Chris Higgins isn’t looking at the American Hockey League as if it’s exile.
“I’m not going to be embarrassed about being down here or anything like that,” Higgins told Sportsnet on Saturday, following his Utica Comets debut. “I think some guys would fall into that, but I just want to have fun playing hockey again, that’s my main message.”
The veteran NHL forward has played nearly 700 games at the NHL level. For most of the past few years he’s been a reliable middle-six forward for the Vancouver Canucks – an elite penalty killer who can contribute even-strength offence at a credible second-line rate.
Until Saturday afternoon at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, it had been 11 years since he appeared in a game at the American League level.
Nearly 14 days ago, Higgins’ successful NHL career came to a screeching and unconventional halt. The Canucks sent him home from practice, ostensibly to prevent him from getting injured as the club looked to facilitate a trade that would keep him in the show.
The club announced all of this in a press release, which caused eyebrows to be furrowed across the industry. 48 hours later, Higgins – having cleared waivers – was reassigned to the Canucks’ top minor league team.
Following his Comets debut on Saturday, Higgins spoke positively about his situation. It seemed genuine. He came across as self-aware, determined and frank in an extended conversation with Sportsnet.
“The initial reaction is just a bit of shock,” Higgins said on Saturday, “but I’m not a guy who dwells on the negative too much.”
If he elected to dwell, Higgins would have plenty of material to be negative about. His season was derailed right off the bat when he fractured his foot blocking a shot just over 20 minutes into Vancouver’s first pre-season game. He didn’t get back on track and was ineffective in 25 games with the Canucks, though it didn’t help matters that the club couldn’t buy a bounce in either end of the rink with him on the ice.
“You train all summer and then you play one period and you’re gone for over six weeks,” Higgins said of his preseason injury. “I’m not Sidney Crosby, it takes a little bit to get back to your base again and I was playing catch up for most of the year.
“I definitely didn’t (ever get caught up), it was a difficult year,” he continued. “When you’re behind the eight-ball to start and then you’re 10 games in and you’re not playing quite where you are (used to), and then it’s a mind game. And I fell into that.”
Interestingly though, Higgins suggested on Saturday that his dissatisfaction dates back further than a pre-season injury that he sustained in North Saanich in September.
“For me it wasn’t too much fun playing the last two years, so getting back to having fun playing hockey, getting back to your roots a little bit and just trying to enjoy yourself – that’s what I’m trying to do,” Higgins said.
For what it’s worth, Higgins’ attitude and positivity drew uniform praise from Comets officials, coaches and players that Sportsnet spoke with on Saturday.
“He’s been great, he’s been energetic,” Comets coach Travis Green said of Higgins. “He seems like he’s excited about it.”
“He’s spent 700 games in the NHL, so it’s obviously not the easiest transition for a player,” added 21-year-old Canucks forward Brendan Gaunce. “But he’s come in the room and been an awesome guy, and you don’t always see (that).”
When Higgins first reported to Utica, and he took some time between clearing waivers and reporting to get his mind right, Green spoke to him from experience. Green was, after all, the consummate journeyman forward during his playing days.
“A little bit, and I talked to him about it,” Green said of empathizing with Higgins’ situation.
“I said, I think when I was with Toronto the first time I went through waivers and then moved to Boston, for me I could’ve easily not stayed up, I could’ve gone down. But I ended up playing four more years after that.
“It happens,” Green continued, “but you make the best of your situation and the big thing for me is: let’s get his speed back up and running and get him back to the NHL.”
Getting back to the NHL may be something of an uphill climb for Higgins.
Higgins, 32, has two years remaining on his contract, which carries an annual average value of $2.5 million. With the Canadian dollar falling even faster than his form, that second year makes his otherwise not unreasonable contract immovable.
Though it’s clear that Higgins doesn’t have much in the way of trade value, his contract isn’t particularly onerous to buy out.
Ultimately though, Higgins’ situation is increasingly commonplace in the contemporary NHL. Entry-level contracts and short-term value bets are all the rage, which puts the squeeze on non-elite veterans.
Legitimately useful players aren’t just being placed on waivers regularly these days: they’re clearing. And the affordable one-year deal and the professional tryout have come to characterize the NHL experience for veteran players.
Higgins knows the score. And though he’s in the American League for now, he still thinks he can play in the show.
“As players, we’ve noticed the trend the last four or five years,” Higgins said. “It’s gotten a little bit ruthless. There’s not so much loyalty now, it’s about numbers more than anything.
“But that’s okay. I still think I can play in the NHL, and I’ll prove it while I’m down here.”