Alexander Kuqali admits to being caught a bit unprepared last year.
It was late January and the Dallas native was traded from the Florida Everblades to the Quad-City Mallards, leaving the sun-soaked beaches of Estero, Florida, for the chilly winters of the Midwest.
"I packed very light," Kuqali said. "I didn't own a winter jacket so I came up here wearing a T-shirt and shorts and it's 40 degrees out."
It's not that Kuqali didn't know what to expect — he played half a year of juniors in Sioux City, Iowa, and went to college in New York at the Rochester Institute of Technology — it's just that a trade is never something a player intends to go through.
"It's a huge thing of adversity the first time it happens because you think you're going to be on one team all year," Kuqali said. "When you find out you've been traded, you have to look at it as I might not be the right fit for that team now but I'm coming to a new team that obviously wanted me. You have to hit the reset button, and that's what I did when I came here."
In his time with the Mallards, Kuqali has developed into a solid defenseman. He was one of the returning pieces from last year's 40-win team that was carrying some high expectations into this season. Those expectations took a hit when Kuqali broke his hand early in the season.
"I was in the best shape I'd been in my life coming in, then something like that happens," he said. "It's just ironic, but that's the game we play. Stuff happens and you try to move past it."
Kuqali tried playing through the injury but eventually had to go on injured reserve after a win on Dec. 2.
While he was out, the season went off the rails for the Mallards as they lost 13 straight games, all with Kuqali forced to watch from the stands.
"It’s tough because as much as you want to be with the team and involved, when you’re injured, you’re on the outside, no matter what," Kuqali said. "You try to be supportive, you try to have a voice but at the same time, you’re not battling, and that’s the reality of it. It’s hard. You try to be positive, but we just couldn’t buy a win."
Kuqali meanwhile kept skating and working out, trying to stay in shape. But with a cast limiting what he could do and unable to really replicate the rigors of game action, he came back to the team not in the same peak physical shape he was in preseason.
"It takes a lot of work to maintain a weight and the type of body physique he had without being able to play and take those reps and push to the limit," head coach Phil Axtell said. "Not only that, but you’re limited to what you can do in the gym because of the injury. It’s tough."
When Kuqali came back, it was a much different Mallards team than the one he took the ice with in December. Chris Francis came back from an injury of his own and then was traded. Ales Sova was also shipped off. Josh MacDonald and Justin Kovacs both left for Europe.
Jake Bolton, Gergo Nagy and Triston Grant were all new additions.
"It was definitely a different dynamic," Kuqali said. "It was good to have them come in because it was like a jump start or a reset button."
Kuqali's first game back was an 8-2 loss to Kalamazoo, but since his return, the Mallards are playing better hockey. With Kuqali in the lineup this season, the Mallards are 18-19-2. Without him, they are 1-13-2.
"You try not to dwell, but sometimes you can't help it," Kuqali said. "If I don't get hurt, personally I had goals I wanted to do that gets cut short. ... That's part of hockey. Every team experiences that, and it's those that can overcome that and say, 'This is the lineup we have tonight, and we have to tailor it to make sure we can play the best way that these guys can play for the night.'"
Kuqali is finally showing the form he expected out of himself at the start of the season. Despite still not being at 100 percent — he hasn't been able to take a slapshot since the injury — he has two goals and four assists in his last eight games. In 39 games, he has four goals and 10 assists, career highs.
"I feel like I'm hitting my stride again," Kuqali said. "I just want to keep producing. ... There's some things I still can't do and probably won't by the end of the season, but that doesn't mean I can't elevate other parts of my game."
More importantly, Kuqali is also playing better defensively, with a plus-2 rating over that same span.
"He’s solid defensively and can get up in the play," Axtell said. "He can be used on the power play and the penalty kill and can even be used in front of the net. When he’s in shape and moving like he can when he’s in shape, I think he can play on any team in the league."
Kuqali, 26, doesn't like to think about next season and what his options might be. He has a brother, Nicholas, who is 32 and playing in Europe, and Kuqali said he would like to play with him once before their careers are over.
But wherever he is next year, he'll be prepared.
"I do have a jacket now," he said. "I had my dad mail me out a big one."