Saturday, August 04, 2007

North Stars’ Heineman a year older, wiser

Twelve months ago, Traverse City North Stars defenseman Chris Heineman was a 16-year-old North American Hockey League rookie, the youngest player in the league outside of Ann Arbor.

According to the New Boston product, it took him more than a month just to feel comfortable in his new environs and level of competition.

“I was a bit nervous, no question,” explained Heineman. “I mean, when you’re 16, you don’t necessarily have all that much in common outside the rink with 20- and 21-year old teammates. We were well into October before I really felt like I had my legs under me.”

Oh, what a difference a year makes.

After a two-goal, eight-assists rookie campaign, Heineman is ready to take the next step, and new Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo has taken note.

“He may be the top-performing defenseman at this weekend’s camp,” said Palumbo on Saturday before the 6-foot, 183-pound blue-liner took to the ice with his Blue Team teammates at Centre ICE arena. “He’s ready to step it up a level, to carry a bigger load. He also lost 7-10 pounds this summer and came into camp in great shape. That tells me he’s in the proper frame of mind – and body - to go after a college scholarship.”

Heineman’s summer workout regimen included two-mile runs every other day, intensive weight training, and numerous sessions with the U.S. National Team’s speed skating instructor.

“I just want to do the best I can and try to contribute to a winning season,” stated Heineman, a 3.4 GPA student who will enter his senior year at Traverse City Central High School this fall. “There’s a lot more accountability this year with the new staff, a lot more is being demanded of us on and off the ice, and I’ve really tried to embrace that.”

A 2006 draft choice (eighth round, 151st overall) of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves, Heineman describes himself as a ‘stay-at-home’ defender who doesn’t have to score to be effective.

“I don’t have to join the play,” he said. “I have to win my battles along the boards and not let anyone get past me with the puck. I try to focus on playing in our own zone and keeping shots off our goalies.”

Palumbo appreciates the defensive-mindedness, but won’t limit Heineman to his own end of the ice.

“Yeah, Chris can be called more of a stay-at-home guy, but it’s not like he’s not capable of chipping in with some offense, too. He’s ready for more responsibility, and we’re going to give it to him. He’s a good kid, a good student, and the sky is the limit for what he can do.”

Heineman unsurprisingly survived Saturday’s round of cuts and will compete in Sunday’s Blue & White All-Star game. Beyond that, his personal goals for 2007-08 take a back seat to team goals.

“We need more of a ‘team’ atmosphere, more of a bonding between the guys,” said Heineman, who toiled for Honeybaked’s midget program before joining the Stars. “I can see that happening already, and it should only get better. We had a lot of (personnel) turnover last year, and we should be a tighter unit this season. If we can achieve that, the wins will follow.

“Forget about last year. We’ve got a fresh start this season, and it’s time to get down to business.”

No comments: