Heins took long journey to NHL

Late bloomer starting to heat up for Sharks

By Ross McKeon
SAN JOSE — Nobody likes a big shot. But if you have one in this game, that's OK.

Shawn Heins brought just that to San Jose this season.

During a minor-league super skills competition two years ago, Heins cranked off a 106 mph slap shot, the fastest such blast recorded at any level any time. The stick used for the shot now resides at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Injury on the Sharks' blue line has allowed the late-blooming Heins to put his shot on display in something other than practice, and he's taken full advantage of the opportunity. And of that shot? His teammates — especially the ones who stand in front of the net looking for deflections — are acutely aware.

"I haven't seen the heater come flying at me yet," Sharks center Mike Ricci said. "As long as he keeps it real low. He puts it about ankle high and I think there's going to be a couple guys having a chat with him."

Heins has scored goals in two of the last three games, helping to bring life to a struggling power play, and to assume the club lead in blue-line scoring (four goals, seven points). In his own end, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound defenseman has been a punishing force. Heins has appeared in 14 of the last 15 after being a healthy scratch the first three games of the season.

Set to turn 27 on Christmas Eve, Heins has taken the long and winding road to the NHL. A native of Eganville, Ontario, Heins went undrafted but refused to give up on his dreams of a hockey career even after his junior eligibility expired.

Heins found himself in Mobile, Ala., skating in the low-level East Coast Hockey League, and that's right where Sharks director of pro development Doug Wilson found him. Heins was signed as a free agent Jan.5, 1997.

From that point forward, his long journey had hope.

"I always had to work hard. There was no sitting around the house," said Heins, crediting his parents and a strict upbringing to spark his determination. "It carries on later in life, on the ice and off the ice."

A devout fitness freak, Heins worked tirelessly to hone his raw skills. While playing for Kansas City of the IHL in 1997-98, the Canadian national team at the outset of 1998-99 and with Kentucky of the AHL all last season, he accomplished what he needed most — play as many games at the pro level as possible.

"The first year in the AHL I had no confidence," Heins said. "As soon as you see the coach gets confidence in you, it snowballs."

This fall marked Heins' third training camp in San Jose, and it was critical he make an impression. He knew the departure of Jeff Norton and Andy Sutton provided an opportunity to make the club, even as a seventh defenseman who might not dress on many nights.

"It just got to the point I'd been to camps before and I had struggled," Heins said. "I was going to make sure I did everything I could to make sure they kept me here."

When injuries sidelined Gary Suter for three games early and Marcus Ragnarsson for seven games recently, Heins got his chance.

"He's really been determined to get better at the things he needs to get better at," Sharks coach Darryl Sutter said. "He still makes those mistakes, but he competes. He's not an ego guy where you have to worry if you don't play him for 10 minutes that he's going to pout."

Sutter hasn't been the only one impressed with Heins' mental approach.

"What I really like is he's willing to listen and learn even more," veteran defenseman Bobby Dollas said. "He's willing to stay on the ice a little longer and work on his game."

Heins isn't taking anything for granted. He knows when the defense is at full health, which could come as early as Wednesday against visiting Chicago, there will be seven bodies for six spots.

"I'm always hard on myself and I expect to get better," Heins said. "If I don't, I'll get complacent and other guys will go past me."