( Originally published Jan/Feb 2010 )
It is a Wednesday night in early November, and Tsongas Arena is mostly empty as the Lowell Devils host the defending American Hockey League champion Hershey Bears. The first intermission entertainment has just started. The few hundred people dotting the stands are half-watching as fellow civilians with ill-fitting helmets and brooms stumble around the ice while trying to whack a large rubber ball past the Devil Dawg mascot. Circus music plays. Up on the concourse, a small child chases a rolling souvenir puck past a concession stand at full throttle. Mom is indifferent — there’s not much of a chance he’ll collide with anyone.
Somewhere underneath the footsteps, below the seats and off of the ice, Keith Aucoin and his visiting Bears teammates are in the locker room listening to coaches try to road map their way out of a 0-0 tie. For Aucoin, this should all be a nice thing. He grew up minutes away, in Chelmsford, where he developed a conspicuous knack for helping teammates score lots of goals, and where kids still drive by the house and holler for him even though they know he’s not there. He got his first big break as a pro here eight years ago. He’s got family in the seats right now.
But it’s easy at this moment to imagine Aucoin — dismissed again and again for most of his 31 years as too small at 5 feet 9 inches, too undrafted, too something to play with the elites — down in that locker room drifting off, away from intermission coach speak, back to where he was two days earlier. He was with the Washington Capitals, a National Hockey League team that plays its home games a few blocks from the White House in front of an average crowd of 18,000; that is a serious contender for the Stanley Cup; that employs the consensus Best Player In The World, a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him-when-he’s-out-there, face-of-the-league, Tasmanian Devil of an athlete named Alex Ovechkin, onto whose stick Aucoin was firing passes for the previous 11 days.
Then he was told it was time to go back to Hershey, Washington’s minor league affiliate in the AHL. He waived goodbye to NHL life and joined the Bears on a bus for seven hours — five and a half hours longer than a Capitals charter flight would have taken — to play here in this game. Here, where out on the ice one dude just nailed another in the face with a wildly overenthusiastic blast of that big rubber ball. Alex Ovechkin is far away from here.
Not that Aucoin would complain. Sitting to talk after his first practice back with Hershey — at Tsongas a few hours before the game with the Devils — he was given every chance to. He remained unfailingly stoic about his four years of AHL-NHL yo-yoing: 53 NHL games over three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, then 12 with the Caps last season.
“It’s always been in my mind that the only way to get back to the NHL is to come down here and do what I did before to get called up, which is produce points and win hockey games,” he says. “I’m not getting any younger, either, so I’ve gotta come down with the same mindset. If I come down here and put my head down and get depressed, then I’m not gonna do well and I’m not gonna get back up there.”
And that’s fine. Stoicism is fine. He’s undoubtedly right to take that approach, and it clearly comes naturally to him. But consider for a second that this was already the third time he was shipped to Hershey this season, and there was no bigger kick in the jewels than the first. Because this story wasn’t supposed to start this way.
It was supposed to start in Boston on Oct. 1, with the climactic moment of one of the Merrimack Valley’s truly unique, unlikely, and inspiring pro sports stories. With a local kid making his first opening night NHL roster, skating out on his native ice alongside the Best Player In The World to face his hometown team — the Bruins he’d loved since birth — on national television.
Yeah, if the Capitals hadn’t torpedoed it by sending him to Hershey the day before the opener, that really would have been a story. And it would have made no sense. No sense at all. The truth is that this messier version flows so much more naturally with the narrative of Aucoin’s hockey life, which happens to be — wherever he’s playing — one of the more compelling ones the Merrimack Valley can claim. There have been other, better pro athletes from here. He’s certainly not the first local to reach NHL ice. But nobody got there like Keith Aucoin did.
It went like this:
When Keith was a baby, his parents, Danny and Dianne, would plant him in a tiny seat on the floor for Bruins games, and there he’d happily stay. He was walking at nine months, and a month after that Dianne and Keith became regulars at public skating. “There was an older man,” she remembers, “who would always tell me, ‘You’re wasting your time, ma’am. There’s not enough weight for him to put on the skates.’ ” So mark that down: Keith Aucoin is 10 months old the first time he’s told he’s too small to be on the ice.
