With his long mane of blond hair, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins winger Chris Minella is used to being compared to NFL linebacker Clay Matthews or pro wrestler Triple H.
The comparisons are fun and all, but there’s a purpose behind Minella’s long hair.
Minella’s uncle, Bill Morrissey, is undergoing chemotherapy treatments as he battles cancer. Minella decided to grow his hair long to support his uncle. When it reaches eight to 10 inches in length, Minella will have his hair cut and donated to Locks of Love to help children who are battling cancer.
“I’m almost there,” he said, with a hint of relief. “Skating backwards it sometimes gets in my eyes. It will be nice to have it short for a while.”
The upcoming haircut is only one change that Minella, 27, has faced this season. Last week he inked a tryout deal with the Penguins after appearing for 42 games with Wheeling this season. The step up to the AHL was a major move for the Notre Dame graduate, and the fact it was with the Penguins is a dream come true.
It’s a dream that came together in a hurry. With winger Chris Collins out of the lineup for last weekend’s action, Minella was summoned from Wheeling and learned at midnight that he would be suiting up with the Penguins for their game against Adirondack at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Beginning his Penguins career playing in Philadelphia’s NHL venue before a soldout crowd was a big step for Minella.
“That first game is something I’ll always remember,” he said. “I was nervous, but once I hit the ice for that first shift the nerves went away. (Zach) Sill and (Bobby) Farnham really helped and made me feel comfortable.”
Minella, a third year pro, is from McMurray — a town south of Pittsburgh and only 35 minutes from Wheeling.
“It’s been exciting. I was close to home (with Wheeling) and it’s a great honor to be here,” Minella said. “I grew up in Pittsburgh and have always been a Pens fan. Being involved with the Penguins in some way is exciting.”
But there is more to Minella than his long hair and Pittsburgh roots. Over the last three years he played in 158 ECHL games, posting 56 points and 117 penalty minutes. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Minella enjoys the physical game and fits right in on the fourth line.
“I know I have to play physical and gritty to stay here,” he said. “That’s the way I’ve played since squirts and pee-wee. I’ve never changed anything but I know I have to be disciplined with it and just stick to what I do best.”
After graduating from Notre Dame in 2010, Minella’s start to his career has been a bit rocky.
Two years ago, he suffered a knee injury that required surgery and cut his season short. Last season, while Minella posted a career high with 22 points in 52 games with the Nailers, an injury derailed his season once again.
“I blew my shoulder out and had surgery over the summer,” he said. “It’s been a long road, but just being called up last week made it all worth it.”
Minella gave the shoulder a test on Sunday when he fought Blair Riley of Bridgeport for his first AHL fight.
“I was a little nervous because I blew my shoulder out last year,” Minella said. “But it was good to get it out of the way and there was nothing to worry about.”
Minella did catch the eye of head coach John Hynes with his play over the weekend. While it’s unknown how long Minella will remain with the team once some of the regulars get healthy, he did get noticed.
“He made a very good first impression,” Hynes said. “He’s a big, strong player, a good skater and he’s strong on pucks in the offensive zone, which is important for success.”
• Injured F Chris Collins and D Alex Grant practiced in full on Tuesday. Hynes said they are close to returning and are possible to play in tonight’s home game against Norfolk. Forwards Paul Thompson and Steve MacIntyre didn’t practice Tuesday.
• The Admirals might be in last place in the East Division, but they’ve given the Penguins problems this year. In five meetings this season Norfolk has won three, including a 1-0 shutout on Feb. 15.
“Since I’ve been here they’ve played really well against us,” winger Tom Kostopoulos said. “They’re very tough and you can’t overlook them. It’s going to be a big game for us.”