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Iafallo’s flawless return from injury helps NHL draft stock

Alex Iafallo returned from a torn meniscus to have a big second season with the USHL’s Fargo Force, who advanced to the league final. The Eden native could hear his name called before this weekend’s NHL draft is done.
Being unable to play hockey was an unfamiliar feeling to Alex Iafallo until the end of last season and into the beginning of this past year.

The Eden native missed five months on the ice due to a torn meniscus and disliked it so much so that he decided to try his best never to take for granted another moment of playing hockey or in training to compete.

Iafallo worked harder than ever to come back from his first major injury and the results were evident in his second season in the United States Hockey League playing for the Fargo Force.

After suffering the injury in the final game of the 2011-12 season and missing the first month or so in 2012-13, Iafallo returned to help the Force reach the USHL’s Clark Cup final series last month.

The NHL prospect has re-emerged on some teams’ radars with the entry draft coming up this weekend following a strong season in which he exhibited a level of dedication and play even stronger than before his injury.

“There were five months where I was sitting around not knowing what’s going to happen to me,” said Iafallo. “Thinking about if I couldn’t play, what was I going to do, changed my entire mindset. That’s one of the reasons my second year was so good — I was so determined. I had a bigger drive to succeed after the injury.”

The 6-foot, 175-pound left wing scored 20 goals, added 23 assists and was a plus-34 in 50 regular season games this year. He was also one of the top scorers in the playoffs, though his team dropped the finals series to Dubuque.

Iafallo felt as if his speed actually picked up this season thanks to putting more of a focus on strengthening his legs and core after rehabilitation was done. He now runs regularly and is more conscious about taking care of the lower half of his body.

“He had the time to workout and trained hard to come back even stronger,” his father, Tom Iafallo, said. “It wasn’t like he was just doing regular summer workouts. This actually helped him come back faster and stronger. He actually looks two times better. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw him play this year.”

Alex, who is set to attend and play at the Division I college level next year at Minnesota-Duluth, has had contact with a few National Hockey League teams and attended the Buffalo Sabres Evaluation Camp a few weeks ago, but is unsure where he stands for the NHL Draft.

The seven-round draft will be held Sunday, June 30 starting 3 p.m. at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. A few websites previewing WNY talent potentially being drafted have Iafallo sitting on the cusp between being drafted and undrafted. One site says he could sneak in as a late-round pick. NHL has him ranked in the top 345 prospects.

“It’s an exciting time because I’ve been working my entire life for this,” Alex Iafallo said. “My dream has always been to be seen by the NHL. There’s a lot of really good players out there, so you can never really tell. I’m just going to lay low and see what happens. The only thing you can control is giving it your all.”

Tom Iafallo said he found it interesting that his son actually garnered a little more attention last season in Alex’s first year of draft eligibility.

The playmaking forward with good hands and strong puck handling skills showed off more speed this season and aggressiveness after enjoying a solid rookie season in the USHL with 32 points (17 goals) in 58 games.

However, that torn meniscus, which caused Alex to miss last year’s Sabres Evaluation Camp, seemed to take him off of many teams’ radars. After the injury occurred, Iafallo came back to Buffalo for surgery and to begin rehabilitation that inevitably helped him to return strong.

“It’s been pretty exciting as a parent and he’s really been working hard at it — this is the goal he wanted for himself,” Tom Iafallo said. “It was sad dropping him off at first, but then after the second year, it was harder taking him away from it. But it’s his path. We’re not going to hold him back from what he wants.”

After playing at St. Francis High School and then for a dominant year with the Buffalo Regals midget team, Iafallo spent what would have been his senior year at Eden High School acclimating himself to Fargo and playing up another level in the United States' elite Juniors league.

The climate in the North Dakota town at times made Buffalo look tropic, while there was also an adjustment for Iafallo to being away from home and the level of the league. However, Iafallo was able to find his way on the ice by playing hard and putting pucks on goal, while off the ice, he got a little help from a supportive, now, extended family.

“Moving on my own, being with a host family I’ve never met and playing in this league were so different but the whole experience in Juniors has been great and it’s been fun being around my host family. They were great,” he said. “Playing with older kids in this league has been good for me and the exposure you get from this league is unbelievable.”

Iafallo credits his acclimation to Fargo and the new league to his host family’s welcoming and kind nature over the two seasons he spent with them. Alex’s father said the two families have actually become quite friendly and plan to vacation together this summer.

“The host family was just awesome — I credit them for helping Alex,” Tom Iafallo said. “You hear a lot of bad stories but this was even better than we imagined. They’re now part of our family. They’re great people.”

As part of being a member of a USHL team, Iafallo didn’t just play in front of 3,000 to 4,000 fans a night at Fargo home games, he also became an active member of the community through volunteer work, which included participating in youth clinics, taking part in reading programs in classrooms and giving time to fundraising activities.

The injury in June 2012 certainly was a game changer, but in the end, Alex believes it was for the best. He came home for the surgery, went six weeks without any movement in his right leg and then began rehab at UB Orthopedics.

He returned to Fargo in August to start a rehab program with trainer Phil Faught and a physical therapist, which began him on the road to returning to the ice. Iafallo said he used a skating treadmill heavily to recreate and get him back into the motion of skating. The season started in early October and Iafallo was back within the first few weeks of November.

His work to get back into the lineup paid even further dividends when the Force won the league’s Western Conference and advanced to the finals. Iafallo was among the top point scorers in the playoffs coming into the series with 13 points in 10 games.

“The playoffs are a grinding process but it was fun being there and it’s a good experience to be part of games into May,” Iafallo said. “Our team all seemed to click together. It was a fun year to play with these guys as a group and I give credit to the coaching staff — I learned a lot from them.”

Now, it’s on to college next year and possibly being among the 211 players picked in the NHL draft. If Iaffalo is chosen, the NHL organization owns his rights for two seasons.

Either way, Iafallo is committed to at least starting his college playing days in 2013-14 and building toward a possible career field, just in case hockey does not work out. He’s all signed up for classes starting this fall and already met some of his future teammates. It will be yet anther new challenge for Iafallo, who not surprisingly says he’s ready for it.

“Ever since youth, high school and Triple-A hockey, I looked up to players in the USHL, and now it’s like ‘holy cow,’ I’ve been contacted by NHL teams,” Iafallo said. “It’s a kid’s dream to go through this process. I’m just trying to keep my head on straight while going through it.”


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