Stockton Thunder coach Matt Thomas got the best combo platter on Tim Horton
's menu one day last summer in Mississauga, Ontario.
A drink, donut and hockey player all for a few bucks.
Thomas was meeting with rookie free-agent Chris D'Alvise. D'Alvise, a forward out of Clarkson, was looking for a job, but had leanings toward staying closer to home. Thomas, who, like D'Alvise, is from Mississauga, saw game-breaking potential in the player and filled him in on the fun to be had out west.
"He obviously did a good job," D'Alvise said. "I had no real knowledge about who they are. I was just focused on getting out of the house. I didn't take into consideration how far away it was."
By the time the speedy center realized how much terrain separates Ontario and California, it was too late. D'Alvise never wanted to go back, at least not during the hockey season.
All the comforts of home are right there in the standings and the statistics. The Thunder is tangled up in a wild four-way race in the Pacific Division while D'Alvise ranks sixth in the ECHL among rookie scorers with 53 points (26-27).
"He was a guy I knew could come in and be an impact player," Thomas said. "He's probably been our most dynamic player night-in and night-out."
Thomas broke his prospect in with a good-cop, bad-cop routine. As part of a team-building exercise in the preseason, the coach packed up his players and took them to a beach, Half Moon Bay, about two hours away. He divided them up into two teams, major junior vs. college, and pitted the sides in a tackle football game.
D'Alvise's team lost, but he did his part with at least two touchdowns and an interception. Thomas got in his corner and pumped his tires with praise as one of the best athletes on the team.
"We let him down. We didn't have that type of chemistry we needed," Thomas said.
"A few rules violations could have played a part in our team (losing)," D'Alvise said. "There was a few lengthy debates about whether passes were complete. I had a few interceptions, but that was due to the fact that the quarterbacks were terrible."
A few weeks later, Thomas had D'Alvise briefly watching the action instead of dominating it.
D'Alvise got off to an OK start - 6 goals and 4 assists in his first 17 games - but Thomas wanted more from his investment of a Tim Horton
's snack and an ECHL contract. So he plunked D'Alvise in the stands for a game in Alaska on Dec. 11.
"We struggled mightily as a team. I don't think anyone wasn't a victim of those struggles," Thomas said. "I think he was worrying about too many things he didn't need to worry about. He started not playing with that same kind of jump. He went into games thinking about things he didn't want to do wrong, instead of things he could do right."
D'Alvise, 24, said the brief view from the sidelines sharpened his focus.
"I was going through a slump. I was frustrated. That game off let me separate a bad period from a good period," he said. "It made me realize I had to bring a full effort every single time."
D'Alvise has barely wavered since. He worked his way to an ECHL all-star game berth, and has posted 40 points in the 36 games since the scratch. Although just 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, he's towered as the largest Thunder player on offense and his goals total paces the team.
"I didn't really know the pro lifestyle. Once I started playing well and scoring, I expected to do well every game," he said. "I've always been smaller than the rest. I've had to make up for it. I control the puck more when I'm playing well. I just try to do the same thing every game, put my teammates in the best position to win."
The repetition has been a thing of beauty for Thomas, who knows that virtually every small crack of space is something that D'Alvise can turn into a scoring opportunity.
"He's got American Hockey League speed, that's for sure," Thomas said. "He puts guys on their heels and he burns them. He's got great wheels, he's got a great nose for the net."
"He's got American Hockey League speed, that's for sure. He puts guys on their heels and he burns them. He's got great wheels, he's got a great nose for the net." -- Matt Thomas
Some of that goes beyond what is taught in practice. D'Alvise's father, Daniel, was a member of the 1980 Canadian Olympic hockey team and an uncle, Bob, was an All-American at Michigan Tech.
"I remember when we were (messing) around, my dad had pretty good mitts," Chris recalled. "So maybe he gave that to me."
Now that he has a firm grip on the start of a surprising new career in Stockton, D'Alvise plans on doing whatever it takes to hang on there.
"I never thought I'd be all the way out here," he said. "I don't really have any other expectations other than to keep up what I've been doing. Hopefully, I can just continue to do what I've done since Christmas."