Thursday, July 08, 2010

Heineman off to Wisconsin-Eau Claire

When Chris Heineman signed on with the Traverse City North Stars back in 2006, he became the youngest player in the North American Hockey League outside of the Team USA Under-17 squad.

More than four years and nearly 200 games later, Heineman has officially reached ‘alumni’ status, committing to play at Wisconsin-Eau Claire next fall. The longest-tenured player in team history even had another year of junior eligibility remaining, but was eager to get on with his education.

“I played for four years in Traverse City, and it was a great experience,” said Heineman, a New Boston product. “But it’s time to get on with school. My mom and dad always told me that hockey ends, but education doesn’t. I’m fortunate to get a chance to go to one of the best schools in Wisconsin.”

Heineman appeared in 177 regular season games during his stint in Traverse City, racking up 13 goals and 36 assists over four seasons. His 299 career penalty minutes are second on the Stars’ all-time list and he has the fourth-most power play assists (20) as well. Heineman closed his run with the 11th-most points by any North Stars player (49) and is second in team lore among blueliners.

“The organization was very fortunate to have a player of Chris’s caliber for four years,” said North Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo. “Of course, we’d have loved to have him back again, but Chris made a life decision, and a decision I have a lot of respect for. He had a great opportunity to further his education and play NCAA hockey at the same time. We couldn’t be happier for him.”

Heineman missed the first two-thirds of his 2009-10 campaign after off-season hip surgery, but returned with a vengeance, scoring a goal and assisting on two others in his first game back and compiling five points in his first three outings. He finished the year with 14 points on four goals and 10 helpers, but saved his most exciting fare for the NAHL Robertson Cup championship tournament last May. With the North Stars battling top-seeded and host Wenatchee on the event’s opening night, Heineman issued his coup de grace, blasting home the game-winner with 34 seconds to play in a 5-4 upset of the Wild.

“To be honest, I’ve never really played in a place that was as great as Traverse City,” Heineman reflected. “I had some great billets with the Elliotts and Joneses, who were awesome, treating me like a member of their families. With them, the organization, and the community, it’s not like playing somewhere where you’re a number or a piece of meat. You’re treated like a person who happens to play hockey and I’m thankful for that.”

The longtime Stars defenseman will once again team up with former North Stars Eric O’Hearn and Brandon Stephenson, who played at Eau Claire as freshmen last season. The Blugolds went 8-15-4 last year.

“It’s a younger team, but there’s a lot of talent there, too,” Heineman said. “I just look forward to being a part of it and contributing however I can.”

Heineman says the most important thing he developed during his junior career was discipline – something that didn’t come easy for him initially.

“I came in four years ago and I don’t think I took it as seriously as I should have," Heineman said. "I needed to be in the weight room, working on off-ice conditioning and stuff and I didn’t make that as big a priority as I did when I got older. Playing at this level isn’t something to take for granted and it’s hard to make it on talent alone. You have to put in the work.”

Having staunch backers on the homefront doesn’t hurt, either.

“My parents have been so supportive all the way through, put on a lot of highway miles, and I couldn’t be more grateful to them,” Heineman concluded. “At the end of the day, any successes I might experience really are a reflection of their support from the time I was a little kid. It means a lot to have them behind you all the way.”

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