­­­­­By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Mikael Hakkarainen returned to the lineup at the perfect time for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

The Jacks have been struggling to score goals all season, and two of their better offensive players – Jackym Kondelik and Clayton Phillips – are away for several weeks competing in an international tournament.

But Hakkarainen, who missed 12 games this fall following the second of two concussions, helped fill that void last weekend in Green Bay in his first game action in nearly two months.

He scored a goal on Friday in the Lumberjacks’ disappointing 4-1 loss on the road to the Green Bay Gamblers, then had a goal and an ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­assist on Saturday when the Jacks bounced back with a 4-2 victory over the Gamblers.

Hakkarainen will play a key role this weekend when the Lumberjacks host the Chicago Steel for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday. Puck drop is 7:15 p.m. both nights.

Hakkarainen’s goal on Friday came during his first shift on the ice, and provided him with momentum for the rest of the weekend.

Mikael Hakkarainen

His goal on Saturday was an empty-netter late in the game that helped seal up the victory for the Lumberjacks.

“I got a little confidence from getting a goal on my first shift back,” said Hakkarainen, 19, a native of Espoo, Finland. “It was fun to be out there again.

“It gave me confidence for the whole weekend. I just expected to go out and play and have fun, not score goals right away. It felt good.”

Hakkarainen was expected to be a high scorer for the Lumberjacks this season. He came to the Jacks in a trade with Chicago last season, and registered a promising nine goals and five assists between the two teams.

But he suffered a pair of concussions in October, and his season is really just getting underway. He’s only played in five games, including the two last weekend, and now has two goals and one assist.

The first concussion came on Oct. 6 in the season opener in Lincoln.

“I remember I got hit a couple times pretty good on the boards,” said Hakkarainen, who also chipped a tooth in that game. “My whole head went into the boards. After the second period I felt pretty dizzy and I knew something wasn’t right.

Hakkarainen prepares for a faceoff in a game last sesaon. Photo/Jason Goorman

“I stopped playing that game, went to the doctor the next day and found out it was a concussion.”

Hakkarainen returned to the lineup a few weeks later, but wasn’t on the ice for very long. He suffered another concussion in a game in Youngstown on Oct. 27, which knocked him out of the lineup until last Friday.

“I remember playing the whole game,” Hakkarainen said about the second concussion. “It probably happened on my second to last shift. I was crosschecked and hit my head into Kondelik’s shoulder. I whiplashed my neck, and that’s how I got my second concussion.

“It was very frustrating. I just got back to playing, then got injured again.”

Hakkarainen said he was recently treated by a neurologist in Chicago who helped him a great deal, and allowed him to return to the Jacks when they need him the most.

“Coach told me about this place, and I have some friends who live in Chicago and I stayed with them,” he said. “Two weeks later I was playing. It was well worth it.”

Hakkarainen said it was tough to be out of action for so long, particularly when the Lumberjacks were struggling to win games, and fighting to remain out of the USHL’s Eastern Conference cellar.

“It was really difficult, especially when the team was not doing that great,” he said. “I’m the kind of person who wants to win. I just wanted to get out there and help.

“I love playing. Five years ago I broke my ankle and was out about two months. But every other season I’ve just had little injuries that have just taken me out for a few games.”

He said the Lumberjacks were determined to go out and get a win on Saturday in Green Bay, after blowing an early lead and losing on Friday.

Saturday’s victory snapped the Jacks’ five-game road losing streak and Green Bay’s six game home winning streak.

“We were really mad after Friday’s game,” Hakkarainen said. “We were up 1-0, then I think we blew the game. We got a lot of energy from that loss. We were really ready to play. I saw that in warm-ups. Everybody was ready to play.”

Hakkarainen said the Jacks are starting to play better all the way around, and he expects the season to go much better, particularly when Kondelik, Phillips and goalie Adam Brizgala return from the international tournament.

The Jacks have shown definite signs of life in recent weeks, winning three of their last five games.

“Especially when we get those players back, and Michael Graham (another forward out with a concussion),” he said. “We could really turn things around. The start we had (to the season) was not what we were looking for, but we’re playing much better now.”

Important home games this weekend

The Lumberjacks are now 7-11-2 on the season. They are in eighth place in the nine-team Eastern Conference.

But the situation is far from hopeless for the Jacks. They are only one point out of seventh place, and three points out of sixth place. The top six teams in the conference qualify for the Clark Cup playoffs.

Chicago will pose a tough test for the Jacks. The Steel, who are defending Clark Cup champions, are currently in second place in the conference with an 11-5-3 record. They are only one point behind first-place Youngstown.

The Lumberjacks have only played Chicago once this season, when they lost a 3-2 decision at home on Oct. 13.

“The win on Saturday was a confidence builder, and if we stop shooting ourselves in the foot by giving up leads, we can make some noise in this conference, and that is certainly our goal,” said Lumberjacks Coach John Lafontaine.

After this weekend’s games, the Jacks will visit Team USA on Dec. 19, then take a 10-day Christmas break before returning to action on Dec. 29 at home against Team USA.

Teddy Bear Toss

Saturday’s home game will feature the annual Teddy Bear Toss. Fans are asked to bring new or very gently used teddy bears to the game, and throw them on the ice when the Lumberjacks score their first goal.

The Teddy Bears will be distributed to needy families in the area.