Aaron Palushaj
Even before the doors open to the public at Time Warner Cable Arena, Checkers forward Aaron Palushaj is on the ice.

He’s not wearing skates or pads, but he’s usually there around two hours before the game in his workout gear, having grabbed a few warm-up pucks from the carefully-arranged stack on the Checkers bench to begin taking shots against an imaginary goalie.

Once he’s had enough of that, it’s time for a few laps around the arena bowl, hurdling any rope barriers that might be in his way, before concluding with some stretches and exercises in the wide entranceway that connects the box office to the still-fresh sheet of ice.

He’s not the first player to do his own thing while many others gather for the usual game of soccer in a tunnel somewhere beneath the seats, but it’s still a different routine that he sticks with whenever possible, even before playing his third game in three days this past Sunday.

“I like to get away from everything and get in my own mental state, get on the ice and get a few pucks under the bar,” said Palushaj, who leads the Checkers in scoring with 36 points in 39 games. “I’m more having fun than anything.”

Aaron Palushaj
The 24-year-old, fifth-year pro says it’s something he’s always done and continues to do, even in different buildings when the team plays on the road. There are situations where he can’t – rules in the NHL, where he’s played a total of 67 games with Montreal, Colorado and Carolina, prohibit it – making it less of a superstition than one might expect.

Still, he’s aware that it’s unusual.

“Coming to a new team, you might not feel too comfortable doing your routine in the first couple of games,” he admitted.

“We get on him a little bit about being a rink rat or whatnot, but I’m a little bit of a rink rat too,” said center Brody Sutter, Palushaj’s linemate for the last several weeks. “He’s a good player and he’s really had some big goals for us the last couple of weeks, so it’s hard to get on him when scoring.”

The routine is indicative of Palushaj’s personality and the way he plays the game. When he’s at his best, as he’s been during a stretch that has produced 22 points in 16 games since Dec. 10, he does everything quickly, whether it’s getting to loose pucks, getting his shot off or describing those things to the media afterwards.

“He’s a very intense person,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “Whether it’s in games or in practices the effort is always there. He’s a vocal guy.”

Is he one of the more energetic players on the team?

“I think a lot of the guys would agree with that,” he said. “I like to bring a lot of life and energy in the room and in practice.”

“He’s always going a million miles an hour, but that’s why he’s such a good player,” said Sutter. “He always does things at top speed and he creates chances for himself, for me and whoever is playing with us. He’s a fun guy to play with and he puts the puck in the back of the net.”

Palushaj also tends to be on the ice early and stay late for practices. This Tuesday, he was on at 10 a.m. for a 10:30 skate, shooting pucks by himself for 15 minutes before anyone else showed up.

“I like to pride myself on my hard work,” he said. “Since I was a kid I’ve kind of kept getting better and better every year just because I’ve put in the extra time and effort. I think that’s how you keep succeeding and keep getting better in this game, because once you stop doing that, you plateau.”

Aaron Palushaj
On a smaller scale, he also seems to be getting better as the season goes along. Having scored at or near a point-per-game pace during some of his previous AHL stops in Peoria and Hamilton, he woke up on Dec. 10 with 14 points in 23 games, good for fourth on the team. After a weekend in which he scored four goals in three days, throwing in a shootout winner to boot, he’s close to leading the team in every offensive category and has shot up to an eighth-place tie in overall AHL scoring.

“He’s feeling good about his game,” said Daniels following a two-goal performance against Texas on Saturday. “The biggest thing is he’s skating. He’s making plays, he’s finishing plays and he’s involved. He’s playing a simpler game and not trying to complicate things.”

Playing on a line with Sutter and Nicolas Blanchard – two grittier players who score goals through their work ethic – may have been a catalyst for that change in approach. When Blanchard suffered a recent injury, newcomer Greg Nemisz stepped in and brought many of the same things to the table.

Tweaks like that are things Daniels sees and can try to influence. On pregame routines, he’s not as concerned.

“Everyone’s different,” he said, shrugging. “If that’s what he needs to do, I’m all for it.”

If Palushaj keeps playing this well, could there be impromptu flip-flop scrimmages and races around the concourse as others follow suit?

Probably not.

“I don’t think so,” said Sutter.
Paul Branecky
Author: Paul BraneckyEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The Checkers' vice president of communications, Paul Branecky has been covering hockey in North Carolina since 2006, including five seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes.

June 2018
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