The road back from a concussion might well be just what the doctor ordered for Kitchener Rangers rookie forward Justin Bailey.
Bailey was sidelined five games in the Ontario Hockey League after suffering a concussion off a neutral zone hit delivered by Calgary Flames prospect Pat Sieloff of the Windsor Spitfires on Sept. 27. Sieloff was assessed a charging penalty and game misconduct on the play.
At the time of Bailey's injury, he had zero points and four penalty minutes in three games.
Determined Bailey returns to ice
Justin Bailey of the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers knew the road to recovery from a concussion wouldn't be easy.
"It's always tough when you're missing time, despite the fact you might be traveling with the team," Bailey told NHL.com. "I missed time a couple of years ago with a shoulder injury, so I knew what it was like to be a good teammate.
"Just as much as you want to get back out there, you want to take the right steps so that when you finally come back, you stay back."
Such was the case with Bailey when, on Sept. 27, he was on the receiving end of an illegal neutral zone hit by a player from the Windsor Spitfires. A few days later, Bailey met with Kitchener head trainer Dan LeBold for what would ultimately be a daily symptomatic checkup.
"I'd come to the rink and he'd ask me 15 questions and I had to be truthful," Bailey said. "I could have lied, but it would do me no good. It's all about being truthful on my sensitivity to light and stuff like that. When I finally received a certain grade, only then do you begin the 'return to play' protocol."
The steps in the "return to play" protocol are as follows:
Light general conditioning exercises.
General conditioning and sport specific skill work; individually.
General conditioning, skill work; individually and with a teammate.
General conditioning, skill work and team drills.
Full team practice with body contact.
Following a full participation in practice that's completed with no symptoms, a player is ready to return to competition.
"The Kitchener staff was great and they didn't rush me back and there was no pressure," Bailey said. "When I was ready to begin [the 'return to play' protocol], I had to take those steps to get back with my team on the ice. I'm 100 percent now and feeling good."
-- Mike G. Morreale
"Before my concussion, I played kind of scared and just wanted to make the smart play and not do anything to put our team in a bad spot," Bailey told NHL.com. "I definitely wasn't playing the hockey I had been used to. If you were familiar with my game, you wouldn't even know it was me out there."
Since his return to the lineup on Oct. 19 against the Oshawa Generals, the 6-foot-3.25, 194-pound wing has produced four goals, five points and a plus-4 rating in nine games.
"I'm 100 percent and I think the injury was, in some ways, huge for me," Bailey said. "I obviously wouldn't want it to happen again, but it was an eye opener. I'm sure if I made that play [through the neutral zone] last year, I probably would have gotten the puck, went right around the defenseman and had a goal or something.
"This year, it's not that way. I have to be more alert -- and I think the hit really opened my eyes to that."
It was only a season ago that Bailey helped lead the Pat LaFontaine-coached Long Island Royals Midget team to the Under-16 Tier I National championship. He connected for 21 goals and 34 points in 22 games and, at the time, was offered a full hockey scholarship to attend Michigan State University. His Canadian Hockey League rights were owned by Kitchener, which drafted him in the seventh round (No. 128) of the 2011 OHL Priority Selection.
"I thought about it a lot and talked to family and the people I trust like [former Buffalo Sabres forward] Matt Barnaby," Bailey said. "I thought there were more pros than cons at Kitchener, but it was hard giving up a ride to a college that was good."
Bailey (@JustinBailey95) was sold after speaking with Kitchener coach Steve Spott, who will coach the Canadian National Junior Team at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Russia.
"His coaching resume speaks for itself, and being [two hours] from home [in Williamsville, N.Y.] was also big," Bailey said. "Calling Michigan State to tell them I'd be going to Kitchener was probably the toughest phone call I've ever had to make. I have a lot of respect for the people there. I don't think for a second I made the wrong decision."
Former New York Islanders forward Steve Webb, who was an assistant coach to LaFontaine for the Royals in 2011-12, said Bailey does have the potential to become a powerful NHL wing down the road.
"He's got a big frame on him right now and has high-end explosive power in his stride," Webb told NHL.com. "He definitely is powerful on his skates and has a great shot. Once he fills into his body, gets bigger, stronger and becomes smarter, he'll certainly be fun to watch."
Bailey admits one area of the game he needed to take more seriously as a rookie in Kitchener was his preparation.
"You definitely have to pay attention to detail," he said. "You don't want to mess up a drill in practice because that's where it starts. Because you don't have games until the weekend, you practice four days a week and you want to earn the respect of your teammates. The veteran guys will put you in your place if you act up. … It's an adjustment and you think you're ready for it, but most times you're not."
Webb agreed with Bailey's assessment.
"I think he's itching to prove himself," Webb said. "Last year, there were games that were a lot easier and, at times, maybe some bad habits crept in -- habits he might have gotten away with on a few extra moves that are more difficult to do now. He would get hit last year on occasion, but not regularly, and that's probably why he got away with more last year."
Bailey said he makes it a point to talk to veterans Matt Puempel and Ryan Murphy whenever he can. Both players were 2011 first-round draft picks -- Murphy was selected No. 12 by the Carolina Hurricanes and Puempel was chosen No. 24 by the Ottawa Senators.
"Because you don't have games until the weekend, you practice four days a week and you want to earn the respect of your teammates. The veteran guys will put you in your place if you act up. … It's an adjustment and you think you're ready for it, but most times you're not."
-- Kitchener forward Justin Bailey
"I've kind of learned what I can and cannot do," Bailey said. "I'm nowhere close to where I want to be yet, but I think the positive thing is I'm making progress."
While he might have grown up a Buffalo Sabres fan, Bailey is a big admirer of brothers Eric Staal and Jordan Staal.
"They have that power-forward game and are two dynamic players," Bailey said. "They're not super flashy, but get the job done and put up points every year."
He's very much looking forward to having the opportunity to hear his name announced at the 2013 NHL Draft at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on June 28-29. At the start of the season, Bailey was regarded as an A-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list in the OHL.
"I think every young player looks forward to their draft year and it's hard to not listen to all the rankings and stuff like that, but I'm looking forward to the Draft," he said. "It's hard to imagine it's me on that A list of players with [Nathan] MacKinnon and Seth Jones. And to think, a year ago I was just a midget in Long Island, so to see my name with players like that is really something."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale