By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – Mike Lalonde and the Stockton Thunder entered professional hockey together three years ago.
Lalonde left the team last season to see a different part of the world through hockey. But when he returned to the United States, he knew where he wanted to play.
Lalonde was an exciting rookie, an offensive force, and the Thunder’s first all-star forward during the franchise’s inaugural season. He was a versatile scorer who could get the crowd going his second year with the team. Now, he will be looked upon more for leadership, as a young Thunder squad opens the season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against the Fresno Falcons at Stockton Arena.
“I’m the oldest guy on the team. It’s a little different,” Lalonde said with a smile. “And it’s great to be back. I missed this place.”
Lalonde, 27, has plenty of new faces and names to remember, but much is familiar to him after spending last season in the Netherlands. Defenseman Mark Adamek and forward Adam Huxley were on the 2006-07 squad with Lalonde, as was Tim O’Connell, now the Thunder’s assistant coach, and coach Chris Cichocki still is in command.
And Lalonde was pleased to see that many fans remember him. At FanFest on Oct. 9, Lalonde received the loudest applause of all the players when he was introduced and his line was the longest at an autograph session.
“I take pride in people respecting me and knowing me well enough to come up and talk to me,” Lalonde said.
“I think they like how I play the game.”
So does Cichocki.
The first Thunder team won 18 of 72 games, but Lalonde scored a team-best 29 goals and was selected to the ECHL All-Star team. After a successful second season, he went overseas to play for the Tilburg Trappers, where he scored an astounding 92 points in 32 games for the Netherlands League champions.
“I enjoyed it. It was fun and exciting to see new things,” Lalonde said. “But you only play 38 or 40 games there. That’s half a season here. I feel being a professional athlete that you have to play games to get where you want to be.
“I’m not going to be in the NHL, but I want to play a lot of games and do well here.”
Though Cichocki hasn’t officially named a captain this season, Lalonde acted as captain during the team’s two exhibition games last week.
“He’s been everything we expected so far, and in training camp he took on the leadership role well,” Cichocki said. “He does the little things right on the ice, he sets a great example. And that’s what you want your young guys to emulate.
“A guy like Mike doesn’t take any shortcuts.”
The Thunder has four players making their pro debuts on Saturday, and seven are age 21 or younger. Center Toby LaFrance played two games at the end of last season with the Texas Wildcatters of the ECHL, and he teamed with Lalonde, a left wing, and right wing David Rohlfs in the preseason games.
“I show (Lalonde) a lot of respect because he knows how the league works,” Lafrance said.
“He always comes to me and gives me some advice to help me and the other guys.”
Lalonde, a resident of Chetwynd, British Columbia, said he’s enjoying his new role as a mentor. He knows the roster of a minor league hockey team will change, but he hopes he’s in Stockton for a while.
“It’s going to be like that every year. What you hope to do is to get a few guys that will be steady here,” Lalonde said. “I hope to be part of that.”