Veteran defenseman Daniel Tetrault is going crazier with each Wichita Thunder game he misses with a groin and abdomen injury.
When the Thunder boarded a bus for Moline, Ill., on Thursday to play the Quad City Mallards tonight, Tetrault so wished he could climb aboard.
And that's after 700-plus games as a minor-league hockey player, where buses are as much a part of life as skates and pucks. That's at the age of 32, where so many hockey players can count their money faster than they can count their busted up body parts.
"It can be a tough grind,'' said Tetrault, who through 21 games with the Thunder this season has five goals and nine assists. "But I play strictly for the love of the game. The long road trips don't even bother me. I know a lot of players who play in the CHL or some other league for a couple of years and get sick of it and just quit. But I just love going to the rink. I'm the first one there and the last one to leave.''
It has always been that way, Tetrault said. From the time he started playing youth hockey in a French-Canadian dominated part of Manitoba, where he was born and raised.
"The first language where I lived was French,'' Tetrault said. "I'm from a little town of 1,200 people and I grew up speaking French.''
There's not much French being spoken in Wichita, but Tetrault has adapted and even flourished here. He played with the Thunder from 2005-08 and was brought back last season by first-year coach Kevin McClelland.
After an up-and-down regular season, Tetrault had three goals and an assist in five playoff games and picked up this season where he left off.
A defender who can score is a bonus for any team, and Tetrault has always carried a lethal stick. Armed with one of the best slap shots going, he loves to get in on the offensive action and is tied with former Thunder defenseman Sean O'Reilly for the franchise's points record with 169.
"I think that's great,'' said O'Reilly, who has been in Wichita since retiring as a player in 2003 and works with youth hockey players. "It's cool for the organization to have two guys stick around long enough to get that many points.''
Defenders who score sounds like an oxymoron, but players like O'Reilly and Tetrault have a nose for the puck and are good at capitalizing on breakdowns by the opposition following an offensive attack.
When I compared what they do to what a basketball player can do on a secondary fast break, O'Reilly said that was the perfect analogy.
"They key to scoring as a defender is getting lucky,'' he said. "That was always my excuse. But it's really a matter of reading the play and reacting to what your forwards are doing. To be honest, for me I was in the right place at the right time and I had some very good teammates feeding me the puck.''
It's the same for Tetrault, who benefits from a Thunder team loaded with talented scorers. The Thunder is constantly putting pressure on a defense and something in that defense is bound to break.
"I play with smart forwards who can find the open defenseman when we're joining the rush,'' Tetrault said.
Tetrault is especially dangerous because of the slap shot he has perfected over the years. He prides himself on being able to take a pass and make solid contact with the puck even with a powerful swing.
"I like to open up and just let it fly,'' he said. "It's not an easy thing to do and there is definitely an art to it. It takes precision, but it's something I work on a lot.''
Tetrault was chosen in the fourth round of the 1997 National Hockey League draft by the team he always dreamed of playing for, the Montreal Canadiens. It was the most exciting moment of his hockey life, but he said injuries prevented him from making it.
"I had a broken leg and broken ribs and I never even got to sign with Montreal,'' Tetrault said. "My dream, of course, was to play in the NHL and to get drafted by my childhood team was amazing. It was a blow not to make it and I thought about quitting hockey at one point in my life.''
But Tetrault's family and friends knew how empty he would be without hockey. And, ultimately, so did he. So if playing in the NHL wasn't going to be a possibility, he pursued the next best thing. And he has made his mark in hockey's minor leagues, playing 435 games in the CHL alone.
"I've spent most of my career in the CHL doing something I love,'' Tetrault said. "And I still love it. A lot of people ask me why I still play, being my age. It's purely for the love of the game. I'm still living out my dream of playing hockey.''
But sitting out while his teammates press on is hard. Tetrault had to force himself from getting on that bus for Moline on Thursday.
"You don't feel like you're part of the team when you're hurt,'' he said. "But you have to be smart about it. It's a long season. And these guys don't really need me right now, they've won three in a row.''