By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – Craig Valette has learned after playing in more than 400 hockey games as a professional the importance of having a good time on the ice.
He will enjoy himself a lot more should the Thunder clinch its ECHL Pacific Division semifinal series Tuesday and advance to the division finals for the first time in franchise history.
The veteran forward has been a key player for the Thunder, which plays Game 6 in the best-of-seven series with Ontario at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Citizens Business Bank Arena. Stockton has won back-to-back games and leads the series 3-2. Game 7, if necessary, would be played at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Ontario.Thunder coach Matt Thomas is counting on Valette to lead the team, and the 26-year-old from Shellbrook, Saskatchewan, said the best advice he has for the younger players is to relax and do what he does – have fun.
“This is fun. And it’s fun to get rewarded for the work you put in,” Valette said. “We’re prepared for Game 6, and we’re going to come out and try to finish it off.”
The Thunder appeared to be loose and confident before it headed south on Monday. The players had a morning practice than filled up on a lunch of tri-tip, macaroni and cheese and salad, which was provided by the Stockton Thunder Booster Club. Then, they boarded their bus for the long drive.
Valette knows how to prepare for intense contests. He has played in 403 games as a pro, mostly in the American Hockey League, and has had a productive playoff against Ontario with seven points (three goals, four assists).
“In this series, Valette’s been the guy,” forward James Bates said. “He’s scored timely goals and set the tone with the work ethic.”
The Thunder will be without team captain Matt O’Dette and alternate captain Mike Lalonde, who were placed on the injury list. That makes Valette’s experience even more critical. Thomas said he saw Valette begin to bear down when the Thunder made its playoff push late in the regular season.
“I thought Craig was our best player down the stretch,” Thomas said.
“He does all the things you need to win.”
The Reign, which won the Pacific Division, will do what it can to stop the upset bid of the fourth-seeded Thunder.
“The emotions will be high, and nobody wants to stop (playing),” Reign coach Karl Taylor said. “(Tuesday) should be our best game of the season.”
Valette said the Thunder expects the Reign to be as determined to win as the Thunder. That’s what makes it fun.
“It should be a very good game,” Valette said. “It’s exciting.”