By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
Several days have gone by and former Florida Everblade Chad LaRose still canï¿½t believe his name is going to be inscribed on the most prized trophy in sports — Lord Stanleyï¿½s Cup.
And whatï¿½s even better is that the 24-year-old rookie forward for the NHLï¿½s Carolina Hurricanes had three other Michiganders on the team sharing in the celebration. One of them was former Everblades goalie Craig Kowalski, who was the emergency third backup behind Conn Smythe Award winner Cam Ward and Martin Gerber, with rookie defenseman Andrew Hutchinson and veteran center Doug Weight the other two.
ï¿½My entire family was there to enjoy this with me and I donï¿½t know if my dadï¿½s even gotten off the cloud yet, I donï¿½t think itï¿½s going to be for a while,ï¿½ LaRose said by phone Friday as he was driving back to his hometown of Fraser, Mich. ï¿½We took a picture with the Cup upstairs (at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.) and he lifted it over his head. It was just an unbelievable feeling all the way around.ï¿½
But since Hutchinson, 26, who played at Michigan State, and Kowalski, 25, did not make it into the lineup for any of Carolinaï¿½s 25 playoff games, their names will not appear on the trophy. Regardless, Kowalski, who has known LaRose since the speedy forward was 6 years old, got to feel the excitement.
As the practice goaltender, Kowalski and the other players on the practice roster worked just as hard as the regulars and were made to feel just as important by Hurricanes head coach Peter Laviolette.
ï¿½Everybody who has ever played hockey, this is their dream, and I got to experience it,ï¿½ Kowalski said after Tuesday nightï¿½s first of two victory parades. ï¿½For two months we practiced and practiced and practiced, which was a very different feeling when youï¿½re not getting into the games. But it was fun and everybody on the team, from the coaches on down, made us feel like we were part of the team.ï¿½
After flying on first-class charters and staying in five-start hotels on the road, Kowalski really liked the taste of life in the NHL. His two-year contract with Carolina expired after Monday nightï¿½s 3-1 Game 7 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, but he is hoping the performances he put up in the American Hockey League with the Lowell Lock Monsters, along with how he looked in practice, will lead to a new contract.
ï¿½Sometime after July 1 is when theyï¿½ll decide what theyï¿½re going to do,ï¿½ Kowalski said. ï¿½Iï¿½ve been in their system for a few years now, and Florida was my first pro team, so I owe those guys a lot as well.ï¿½
LaRose also wanted to acknowledge the Everblades, specifically head coach Gerry Fleming and team president/general manager Craig Brush, for helping him reach this pinnacle in his young hockey career.
ï¿½Those guys have pushed me to move up,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½There are some teams in the ECHL are going to try to keep you down there and Gerry always gave me the ice time and wanted me to move up. Mr. Brush always believed in me and they pushed me to get up here, and theyï¿½ve always talked first class about me. Theyï¿½re first-class people as well and I couldnï¿½t thank them enough.ï¿½
Training camp last September seems like a lifetime ago to LaRose now, as he recalled the excitement he felt about getting his first call up to the Hurricanes in early December. Initially, he was thrilled just to get into an NHL game, then he set his sights on staying up, which he did, appearing in 49 regular-season games and scoring 13 points (1 goal, 12 assists).
When the playoffs started, LaRose had earned his way onto the fourth line with Craig Adams and Kevyn Adams, who are not related, and he wound up dressing for 21 of the 25 playoff games. His assist on Justin Williamsï¿½ shorthanded goal late in Game 1 put Carolina ahead, 4-3, after Edmonton had held a 3-0 lead, but Laviolette made him a healthy scratch in four of the next five games.
Not so for Game 7, as he was put back on the Adams line.
ï¿½After we lost two in a row (Games 5 and 6), I had a feeling that I thought they were going to put me back in to bring a spark,ï¿½ said LaRose, who fired two shots on goal in 12 shifts that totaled 9:01 of ice time in the clincher. ï¿½Coach told me the morning of the game that he was going to go with me and that he was disappointed he didnï¿½t put me in before, but if it wasnï¿½t for the coaching job Peter Laviolette did, we wouldnï¿½t have the Stanley Cup.ï¿½
Ironically, LaRose was chosen to be one of the players miked up by NBC for the Game 7 telecast, an honor he also was given by OLN during the Eastern Conference finals against Buffalo. And he was Cam Wardï¿½s roommate throughout the playoffs, something he took pride in because he believes his loose and humorous personality helped Ward loosen up.
Long after the final horn sounded and the players had taken the victory celebration into the locker room, LaRose realized the small microphone was still on his jersey.
ï¿½So I walked around the room asking the guys if they wanted to say anything to NBC and all of the viewers out there,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½Iï¿½m still trying to soak it all in.ï¿½
LaRose did just that with his teammates Thursday in captain Rod Brindï¿½Amourï¿½s pool, splashing around and gazing at the 34-pound, sterling silver trophy resting poolside.
Sometime later this summer or early in the fall, LaRose will get his one full day with the Cup, and heï¿½s already mapped out an itinerary. He plans to bring it down to the city park in the center of his hometown to share it with the ï¿½many people who supported me from the beginning.ï¿½