Stalock, Sheppard are bright spots

Stalock, Sheppard are bright spots
December 20, 2012, 3:15 pm
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Alex Stalock's lone NHL game came on Feb. 1, 2011. He is 9-5-1 record with a 2.57 GAA in his first 16 AHL games this year. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

It seems there is little good these days in the realm of news from the hockey world. But venture to the San Jose Sharks' AHL affiliate in Worcester, Massachusetts and you will find two uplifting stories of life and sport.

Goaltender Al Stalock has played one career NHL game. In 30 minutes of backup work on Feb. 1, 2011, he faced nine shots and stopped them all, leading the Sharks to a 5-3 comeback win over Phoenix. Just three days later, on what was supposed to be a temporary minor league assignment, Stalock had a nerve behind his left knee sliced by the skate blade of an opponent while attempting to make a save.

"It was a freak deal," Stalock told me. "But I'm lucky it wasn't worse, to tell you the truth."

The physical recovery wasn't the only one the goaltender had to make, in jumping right back into crowded creases.

"It was just getting over the mental hump of not having that in the back of your head," Stalock said. "That was the part that was the hardest to get over, and now, I don't even really think about it much anymore. I'm beyond that point."

Stalock returned to game action late last season, a little more than a year since that injury, which had the potential to end his career. Now, after a more routine offseason, he's back into full swing, posting a 9-5-1 record with a 2.57 GAA in his first 16 games.

"This year's been huge, being part of the team," said Stalock. "You don't travel much when you're hurt, being in the locker room during the games, you're away from the team. It's nice to be back, and feeling like a regular everyday player."

Stalock says his lone taste of the NHL serves as high motivation to return -- sooner rather than later.

Forward James Sheppard fractured his left knee in an ATV accident on Sept. 7, 2010, and has not played in an NHL game since. The ninth overall draft pick from 2006 was acquired by the Sharks via trade in August of 2011, with the understanding he would still need months of recovery and rehabilitation.

"They traded for me when I wasn't even ready to play hockey," Sheppard told me. "They gave me a chance and opened the door for me to have a new opportunity. I'm really just excited to give something back to them -- starting here in Worcester and then hopefully in San Jose."

Sheppard spent most of his off-ice time in San Jose last season, working with trainers for one common goal: To get back into a competitive game. That mission was accomplished in February, as he played four tilts with the Worcester Sharks. This year, after 26 games played in the AHL, he's got six goals and eight assists.

"It was a long two years being on your own schedule," Sheppard said. "To be here as just another guy going to practice is a great feeling. You feel more at home, you feel part of something bigger."

"Shep," as they call him, is a three-year veteran of the NHL. While most of his colleagues are unlucky to be locked out this season, he's fortunate the situation allows him to continue playing competitively...and building back to a future in the highest league.  

"To be honest, I'm not thinking about it," says Sheppard. "I'm glad we've got people taking care of that business so I can just focus on being here."

The return to normalcy for Stalock and Sheppard are most certainly bright spots in their careers, and bright spots in the Sharks organization during dark times in the NHL.

"It's tough for any young athlete to go through injuries like we have," said Sheppard. "For me and Al, it's something we want to forget about and just be hockey players again. You're going to get better and learn more when you're having fun, and that's what we're doing right now."