100 Degree Weekly: After Rough Holiday Break, Texas Is Itching to Return to Play

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

After a rough end to December on the health front, the Texas Stars are back on the ice this weekend. No one could possibly be happier about that than head coach Neil Graham.

"We've had some practice time this week to get up and running again and really get back to work," said Graham when reached by phone Wednesday. "There's a genuine enthusiasm and excitement just to get back playing again."

Texas may or may not be back to full strength on Friday, but it will be competitive hockey at H-E-B Center. That hasn't happened since December 18th. "You're probably excited for a few extra days [off] when you think you're playing every game and then all of a sudden you get a couple canceled on either end of that. And now you're like, 'Wow, this is way too long.'"

The Stars had 15 reported cases of COVID among the players and several more among coaches and support staff. Graham was one of them. "It was a couple of tough days, but it got better each day," he noted. He had to isolate from his family, including his two young children, for several days over the holiday, making an already tough situation even harder on the family.

Graham isn't feeling sorry for himself on any account though, "There's been so many hard things that everyone has had to push through the last couple years. I'm talking about everyone in society. But you try and take the positives and you try and look at the glass half full."

With positive cases and several that were also symptomatic, a few players didn't even get back on the ice for practice until Wednesday. Their availability for Friday will depend heavily on their ability to ramp up today and at morning skate tomorrow. Texas ran modified practices last week due to the low number of players available. As players have returned from protocol, they've been able to run full practices this week.

However, if any of those late-returning players can't go, there are new skaters waiting in the wings. The recall of Yauheni Aksiantsiuk and Matt Jurusik as well as the signing of Will Merchant and Evan Wardley will bolster the ranks. Graham certainly noted that he feels for the situation Idaho is in right now as they scour the earth to find players for their on-going schedule. The Steelheads signed two former players out of retirement this week, Jeremy Yablonski and Aaron Harstad, to keep their schedule moving ahead.

Personally, I am excited to see Will Merchant get another chance in the AHL. Merchant was on an AHL deal previously but has only played one game with Texas. The former Maine standout scored 48 points in his rookie year with Idaho.

Graham coached Merchant for two and a half years in Idaho and was responsible for recruiting him to the Steelheads out of university. The two reconnected again this past summer at Tomas Sholl's wedding in Boise.

"[It was great] to call him a week or two ago and let him know this could be something that we were looking at. It's all about opportunity and timing, and I think this would be both of those. It's a great chance and he's earned it. I trust him at both ends of the rink. It's always nice to bring in a guy that you have a level of comfort with as well."

Throughout the conversation, Graham continued to pivot back to the excitement level for the team and himself personally at just being back at the rink and the prospect of playing games this weekend.

"Don't take things for granted. When you're finally allowed to get back around your players and your team and they're allowed back, we're excited. We're all excited to see each other and now we want to make sure we turn that excitement into good quality hockey."

Texas plays Manitoba at home on Friday and Saturday night at 7 PM.