Though the end of last season didn't end well for anyone on the Checkers, A.J. Jenks had an even bigger headache to deal with.
The 22-year-old center missed the final eight games of the regular season with a concussion, the first of his career and one a group of such injuries suffered by the team late in the campaign. By the season finale on April 15, Jenks said that he was feeling better and likely would have suited up for the first game of the playoffs, but with the team missing out by one point, he never got that chance.
"It was frustrating not being able to play," said Jenks, who's spent the summer back home in Michigan. "When you're recovering from a concussion, you just can't do anything."
"I've been pretty fortunate with injuries, and that was by the worst."
As it turns out, that's saying something, even though the only other ailment that's ever caused him to miss game action over his two professional seasons wasn't really an injury at all. When he arrived at his physical with the Florida Panthers, the team that drafted him in 2008, prior to training camp two years ago, doctors determined that Jenks would need surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat.
It was a condition Jenks had known about since he was little, even before he took up hockey, but it was nothing that had ever bothered him or caused him to think twice about playing.
"I had always been told it was very minor, but the doctors with Florida were caught off guard by it and told me I couldn't play," said Jenks. "I literally never noticed it at all, but I guess if I had too many beats in a row I could have gone into cardiac arrest."
The result was a procedure called a cardiac ablation, which Jenks watched on a monitor from his surgical table. With the use of catheters, doctors were able to "burn off," as Jenks put it, the area of his heart that was causing the issue.
For someone who doesn't particularly care to watch the surgical procedures performed on strangers while flipping through the upper tiers of his cable package, watching the operation fell somewhere outside of his comfort zone.
"It was pretty bizarre," he said. "The monitor is right there, so you don't really have a choice (but to watch) if you want to keep your eyes open."
Still, he didn't find the experience particularly frightening. Not on its own, anyway.
"A lot of my family came down to be with me, and they were totally freaking out," he said. "That was the only thing that made me a bit nervous."
Recovery from the procedure only kept him out for about a month and a half, but it may have been the start of what eventually led him to the Carolina Hurricanes organization. With the Panthers undergoing three management changes during his two and half years there, first impressions were rare and subsequently crucial. Jenks' surgery, scheduled just before his first AHL season with Florida's affiliate in Rochester, robbed him of that chance entirely.
"Those coaches and management only got to see you a couple of times, and if you didn't do anything to wow them you dug yourself a hole," he said.
A period of instability followed, lowlighted by his first two trips to the ECHL. Desperate for a fresh start, he finally got one when the Hurricanes acquired him and Evgenii Dadonov in exchange for Jon Matsumoto and European-based prospect Mattias Lindstrom in late January and assigned him to Charlotte.
Jenks, who added left wing to his resume last season, went on to become an effective part of the Checkers' lineup, primarily as a physical presence centering the fourth line. However, he also demonstrated a deadly shot that helped him score seven points (4g, 3a) in 10 games during the month of February, including one particular performance on the 24th that featured the first two power-play goals and first multi-goal game of his AHL career. The ability to win faceoffs and score in the shootout (three goals on five total attempts during the season) cemented his status as an all-around contributor.
"I think it met and exceeded my expectations," said Jenks of the move. "It was definitely that clean slate that I was looking for, and having that comfort level really helped me be more loose in the room and on the ice."
Now set to enter his third season, Jenks is relishing his most recent chance to make a good first impression at his first training camp with the organization.
"It's going to be a new experience to be in a new camp in a new environment," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."