last year when I had #14, I had #24 since my first year of Bantam (U15). I developed a relationship with that number,” Teasdale said. “I might be a little superstitious too. With #14 I hurt my knee twice so maybe a change will do some good.”
Also returning to the Rocket lineup this weekend is team captain Xavier Ouellet, who had been out with an upper body injury since November 27.
“I feel really good,” Ouellet said this week. “We had the COVID issue over the holidays so it gave me an extra two weeks to recover. I have no pain, I feel 100%. I’m really excited to get back out there and play some games.”
On top of the role Ouellet plays on the ice, he’s also the team’s leader and will be a welcome sight for Houle.
“He’s an excellent leader,” the Rocket head coach said about Ouellet. “Guys look up to him. He just knows how to play the game properly and it’s good for our young defencemen to look up to him. As a coach, he’s a player who can play any facet of the game and it’s nice to have when you look down the bench.”
Ouellet wasn’t the only key member of the Rocket to miss time over the last two months, but the team is still playing its best hockey. It’s a testament to the players who made the most of their chance, the captain says.
“We have depth and a good team chemistry,” he said. “Injuries give opportunities to other players and they took the chance and had success. Everyone stepped up and it helped the team have success.”
The flip side to Ouellet — and Corey Schueneman, who was sent down by the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday — returning is that some players will lose their spot. As the Rocket roster gets deeper with players being sent back from the NHL or simply getting healthy again, the battle for spots heats up as well.
“It creates internal competition and internal competition is great for any team,” said Houle. “Guys know that any given night if the effort is not there, someone else will take your spot. When you have a team like that it keeps everyone honest and it brings the level of competition higher. They all know what our systems are and what we expect as a coaching staff and they have to adhere to it and if they don’t do it they won’t play.”
One player who is trying to stake his claim to an AHL spot is Laval native Peter Abbandonato. The 23-year-old started the year with the ECHL’s Trois-Rivières Lions, but was called up to the AHL in December. He has a goal and four assists in eight AHL games, and is currently solidly on the team’s third line, replacing the injured Brandon Gignac.
“It’s a chance for me to prove myself,” Abbandonato said. “There’s always guys who want to take your spot in the lineup so you need to keep pushing and working hard.”
As for the chance to play in his hometown, “it’s a dream,” he says. “I’m a hometown boy. Growing up watching the Montreal Canadiens, to put that jersey on is a great moment for me.”
Other than Teasdale, it was also good news for defenceman Josh Brook. He was officially healthy enough to be sent down to the Rocket this week. He started practicing with the team, and while he may still be a few weeks from game action, the team expects him back this season.