Wichita Thunder coach Brent Bilodeau can be a man of few words on occasion, and that was especially true when discussion turned to forward Mike Batovanja earlier this week.
The third-year pro is returning from a serious knee injury, so his progress during training camp certainly bears scrutiny.
After the first day of practice on Monday, Bilodeau was asked how Batovanja looked. The coach leaned forward and slowly loosened his skate — an action that took longer than his answer — and said, "Mike's Mike."
Succinct, yes, but the response will make perfect sense to loyal Thunder fans who have enjoyed Batovanja's consistent hustle and scrappy play. As the hockey cliche(acu) goes, Batovanja is one of those players who never takes a shift off.
So "Mike's Mike" is high praise.
"He works hard, battles for his teammates, and he's a likeable guy," Bilodeau said.
Still, while the effort and intensity may be present in camp, Batovanja said he is not fully recovered from the grisly injury he suffered in last year's home opener
In the third period of the second game of the season, Batovanja tore the anterior cruciate ligament and the medial collateral ligament in his right knee when he collided with an Oklahoma City player. He missed the rest of the season.
Following Monday's workout, a still sweaty Batovanja said he felt "pretty good."
He added, "It's still not as strong as I'd like it, but I'm far better than I was last year. It feels just a little bit weak pushing off, turning and stuff, but that will come. I didn't skate much this summer — didn't have any ice — so I'm just getting back into it."
As a rookie, Batovanja had four goals and six assists in 10 games. Only 5-foot-7, he never hesitated to drop the gloves against bigger players — evidenced by his 143 penalty minutes.
His leadership ability is unquestioned, too. He was a finalist for the NCAA Derek Hines Unsung Hero Award while at Michigan Tech, and Bilodeau named him team captain last season.
Competition for spots on this season's team is expected to be fierce, and such intangibles can only help Batovanja's chances.
"I think he's getting better as each day goes on," Bilodeau said Wednesday. "I know he's a gamer. He brings a lot of extras you don't see in practice. I'm not saying he's a bad practice player, but game time is when Batty really shines."
Bilodeau will suit up 20 players for exhibition games tonight and tomorrow at the Wichita Ice Center. It would be safe to assume that no one is more eager to hit the ice than Batovanja.
"I haven't played in, what, a year?" he said. "I can't wait."
Notes — Goaltender Tim Boron, who continues to battle illness, will probably not play this weekend, Bilodeau said.... The Thunder has added two players: forward Henri St. Arnault and defenseman Jim Jorgensen.