TRAVERSE CITY, MICH.
-- It was only last summer that 19-year-old Columbus Blue Jackets
prospect Stefan Legein
stunned the hockey world when he announced his plans to quit the game.
News of the decision spread rampantly and left many -- including Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson -- wondering if the 2007 second-round draft pick would ever contemplate a return.
Legein would have likely joined his Columbus teammates in Traverse City last year during the 2008 Prospects Tournament, but instead opted to recharge his batteries following his bout with "burnout." Legein's agent, Doug Woods, told NHL.com at the time his client "had a lot of pressure on him" and needed to "work some things out."
But Woods was also confident Legein would make a comeback. Sure enough, four months after dropping out, Legein was back on the ice -- skating for the St. Catharines Falcons of the Golden Horseshoe Junior League and with the Ontario Hockey League's Brampton Battalion last December. As one of 26 players participating at this year's Prospects Tournament, Legein scored the tournament's opening goal in a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild
It was a sign, perhaps, that Legein is back to his old self and feeling like a kid again.
"It was a long year for me and I guess everyone handles everything differently," Legein told NHL.com. "I was tired, I was beat up, but I obviously realize (leaving the game) may not have been the right choice for me now. But it was one of those things you have to do; you can't just fake something like this. It's a career, so I did what I had to do and now I'm back trying to work back to where I was."
But how does he know that he's in it for the long haul the second time around?
"You just know, especially this time of the year," Legein said. "There's just nowhere else I'd rather be than Traverse City. Waking up at 6:45 a.m. and getting the crap beat out of you on the ice by opposing players just trying to make a living. That's how I know that I'm back for good."
Ross Yates, the coach of the AHL's Syracuse Crunch and the Columbus prospects this week, admits Legein must prove himself.
"He's going to have to show us his heart is back in it by his play," Yates said. "There will be people who question him everywhere, but he'll have to demonstrate his desire through hard work and passion. It's going to be evident in the way he plays."
While Legein hasn't had any trouble getting along with teammates, he does admit opposing players will always attempt to get under his skin with sly comments. "It's all part of the game though," he said.
"Taking the first half of the season off last year hurt him as he was really behind the eight ball as far as conditioning," Yates said. "I think we can take some positives out of last year, though, because I believe it'll really help him this year in getting started. He did play 26 games in the AHL (with Syracuse) so he knows what to expect."
Legein, a native of Oakville, Ont., scored 1 goal in those 26 games with Syracuse last season under the tutelage of Yates.
"Coming from juniors, I didn't really know what the professional game was like and it was a learning experience to play with such good players in the AHL," Legein said. "There are so many skilled players and hard workers, so it was really nice to get in. I didn't expect to play that much, but I just wanted to come in and find my way."
"There's just nowhere else I'd rather be than Traverse City. Waking up at 6:45 a.m. and getting the crap beat out of you on the ice by opposing players just trying to make a living. That's how I know that I'm back for good."
-- Stefan Legein
Now, Legein is just hoping to do what he does best in order to prove to his teammates and coaches he's ready to make a comeback.
"I just want to show them that I'm the same player I was before," he said. "I'd like to play in the NHL and hopefully the staff sees that. It means a lot to me, especially as a player, that Columbus was so patient with me. There are so many guys in this business and so many hockey players who can play the game and for them to say, 'We'll wait for you,' really meant a lot to me. They valued me as a prospect and a person because they took into consideration what was going on with me, personally, and accepted it."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com