Keith and his little brother, Phillip — who today plays for a pro team in Holland — couldn’t be so easily discouraged a few years later. They would get up in the morning and put on skates just to wear around the apartment. Not long after Keith hit preschool, his teacher asked for a meeting with Dianne. A proud mother’s imagination ran away with thoughts of having the smartest boy in the class, maybe an award. No. “I need to talk to you about Keith’s work,” says the teacher. “All the children know their alphabet, but Keith, when he sees the B, he says Boston Bruins, and when he sees the L, he calls it a hockey stick.”
Jump past the next 10 or so years of making a name in youth hockey to the day he walks into the freshman health class of Jack Fletcher, Chelmsford High hockey coach for 27 years and now the athletic director. “All I had heard was Keith Aucoin, Keith Aucoin, but I’d never seen him,” says Fletcher, who was incredulous at the site of the roughly 5-foot-2-inch blade of grass in front of him. “I asked, ‘Are you the Keith Aucoin who plays hockey?’ He says, ‘Well, I’m Keith Aucoin.’ I kind of chuckled, and then he turned out to be one of the best hockey players I coached.”
But four years and a whole lot of goals, assists and wins later, Aucoin was somehow ignored by every Division I school here in the nation’s college hockey capital. So it was off to Fletcher’s alma mater, Division III Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., where all Aucoin did was set scoring records, win a national title, get named player of the year twice, and put a cherry on top by playing with brother Phil in his final year.
The pros were not clamoring for 5-foot-9-inch players from Division III colleges, though, even those who had made better scorers than just about everyone they’d ever played with. So after aborting an experiment with a Russian team after three days — literally, three days and he knew it was a mistake — his future started to take shape in the hands of a Tsongas Arena usher. He was an Aucoin neighbor, and he mentioned to an assistant coach with the Lowell Lock Monsters that they should maybe take a look at this Chelmsford kid who lit it up at Norwich, that having a local on the ice couldn’t hurt the effort to put a few fans in the stands. That’s how he landed in the AHL: He knew the right usher.
Sure, the Lock Monsters sent him down to their own minor league affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., at first (“I think the lowest point in his hockey career was being sent down to Binghamton from Lowell,” says Danny Aucoin. “He had no idea they could do such a thing.”). But he was a pro, getting paid to play hockey, which is all he really wanted. Over the next four seasons he would play for seven teams in three leagues, and somewhere along the way the goal post moved. He realized he was sharing the ice with top NHL draft picks and more than holding his own.
Finally, in January of 2006, he got the call from the Hurricanes; Keith Aucoin was officially an NHL hockey player. And, after four years of being to able say that, the Caps decided he was a good enough player to guarantee him $500,000 this year, whether he’s in Washington or Hershey, but apparently not good enough to keep around permanently just yet. And no, the decent money doesn’t make that battle easier.
“Not for me,” Aucoin says. “Every year’s a contract year.”
Which brings us back to Tsongas Arena on a Wednesday night in early November, and the question of whether his head is all here. In that first period, he didn’t look quite right. To the inexpert hockey eye, he seemed less than fully focused, a bit sluggish maybe. But fortunately the expert eye of Danny Aucoin was on hand — expertise earned through more years of watching more hockey in more far-flung rinks than you can fathom — and he is unconcerned. His head’s fine, Danny explains. Keith’s head is always fine. This is simply rust, he guesses, from not playing with these guys for a while.
And, of course, he’s right. Out comes Aucoin in the second period and he slips home the Bears’ first goal. Then, to start the third, he takes a pass in the crease and sweeps home a second goal, casual as throwing a rock on a pond. And finally, with four minutes to go, he bangs home one more to seal a 5-2 Bears cakewalk. A hat trick for the hometown kid. Keith’s head is fine.
It’s clear at this point. Even if the story wasn’t supposed to start this way, the end is always going to be the same. Keith Aucoin will be on the ice somewhere, and happy to be wherever that is. He helped celebrate a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes after sitting out the playoffs, but was happier to lift the AHL’s Calder Cup last year after leading the Bears to that moment. He loves the picture his mom has of him celebrating a goal with Ovechkin last year, but it’s hard to imagine him any more excited than he was scoring three goals with a crew of AHLers tonight.
A month after that night he was called back up. For one game. He’ll no doubt be recalled again before the season’s out, and after that the Caps will be required to keep him for good or expose him to other teams on waivers. But now that you know how he got this far, you know it doesn’t matter what they do. All that matters is that he is on the ice somewhere, earning a living on skates, firing the puck to the most open stick. Sometimes the Best Player In The World will be holding it. Sometimes it’ll be the Seventh Best Forward In This Particular Organization. Either way, Keith Aucoin will be right where he is supposed to be.