By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Although the title of champions once again eluded the Florida Everblades this hockey season, seven former members of Southwest Florida’s ECHL team — Keith Aucoin, Brad Church, Craig Kowalski, Chad LaRose, Lee Ruff, Damian Surma and Briane Thompson — got to drink in the experience of winning a cup in two different leagues.
LaRose and Aucoin, both rookie forwards, and Kowalski, a rookie goaltender, joined in the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup celebration Monday night after the Hurricanes clinched hockey’s ultimate prize with a 3-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.
It was the first championship for Florida’s parent organization, with LaRose, 24, playing an integral role as a fourth-line winger. After sitting out Games 2, 4, 5 and 6, he was back on the ice Monday and will become the first Everblade to have his name inscribed on Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Kowalski was the practice goalie and emergency backup behind rookie and Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward — who was LaRose’s roommate — and veteran Martin Gerber. Aucoin, 27, was on the practice roster.
Kowalski and Aucoin both got to participate in the on-ice celebration.
“I finally got to hold the Cup near the end and it was an unbelievable feeling,” said Aucoin, who earned his first NHL call-up in January and picked up one assist in seven games. “I’m not really sure how much it weighed but I just didn’t want to drop it, that was my first thought. For sure, it’s something I will never forget and it put a great cap on a dream season for me. It hasn’t really kicked in yet.”
Aucoin’s link to the Everblades was more tenuous than LaRose’s and Kowalski’s, having only suited up for one game under head coach Gerry Fleming and team president/general manager Craig Brush in 2001-02. Kowalski played his entire rookie season (2004-05) with Florida and the first 18 games of this season. The 25-year-old, who, like LaRose, hails from Michigan, was called up to the American Hockey League’s Lowell Lock Monsters in December.
LaRose scored 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) in 41 games for the Everblades during his first professional season of 2003-04 and helped them reach their first Kelly Cup Finals that year. Florida lost in five games to the Idaho Steelheads, and on the national television broadcast of Monday night’s game, a fan was seen waving a Go Steelheads” sign“.
LaRose had 13 points (1 goal, 12 assists) in 49 regular-season games and one assist during the playoffs for Carolina.
“It feels good to be part of the organization today and you feel like a winner,” Brush said. “Chad’s a true product of the organization, having played for Compuware when he was a kid, then for the Plymouth Whalers (in the Ontario Hockey League), for us and finally for Lowell. When they mentioned that on the air, it was a proud moment for us.”