“I feel a bit free right now because some players in this position might not get to play football again.”

Anthony Novak’s version of heaven is a simple one – it features a stretch of turf, a ball on his foot with a match at stake, and his teammates all around him after a flash of glory.

Now, given what he has been through over the last 11 months, the very simple act of practising at Winnipeg Soccer Federation South complex with his new Valour FC teammates surely constitutes paradise for the veteran 28-year-old forward.

Valour announced the signing of Novak on Thursday, adding an intriguing piece up front to bolster its attack. Novak has experience with both Forge FC and Cavalry FC, having seen action in 62 matches from 2019-21 – 52 in the Canadian Premier League with eight more Concacaf League and two Canadian Championship contests – scoring 13 times.

Beyond that, Valour now has a player as hungry as ever after he missed all of 2022 following a lateral collateral ligament tear last March which needed surgery and then not having his contract renewed by Calgary last November.

“Right now, I feel really good,” Novak told after training earlier this week. “I know some guys come back and have a bit of fear, but I went through the rehab process at a comfortable pace and didn’t want to rush it last season. I’ve alleviated that.

“I feel a bit free right now because some players in this position might not get to play football again. There’s a levity to this, if you will.”

Valour has had Novak in preseason training for a couple of weeks and, after not seeing any indication of post-injury issues – plus, given his impressive skillset – is eager to have him on board.

“I like his work ethic and I like the fact that he’s a guy who has scored goals in this league,” said Valour GM and head coach Phillip Dos Santos. “He has the ability to threaten the space and find the dangerous areas in and around the box and he works very, very hard.

“He came off a difficult year for him, but he arrived in good form and very determined. I like his mentality and the fact that he wants to be here. Setbacks and injuries are going to happen. It’s how you respond that matters. He’s not someone trying to prolong his career here; he’s someone who has it in his nature not to hold back. That’s important.

“We wanted to see those signs and we saw it very quickly. He’s shown he still has a lot of mileage to give in this league.”

Novak trained diligently during his rehab last year, gradually working back to the point where he felt 100 percent again. And like so many athletes who have temporarily had the game taken away, he has that newfound sense of appreciation.

“It’s a weird process, the rehab,” he said. “The first month I was just getting treatment and it was just centimetres a day of trying to get my leg straight. Then when that was done it was building up to walking, then running and then touching the ball a little bit. It was also about hitting the gym really hard during the whole time.

“It’s tedious work. It’s mind numbing and it takes mental toughness. But I always knew I wanted to kick a ball again. I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to football, to not have my mom watch me on TV, to travel for an away game or just have that match-day prep.”

There’s also this: the very foundation of his rehab and his growing appreciation for the game comes from the work he did all those years before the injury. A product of Pickering, Ont., Novak had to grind his way just to get to the pro ranks.

Now he’s grinding to stay.

“I’m a guy who always had a solid appreciation for what I had,” he said. “I didn’t play professionally until I was 25 and I had a lot of jobs that, frankly, weren’t very good. I know what it’s like to be on the other side of things and to have a grind for a life. Football is hard sometimes, but it isn’t that. I get to kick a ball around every day.

“I had about 10 jobs from the time I finished college to when I turned pro. I worked in a warehouse shovelling dirt into people’s trucks. I also worked in another warehouse. I did lawns. I did inter-locking bricks. I worked as a weed man. I worked in a bank. I worked at an interpretation and translation services company. I worked in downtown Toronto as a recruiter.

“I’ve done a lot, all so that I could continue to play football and not really have to dive into a career. That’s why I always say I was so fortunate when the CPL came along.”

Novak said the opening of Valour’s preseason camp came with the accompanying nerves – not so much about the injury, but because “I wanted to look good, and I wanted to impress my new teammates. I didn’t want to look like I had been out for a year.

“The interesting thing is, I feel more at ease coming into training right now than I did the last number of years. Since I turned professional my life has always been about football – how far can I go? How high can I take it? And every day has been dedicated to that. At this point I still have those ambitions, of course, but I also have that feeling of just being so happy to be here again.

“Right now it’s like when I first started with Forge. Now I come in and it’s like there’s not as much pressure. It feels like a second chance, whether it was a second chance I earned for myself or given to me.”