Dan LaCouture had been to plenty of NHL training camps before this one. Eleven, in fact, with five different teams. That’s experience.
It’s funny then that the approach he took as a free agent tryout this year, an approach which recently earned him a contract, was to throw all that experience right out the window.
“I’m just trying to treat myself like a rookie,” said LaCouture, who signed a two-way deal with the Hurricanes on Monday. “I didn’t come in here acting like a guy that’s played over 300 games in the league and acting like I was owed something, because I was owed nothing. I came in here with nothing. I had to treat myself like I was back in my first training camp in Edmonton when I was 20.
”Basically, I started over.”
LaCouture is nothing if not determined - determined to get back into the NHL after a year and a half playing in the AHL and the Swiss League.
“I know I still belong playing in the league,” said LaCouture. “I’m sick of the way things have gone in the past year and a half, and I’m not going to be told no again. I’m just going to prove to everybody that maybe stopped believing or doubted me that I can still play this game.”
Now 11 years and 326 NHL games removed from that first camp with the Oilers, the 6’2”, 215 pound forward spent the last year thinking of what he could do to get back to where he feels he belongs. That involved altering his lifestyle and social habits, including a successful effort to give up drinking.
“I had a lot of time this year to think about it at home, just looking at my life and not liking the way things had gone in the past year and a half,” he said. “I looked at my wife and my daughter, and I said, ‘Something’s got to give here.”
Fueled by the belief that he could still be an NHL player, LaCouture was able to secure a tryout with the Hurricanes based on previous connections within the organization. He showed up in good shape, and once the games got underway, played in every game there was to play in. He started off by earning first-star honors in the team’s Red/White Game with two goals and an assist, and then went on to play in all six of the Canes’ preseason games, adding another goal against a veteran-heavy Washington lineup.
That’s a lot of ice time for any player. Only rookie hopeful Brandon Sutter saw the same amount of action. It might have worn on LaCouture in the past, but his outlook, like his entire approach to the game and his life in general this year, has changed.
”When you have a contract already and you’ve got to play back-to-back nights, it gets to be kind of grinding” he said. “Now, for me, every time I was in I was excited. I was pumped, because I knew it was another opportunity. Another opportunity to show them that I still belong and I’m durable, and that I can help contribute to this team.”
Physical play and penalty killing will likely be his biggest contributions during whatever time he sees with the Hurricanes going forward. The team brought in LaCouture wanting to add some size and toughness to its forward ranks – the latter of which became even more important when news came in that Scott Walker would be out for six weeks.
”He’s just a warrior,” said LaCouture of Walker. “I know why I’m here. I know I’m here to play physical, play smart defensively and skate like the wind and make sure we don’t give up any chances against.”
If LaCouture does stick with the Canes, it will be a testament to everything he’s done to get himself this far. If he doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of trying.