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Ben Smith

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Swikar Patel|Swikar Patel The Journal Gazette
Colin Chaulk shoots on goal Monday during practice at the Lutheran Health SportsCenter. The veteran is back with the Komets after a not-so-pleasant stint playing in Italy.

Back where he belongs

Return to K’s came naturally for Chaulk

He never saw this coming, not on the third of flippin’ January. Didn’t they fall in love with the place last time, he and Jillian and the kids? Wasn’t the village a postcard and the natives warm and the hockey, well, what hockey always has been for him?

But now the celestial odometer clicks over from 2010 to 2011, and here is Colin Chaulk, back in Indiana. The familiar white 91 practice jersey is on his back. The helmet bears the number. 50. And as the digital clock in this meat locker they call the Lutheran Health SportsCenter creeps toward 11:25, here comes an old friend, Keith Rodger, pushing him slowly back, back, back against the glass.

Chaulk grins and lets him do it, gliding backward until his shoulder blades touch Plexiglas. Just a little messin’ around here at the end of an optional Monday morning practice that seems frozen in time – and not just because it’s so cold in here that if you squint just right, you can see Rocky Balboa across the way, pounding on a side of beef.

Somewhere out here, Konstantin Shafranov, who thinks he might want to play again, too, motors around the ice in his familiar No. 24, wheeling easily back and forth, snapping pucks off the posts and crossbar.

And up in the Thirsty Penguin lounge, almost but not quite hidden behind the glass, another familiar figure has materialized: Brent Henley, who played on the 2008 Turner Cup champs and is back in town to visit while he rehabs a season-ending knee injury.

“Just tryin’ to start some rumors,” Henley jokes.

And Chaulk?

Just tryin’ to play some hockey again, in a place where the hockey always made sense.

That it didn’t this time for HC Alleghe in Italy is not something he’ll go into in any detail (“That’s not really gonna do any good,” he says), except to acknowledge that it was deeply disappointing. Suffice it to say it was simply not the same experience it was the last time, and wasn’t from the moment the plane touched down.

“Without getting into too many specifics, I … just wasn’t happy,” Chaulk says with obvious reluctance. “We were there before, and we loved the people, loved the area, loved the village. It was just, hockey-wise, it wasn’t what I expected, wasn’t what I was told I was gonna be part of or doing.

“I just figured it was time to move on. The opportunity was here in Fort Wayne, and I figured I should take it before that window closes.”

That window never really was closed, and no surprise there. You put your blood and your sweat and your pain into a place for seven winters, and score as many points (561) and hoist as many championship trophies (four) as Chaulk has in that place, you never really cut the ties.

And so he and Komets’ general manager David Franke talked on the phone, as summer ended and September became October. Franke was happy with his team then, and Chaulk was, in his words, “tolerating where I was.”

But then the Komets stumbled out of the gate, sinking like a stone to the bottom of the Central Hockey League. And after three months, Chaulk was no longer quite so tolerant. And so, sometime in mid-December, they came to an accommodation.

“I think both sides started to escalate as to a possible return,” says Chaulk, who’ll be returning as a player only – although don’t be surprised if the captain’s “C” returns to his sweater sometime in the near future. “It’s year-by-year. I love playing, but I’ve got to grow up sometime. If I could play forever I would, but unfortunately it’s not the case.’

He leans on his stick, looks around. He smiles.

“This was the last place I thought I’d be in four months,” he goes on. “But I’m happy to be here, that’s for sure.”

A chuckle now.

“I feel like a rookie.”

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by e-mail at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648 or at the "Ben Smith" topic of "The Board" at www.journalgazette.net.

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