By Don Stewart
READING, Pa. – Rob LaLonde has been playing hockey since age 5. Like any player, he’s had plenty of bumps and bruises.
But in terms of injuries, LaLonde has never been through a season like this one.
The 6-4 Reading Royals defenseman has worn casts, undergone surgery and missed 29 games. He returned from his latest stint on the injured reserve March 21 at Elmira wearing a protective mask.
“Hopefully it’s a fluke thing,” LaLonde said.
It’s a cruel twist of fate that he’s missed so many games. In the midst of almost completing his free-face-suture punch card at the emergency room, LaLonde quietly has enjoyed a terrific second pro season.
Entering the weekend, the Williamsville, N.Y., native had 15 points and 151 penalty minutes in 38 games. As a rookie with Reading last winter, LaLonde had 14 points and 156 penalty minutes in 62 games.
LaLonde also has been a contributor on the power play and penalty kill. If not for his bad luck with injuries, he might have earned an AHL call-up by now.
“He is a better player from last year,” Royals coach Karl Taylor said. “He’s been out for a significant amount of time, so that kind of hurts. Rob is a good kid who wants to do well. He’s trying to execute what we want.
“It’s like everybody at this level. We all have to tighten up our coaching skills or our training skills or our playing skills to maybe get an opportunity at the next level.”
LaLonde, 25, has used his big shot to help put up more points, but he’s realistic about his role. To make it to the AHL, where’s he’s logged 10 games and been through two camps, he needs to make those small defensive improvements that can be all the difference.
“First thing’s first is I’m a defenseman,” said LaLonde, who was minus-3 entering the weekend. “So to get to the next level, it’s just becoming the best defenseman I can be. Whatever offense that comes is just a bonus for me.
“As a defenseman, you have to work on little parts of the game that make a good defenseman a great defenseman, the type of guy that can do the little things well.”
Among the things LaLonde does well is fight. He dropped the gloves 13 times as a rookie, and is second on the team this season with eight fighting majors.
His last fight came at the end of a Feb. 9 win against Elmira when he got the better of Bruce Watson, then took a shot in the eye as the fight was being stopped. LaLonde suffered a fractured orbital bone, underwent surgery and missed the next month. (His other significant injury came Dec. 5, when he broke his hand in a fight against Wheeling.)
Taylor feels the mask, while somewhat of a vision inhibitor, will be a positive for LaLonde. Far less likely to drop the gloves, he can take a collegiate-style approach by using his body instead of his fists to play physically and intimidate opponents.
“It takes an element away from you,” Taylor said of the mask. “Rob likes to fight and he likes to get in there and get involved. We need Rob on the ice. He’s a big part of our D-corps right now. We can’t afford to lose him for five minutes in a game.”
LaLonde feels the mask hasn’t affected his game thus far.
“It’s not bad,” he said. “I was used to it from college. It feels all right out there. I’d rather not wear it because you can see better without it. It takes a little adjustment, but once you get out there and start playing, it feels normal.”
Sitting out was an abnormal feeling for LaLonde. He admits being miserable not playing, missing road trips, and feeling a bit like an outsider in the locker room.
But he managed to stay positive during the healing process, when he tried to learn by watching. LaLonde said he picked up a few little things that have helped his game.
“There’s no point in being bitter, there’s no point in being down,” he said. “So what I tried to do when I was hurt was I tried to watch the games and see what I could pick up from the stands.
“I feel like watching the games helps a little bit. When you get out there, you feel a little bit different. Maybe that was a positive for me. But I’d still rather be out there.”
LaLonde’s March 21 return from the eye injury was an emotional one, especially considering he came back against the team that put him on the injured list.
He didn’t have anything to show for it on the stat sheet that night, but LaLonde stood out in that 2-0 win at Elmira.
“The first game he played, he might have played his best game with us,” Taylor said. “He played really well in that game.”
“It was definitely an interesting turn of events,” LaLonde said, “coming back to play against those guys. I was glad to get back out there against them and just get that game out of the way. I talked to a few guys out there that I’ve had words with in the past. It was fun.”
Despite missing a month, LaLonde doesn’t hold any grudges toward Watson. He’s back in time for the playoffs, where he’ll get a chance to make up for lost time as a key facet of Reading’s playoff run.
“Any time you get hurt, you look at what you could have done differently,” he said. “I don’t have any ill feelings about how it happened. It happened, and it’s part of what happened. You can’t really blame somebody for what happens in a fight. I don’t have any ill feelings about it.
“If I get the chance to fight (Watson) again,” he added, laughing, “hopefully I’ll try to do the same thing to him.”