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Willis hoping to pick up where left off

by Lindsay Kramer

"I feel good about coming back and playing. That's going to be key for me, getting doubts out of other people's heads."

-- Shane Willis

The longest 20 minutes of wing Shane Willis' life officially ended when he left the ice and got medical attention in Peoria the night of Oct. 6, 2007.

Willis had been skating for Milwaukee in the Admirals' opening game when he collided with a Rivermen player and took a blow to the side of his head. Willis felt an odd tingling in his hands and feet when he landed, but after several moments of concern a doctor in the dressing room told him that there was no issue of paralysis.

But in a larger sense, Willis' 20 minutes of worry has stretched on for nearly 11 months now, and won't really be put to rest until he takes the ice for a tryout in Columbus' camp this preseason. That will be his first stretch of competitive hockey since that scary night in Peoria.

"That will be the question. Until they see me skating again, no one knows until that day," said Willis, 31. "I feel good about coming back and playing. That's going to be key for me, getting doubts out of other people's heads."

Those doubts are a season of inactivity in the making.

While Willis breathed the biggest sigh of relief by avoiding a life-changing injury on that hit, a subsequent MRI revealed a pre-existing problem. A bulging disc and a bone spur growing in his spinal column were pinching his spinal cord upon certain types of contact. Surgery fixed the problem, but Willis needed the rest of the 2007-08 season to recover.

"I got it in my mind right away it's going to be a long road back, not to rush it," Willis said. "There's no doubt in my mind that I'm fine. It was obviously very scary from the start. But it's opened my eyes as far as the desire I have for the game and how hard I'm going to work to get back."

If that effort is rewarded, the Blue Jackets and/or farm team Syracuse could be in for a windfall return on their low-risk investment. Willis has played in 174 NHL games, and, more importantly from a Crunch perspective, tore up the AHL for 20 goals and 23 assists in 43 games for Albany two seasons ago.

"The easiest thing for me to do this year when I got back on the ice is shoot," he said. "I know I can score. It's what I've done since I've been a kid. I'm looking forward to doing it again this year."

Hamilton content with AHL -- Veteran forward Jeff Hamilton chooses to blissfully ignore the obvious.

He played for the Hurricanes last season. He signed an AHL deal with the Wolves last week.

Even considering Chicago's status as Calder Cup champs, that seems like a bit of a step down by anyone's definition.

Anyone but Hamilton, that is.

"I'm not looking at this as any kind of demotion," he said. "Obviously, on paper, it is. I like to think I'm still on the upswing of improving."

Hamilton's logic is based on the reality that although he saw action in 58 games with Carolina last season -- contributing 24 points -- his playing time was limited. Considering that as an alternative, joining the powerhouse Wolves for defense of their title seemed like a much better choice.

"I'm planning on working my way back to the NHL, or else I would have gone to Europe. Chicago is just a good place for me to get better." -- Jeff Hamilton

Hamilton, 31, is friends with new Chicago coach Don Granato, and he's familiar with the city courtesy of a 70-game stint with the Blackhawks two seasons ago. Odds are, it will be a mutually beneficial relationship. Hamilton has produced 115 goals and 101 assists in 242 career AHL contests.

"I don't care what league it's in. I love showing up to the rink every day," Hamilton said. "I'm planning on working my way back to the NHL, or else I would have gone to Europe. Chicago is just a good place for me to get better."

Fleury among all-time Pens -- Even though the franchise is just a decade old, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has had some noteworthy players pull on its jersey. That was illustrated by a fans' selection of the Penguins 10th anniversary team last week.

The goalie is Marc-Andre Fleury. The first pick by Pittsburgh in 2003 helped the Penguins to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final.

The blue line is manned by Alain Nasreddine and John Slaney. Nasreddine has suited up for a team-record 57 playoff games during his four-plus seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton; Slaney is the most prolific scoring defenseman in AHL history (519 points).

Tom Kostopoulos, Dennis Bonvie and Colby Armstrong skate up front. Kostopoulos is the top scorer in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton history (97-149); Bonvie is pro hockey's all-time penalty minutes leader (4,804); and Armstrong ranks eighth on the team's all-time list in games played (251), tied for 13th in goals (46), seventh in assists (83) and 10th in points (129).

The coach of the team is current Pittsburgh bench boss Michel Therrien.

In need of assistants -- With the offseason turnover among AHL coaches apparently calmed for now, issues are getting resolved at the assistant's level.

In Chicago, Granato has tabbed Jason Christie as his assistant. Christie most recently served as coach and director of hockey operations for the ECHL's Utah Grizzlies from 2005-08. He compiled a 307-203-48-6-12 record and .590 winning percentage in 576 games as a coach in the ECHL, which includes three seasons with Utah and five with the Peoria Rivermen.

In Rochester, new parent club Florida announced that it will retain current assistant Jason Cipolla to work with new coach Benoit Groulx. Cipolla made his Amerks assistant coaching debut last season.

Manitoba went the other way, losing one of its staffers. Brad Berry, an assistant for the past two years, has resigned for personal and family reasons.

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