By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
Being on the fourth line for the Carolina Hurricanes in tonight’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals has more significance for 24-year-old rookie forward Chad LaRose than he probably is even aware of.
That’s because the number four is what so neatly ties together the LaRose-Hurricanes story in a way that could lead to a storybook ending.
It takes four wins to crown an NHL champion, and it’s been four years since Carolina last had a chance to win the most prized trophy in all of professional sports.
When the Hurricanes met the mighty Detroit Red Wings in the 2001-02 Stanley Cup Finals ï¿½ their first-ever appearance, LaRose was a 20-year-old forward having just completed his second season in juniors with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth (Mich.) Whalers. Gerry Fleming had finished his first season behind the bench for the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, not knowing at the time his and LaRose’s paths would cross.
“If you look back at his junior career, he had some pretty good years there,” Fleming said Sunday of LaRose’s success in Plymouth. “Wherever he goes he seems to have an impact on teams and the kid’s a winner for sure.”
The Hurricanes lost that championship series to Detroit in five games, then missed the playoffs the next two years. LaRose went undrafted in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft and was signed by Carolina as a free agent. His first professional season in 2003-04 was split between the Everblades and the American Hockey League’s Lowell Lock Monsters.
In Plymouth, which is owned by Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr., LaRose established himself as a scoring machine, racking up 117 points (61 goals, 56 assists) his final season in 2002-03. The Fraser, Mich., native continued that trend for the Everblades in 2003-04 by tallying 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) in just 41 games and helping them reach the Kelly Cup Finals for the very first time ï¿½ where they lost in five games to the Idaho Steelheads.
Now, two years later, LaRose is on hockey’s biggest stage as a legitimate participant for a Carolina team that is the favorite this time over the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. He took advantage of his first NHL call-up on Dec. 4, 2005 by doing everything head coach Peter Laviolette asked him to do and never was sent back down to Lowell in the AHL ï¿½ where he scored 25 points (14 goals, 11 assists) in 23 games to start the season.
“Chad is now a regular NHL player,” said Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford by phone from Raleigh, N.C. Sunday. “At every level he’s been at he’s had to go through different steps to get where he’s at and he’s passed every step. Now he’s got to the level he was working towards and as time goes on he’ll just work towards becoming an even more prominent player.”
Laviolette has more than enough scoring threats on his team, so the role LaRose has been asked to play is as more of an energy presence and a penalty killer. He scored 13 points (1 goal, 12 assists) in 49 regular-season games, and though he and his two linemates ï¿½ Craig Adams and Kevyn Adams ï¿½ have not registered a point in 18 playoff games, they have driven opposing coaches and players crazy.
Last Thursday, in the waning minutes of a very tight seventh game against the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference Finals, LaRose was out there on the penalty kill. He blocked a shot and then fought for a loose puck in his zone and cleared it out, almost creating a scoring chance.
“He’s playing with tremendous heart like he always does and I’m just happy for him. I’m really happy for him,” Fleming said. “It’s a great experience and he did help us when he came down here and played. He always wanted to make himself better, so when you see a guy make himself better, come down to the ECHL level and work his way to the NHL level and now be contributing on a team that is playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, it’s fantastic to see.”
Rutherford said he and the Carolina coaching staff envisioned the Adams-Adams-LaRose line as being an impact line coming out of training camp, but injuries early on prevented the three from playing together until near the end of the season. Once the trio started to click in the first round against Montreal, they became, according to Rutherford, “very, very difficult to play against.”
And what LaRose also has proven is how effective Carolina’s development system is.
“I really view what we have to be more in line with what baseball does. Baseball has their Triple-A, Double-A and Single-A teams and they get players out of each one of those leagues,” Rutherford explained. “That’s what we set out to do. Not only are we proud of the Everblades and what they do for the community there as far as providing entertainment, but we’re proud of the fact that they are a true development team for us. Anytime we can get a player that develops out of there it’s a bonus for us and they do a good job of it.”
Four wins by the Hurricanes over the Oilers, and LaRose’s name will be etched on Lord Stanley’s Cup for all Everblades fans to see.