Large and looming, Red Deer Rebels forward Evan Polei is an intimidating force whose presence will be missed over what could be the remainder of the WHL regular season.
The 18-year-old power forward/enforcer was the recipiient of an awkward hit during last Saturday’s 5-3 home-ice win over the Vancouver Giants and will be out of commission for six to eight weeks with a ‘lower body injury’.
“I got hit on the boards and got bent funny. He (Giants player) tried to hipcheck me and it kind of just took my knee the wrong way into the boards,” Polei said Thursday, while sporting a noticable limp.
As he noted, it wasn’t the force of the blow, but the way in which it was administered. Either way, Polei could tell something was amiss.
“When I was standing in front of the net I knew something was wrong,” he said. “My knee was popping in and out and getting pushed around. I could tell that it wasn’t right, so I kind of just stood there, waited for the puck to get out and then got off the ice.”
Polei underwent a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test and two days later received the bad news. Bad, in the essence that he’s going to miss a long period of time, but not so bad considering he’ll return in time for the playoffs.
“I should be back,” said Polei.
“The doctor thinks that if I wear a brace over the six-week period of time that I can be back a week or two earlier. But he said he’s giving me the longer date, more towards eight weeks, so probably the remainder of the regular season.”
Polei felt he was playing some of his best hockey of the season when he was struck down.
“I kind of went cold right before Christmas, but I think I was playing a lot better over the last five or six games,” said the big winger, who this season has sniped 16 goals — the Rebels’ fourth-highest total — and collected 21 points in 47 games.
“On Saturday the coaches told me that was probably one of my best games. I felt good out there,” Polei added. “It’s tough to get hurt but it’s good for those guys who weren’t getting as much playing time to show what they can do. They can show Brent (GM/head coach Sutter) that they’re good enough to be on this team and that they can contribute.”
Polei, a Wetaskiwin native who checks in at six-foot-one and 219 pounds, is a genuine WHL heavyweight who has gone toe-to-toe with many of the league’s toughest customers — including Mason Geertsen of the Giants, Jon Martin of the Kootenay Ice, Taylor Crunk of the Victoria Royals and Keegan Kanzig of the Calgary Hitmen — with more positive than negative results.
He’s also inflicted heavy punishment on the likes of willing but overwhelmed scrappers like Dakota Odgers of the Giants and Kord Pankewicz of the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Like most who ride shotgun on a regular basis, Polei, who has racked up a team-high 67 minutes in penalties, downplays his role as a bruising bomber.
“My physical presence is a big part of my game,” he said. “I don’t go out looking for fights, most guys don’t.
“You can talk to anybody in the league and they probably don’t like fighting. I know I don’t like fighting, but if I need to do it to get the team going or one of their guys ask me to go because they think they’re going to spark their team . . . yeah, sure, I’ll do that. Other than that, it’s not something that I work on a lot. It’s just something I’m naturally good at, that I know how to do.”
Polei has been placed on the injury list at a time when the Rebels are clipping right along with just one regulation-time loss in their last 10 games dating back to Jan. 2. He credits the additions — since December — of defencemen Nelson Nogier and Colton Bobyk and forwards Connor Gay and Riley Sheen as major reasons for the club’s success.
“We’ve had a lot of changes in the dressing room, great changes,” said Polei. “We brought in some great hockey players who have helped the team out a lot.”
What Polei likes most about the Rebels is the depth and balance of their roster, with the third and fourth lines being pretty much identical while playing roughly the same minutes.
“We have a lot of depth to this team now,” he said. “We have four good lines, and we don’t really have that fourth and third line, they’re exactly the same line. Technically we have four lines, but really we only have three.
“We have that depth where we can line match perfectly against opposing teams. We have probably one of the best teams in the league.”
• The Rebels host the Edmonton Oil Kings tonight, then face the visiting Prince Albert Raiders Saturday.