The Monarchs put on a mini-fireworks show inside the Verizon Wireless Arena for the hometown fans. Beach balls flew around the crowd. Music blared. The rookies, including forward Justin Azevedo
, stood up on the bench to sing and dance. Azevedo hadn't played in the game, but that was no big deal.
He was still recovering from a bad ankle sprain and had just gotten a boot removed from his foot a few days before, so that was a little disconcerting. But few Monarchs know how to have as much fun as Azevedo, so he wasn't about to slow his swaying.
"I was just doing anything, and being an idiot," Azevedo said. "I was just having a great time."
There were two reasons for Azevedo to joyfully welcome in 2009 on that night. The first was tradition, of course, the same reason everyone else was whooping it up. The second is that perhaps no one else in the arena was as happy to kick 2008 to the curb, or at least the final few months of it, as Azevedo.
"A new year, a new beginning, back at 'er," is how Azevedo summed it up.
Azevedo, 20, is pulling off an impressive trifecta this season. He's jumped into his first AHL action at a point-per-game clip. He's made that adjustment while combating two bad injuries that have severely restricted his playing time - that points average comes from 5 goals and 6 assists in just 11 games.
And he's doing so by developing a thick veneer of cheer, one that refuses entry of one drop of self-pity.
"I don't like to be uptight about much when it comes to hockey," said Azevedo, a sixth-round pick by Los Angeles in 2008. "I like to live life. It's never good to just get down. You can't do anything about (bad breaks). Why make a big deal about it?"
But, oh, how that philosophy been tested.
Azevedo flew into last off-season with the momentum of a 2007-08 in which he led the OHL in scoring (43-81) for league champ Kitchener. But in August, he fell into the boards while playing and broke his wrist. That kept him out of action until Nov. 19, when he made his pro debut and posted three assists.
Two nights later, he posted his first goal. Even though he's just 5-foot-7, Azevedo played a big enough game to catch the eye of Monarchs coach Mark Morris.
"In the time he's played, he's been extremely productive for us. His vision, his creativity, and his ability to set people up is extraordinary," Morris said. "His ability to bury the puck at the most opportune times is a gift. His small stature doesn't deter him in any way, shape or form."
Eight games, 4 goals and 4 assists into his comeback, the size and strength of Azevedo's character were challenged again. He suffered the ankle injury that would keep him out until Jan. 9.
"When it first happens, I'm all riled about it," Azevedo said of the injuries. "Eventually, it's time to get over it, stop worrying about it. Having a bad attitude would make it worse."
In typical fashion, Azevedo continued to play like a burst of flame trying to escape confinement. He contributed an assist in his first game back from the ankle injury, and potted a goal in the second.
"I didn't expect this, to have 10 points in 10 games. I thought I would have a tougher time," he said. "It's obviously just adapting to the speed. Once you get that under your belt, you're fine."
While Azevedo's game exposure has been limited, he's awed teammates in workouts.
"Every day at practice he does something that makes the guys all scream," said forward Richard Clune
, his roommate. "He's always doing something talented with the puck, and that rubs off on the guys."
Azevedo and Clune - whom Azevedo calls "George" or "Jorge" because his last name sounds similar that of actor George Clooney - like to put on another kid of show for their buddies.
At home, they both claim to generally get along civilly. At the rink, a different dynamic takes over, and they like to tear into each other both to get out their frustrations and amuse the rest of the Monarchs.
"All the guys think we're pretty funny. We'll let our true feelings come out at the rink," Clune said. "Usually, when the guys are around we start to get pretty ruthless with each other. When we're home, we're pretty calm. It's kind of weird."
Split personalities aside, it all works because Clune - who has also been derailed by injuries this season - likely shares an important set of New Year's resolutions with his roomie.
"Stay healthy, make the playoffs, hopefully we can make a run," Azevedo said of his wish list. "I hope the bad luck's over, because I've had some bad luck, that's for sure. I hope all of this injury stuff is out of the way and I can get back to playing hockey."
Author: Lindsay Kramer | NHL.com Correspondent