We press guys walked into the Houston Aeros locker room on Saturday night and saw a happy bunch of guys. Sure, they had just defeated the Iowa Chops. And sure, the team had just won its sixth straight game. The win was a thriller, a 2-1 Aeros win in the shootout that featured some of the team's most exceptional defensive play and hitting this season.
But the guys weren't just happy about the win. A win that put them into second place in the AHL's West Division. They were happy about the play of their temporary teammate, NHL vet Kurtis Foster who had just played the final game of his two week rehab stint and was now that much closer to his improbable return to the NHL. Almost to a man they pointed to us and told us to talk to Foster.
"Kurtis Foster has been a huge difference," goaltender Nolan Schaefer said. And that statement was coming from the man who had just won his 100th professional game while playing a stupendous game of hockey.
The Kurtis Foster story really is a story worth telling. There was the gruesome injury he suffered nearly a year ago. An injury that found him down on the ice for twelve minutes and required that he be carried off of the ice on a stretcher. There was the surgery on his left leg to repair the displaced fracture in his femur. He's got screws and a rod in his leg. And for the past two weeks, he had been with the Houston Aeros.
"He just fit in. He was just one of the guys on the team," Aeros coach Kevin Constantine said. "He never presented himself as a guy living on borrowed time here, just waiting to go back. His professionalism, fitting in with our group, was phenomenal. That's what I think the coaching staff appreciated the most, his great attitude in coming here."
And that's why the guys wanted us talking to Foster. He was one of them. He cared about more than just his stats, or how his leg was holding up. He cared about this win, about all of the Aeros wins, just as much as they did.
"It's a great bunch of guys here," Foster said. "Lots of fun times. They definitely made it easy for me. They welcomed me in. The coaches were great...They made the game fun."
Foster played in six games with the Aeros. Six games that have been important to the Aeros' playoff hopes. Six games that have been tight contests. Six games that had seen what appeared to be a worn down team dropping in the standings become suddenly rejuvenated and win six straight to climb into a tie for second place.
"We go on a winning streak when he starts playing. I hope it's not entirely connected to him playing. But it's not completely disconnected him to either," Constantine said. "A point a game, a goal tonight that becomes a critical goal, a steadying influence back there, I don't think I could overemphasize how important he was to the team."
Indeed, Foster had six points in his six games, five assists and the game's only regulation goal on Saturday night, a beauty of a slap shot fired into the Iowa net from the boards way above the circle. And it was a shot that Foster, the ultimate teammate, only took because he couldn't find anybody open for a pass.
"[Forward Jesse] Schultz just kind of threw it over and I just kind of held on to it looking for a pass, and they just kept skating away from me," he said. So ultimately he took the shot for his first goal in over a year. "It's nice to get a goal. It's been a long time since I scored. It felt good."
As for his physical conditioning, Foster said things are feeling good. "I feel good with the puck, and the leg's starting to feel better. Just getting in the games has given me the confidence to know that I can do it. I'll just get up there and wing it and see what happens."
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And as for what happens when that time comes to return to the ice in a game as a member of the Minnesota Wild, whenever that time comes, "I'll just be tickled pink," he said. "It'll be a fun day. I'm just excited to get back up there."
"So now he's one of our kids and we get to root for him as he tries to make it back into the NHL," Constantine said.
The Aeros locker room is close. These guys like each other. But their reaction to Foster, a temp guy on an injury rehab was remarkable. He wasn't just a short-timer. He was one of them. And you get the feeling that when he makes his first hit for the Wild, when he scores his first goal, all of the guys on the Aeros will be just as happy for him as they would if it were one of them.
"It was a great stint. I had a lot of fun down here," Kurtis Foster said. "It's a great place to play. One of the best places in the AHL."