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Kaleniecki returns at full speed

DULUTH - The last thing hockey players want to do in practice is the first thing Brandon Kaleniecki did when he was permitted to skate again.

In hockey parlance, it's called a bag skate.

The origin of the term isn't clear, but the accepted meaning is two-fold. The pucks are kept in the bag and players skate until they are bagged.

On Jan. 31, seven weeks to the day after having elbow surgery to repair a ruptured ligament, Kaleniecki stepped onto the ice. The Gwinnett Gladiators rookie, who has played in a mere 12 games this season, skated for 20 minutes.

"And that was tough," Kaleniecki said, huffing out a breath.

He said it meaning it was tough being out there for 20 minutes after nearly two months off the ice. But he made it tougher. He could have taken it easy. That's just not Kaleniecki's style.

"No matter what, you give a hockey player a puck and they're going try a slap shot," said Gladiators athletic trainer Megan Guthrie, who was in charge of Kaleniecki's rehabilitation. "Whether they're injured, in pain, whatever, they're going to test it and see what happens. So he wasn't allowed to have a puck for a while.

"But the first day he was out there he bag skated himself for 20 minutes. Himself. I just watched him bag himself."

Kaleniecki brushes off the idea that he went above and beyond the call that day.

"Yeah, I don't know," he said with a little laugh. "I didn't know what else to do I guess.

"I couldn't handle pucks for a while. So there really wasn't much else to do. I figured I've got to do something. It just seemed to make sense."

It's a perfect illustration of Kaleniecki's attitude and his absolute dedication to recovery. It's what had him boarding the bus bound for Texas on Wednesday night with the real possibility of taking his first shift since hyperextending his elbow in a game at Dayton on Dec. 1.

Kaleniecki could play in this weekend's games against the Wildcatters, but if not, he will certainly be in the lineup next Thursday when South Carolina comes to Gwinnett.

Seven weeks after his bag skating session, Kaleniecki's return comes months ahead of the more conservative estimates.

The projection was four to six months. It's been 14 weeks since the 24-year-old went under the knife.

Part of the credit for his speedy recovery goes to Dr. Brian Morgan, who performed the surgery, Guthrie and NovaCare's Dani Ellis, who worked with Kaleniecki when the team was out of town.

"But honestly, it's really Kal and his determination and willpower and focus and unrelenting attention to detail," Guthrie said.

"There was no 'poor-me.' It was 'Hey, this happened and let's do my rehab. Tell me exactly what to do. I'll be here every day.' I had to force him to take days off."

Guthrie has been working with professional hockey players for nine years, including the last five as a head athletic trainer. She's seen all manner of injuries, rehabbed with all kinds of players.

Every time Kaleniecki got another step closer to playing - skating for the first time, practicing for the first time - Guthrie spoke in glowing terms. Much like a doting parent.

"He's first class," she said simply.

It's not only the dedication to rehabilitating his elbow that has Kaleniecki ready to play again. All those weeks off the ice, he was running and riding the exercise bike to keep his fitness level high. It wouldn't have mattered if his elbow was healed if Kaleniecki couldn't keep up the pace on the ice.

"That was actually pretty easy to do because when you're not playing, you have a lot of time," the Michigan native said. "Especially down here because I don't really have a lot of distractions. I'm here to play and my friends are on the team.

"So when they're out of town, it's pretty easy for me to go to the gym to kill a couple hours out of the day."

"It was part just trying to keep myself mentally stable," he said with a laugh.

Kaleniecki has dealt with his fair share of injuries, including surgeries on his hand and knee in college. There's been nothing that kept him out for more than a handful of games at a time, but perhaps he's such a good patient because he's had so much practice. Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle said he might hold Kaleniecki out of this weekend's road games in Texas, but only because of the way Texas plays.

"My fear with Kal is they're going to be donkeys (in Texas)," Pyle said. "I don't think a week's going to make a difference, but against that team, something stupid may happen."

Pyle is pleased with Kaleniecki's recovery, but not surprised.

"He's a very disciplined kid," Pyle said. "When he played, he was one of the kids that picked up our systems early.

"He's been missed."

Which, stated so matter-of-factly, is a great compliment from Pyle.

"I know last week he was kind of worried," Pyle said. "He came to me and asked, 'How do I fit in if I come back or when I come back?'

"I said 'You'll be in the lineup.' Because he'll do the little things well and he'll hit and add a little grit that we don't have. We need him."

An even greater compliment.