December 23, 2009

Local pros reach winner's circle

by Gavin Faretra

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Keith Aucoin isn’t unfamiliar with the whole championship celebration thing.

In high school, Aucoin won a Division 1 state title with Chelmsford (Mass.). In college, he tallied 238 career points over four years at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., leading the Cadets to their only Division 3 national title in 2000.

While Aucoin cherishes the championship memories he made during his amateur days, the feeling he received inside the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa., last month is something he will never forget.

Aucoin’s empty-net goal, coming with 21 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup finals, not only sealed a 4-1 win for his Hershey Bears, but locked up the franchise’s league-record 10th Calder Cup.

For Aucoin, it was validation. Eight years of hard work. Eight years of sacrifice. Eight years to wait for his first professional hockey title.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” he said. “But I can’t wait for it to kick in because I’ve been in this league for eight years now, so to do it after eight years felt really good.”

Aucoin was one of more than a dozen players with New England ties who celebrated championships this season, either in the U.S. or overseas.

The 30-year-old veteran forward played his first game in the AHL for the Lowell Lock Monsters in 2001, potting six goals and 10 assists in 30 games. The following season he played 78 games for the Providence Bruins, where he racked up 74 points.

Stints in Cincinnati, Memphis (of the Central Hockey League), Providence and Lowell over the next three years turned Aucoin into the prototypical professional hockey league journeyman.

Then, in 2005, the Carolina Hurricanes organization called. And it was with the Hurricanes – and their AHL affiliate, the Albany River Rats – that Aucoin found some stability. In three years with the organization, Aucoin was able to play 53 games with the big club and 103 with the River Rats, which included a career-high 99 points with Albany in just 65 games in 2007.

“They gave me my first chance to play in the NHL,” Aucoin said. “It’s a great group of guys and a great coaching staff, and they really improved my game. I owe them a lot.

“But (after the 2008 season) I knew they were going to go in a different direction and I was OK with that; that’s all part of the business.”

As free agent last summer, Aucoin wasted little time in deciding on Hershey, the AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals.

“It was an easy decision,” he said. “I knew when I signed we would have a good team. There’s a lot of tradition in Hershey, and I knew we’d have a good chance to win. The guys that are here are great and it made (the transition) a lot easier on me.”

Aucoin potted eight goals and added 21 assists in his first 20 games with the Bears before the Capitals requested his services in early December. Aucoin suited up for three games with the injury-plagued Caps, where he went pointless with five shots on goals and a plus-2 rating. He would be called up again at the end of March and went on to finish the season in Washington, playing the last nine games.

The brief stretch didn’t come without highlights, however. He recorded his first assist as a Cap on March 16, scored his first goal as a Cap on April 1 and even picked up a power-play goal on April 5 against Atlanta – a goal assisted by 2009 NHL MVP Alexander Ovechkin.

“I have a really good picture of him passing the puck to me when I scored the goal,” Aucoin said proudly. “Everyone knows what kind of player he is and that makes it that much more special.”

But when the NHL season ended, so did Aucoin’s time in Washington.

“I was happy with how I played and I showed them what I could do,” Aucoin said. “They were really close to the salary cap and had a couple guys coming back (from injuries), so I knew there was a good chance I was going to be sent back down.

“But I was with Hershey for pretty much the whole year, so to get sent back down to a team you’ve been with all year, I was OK with that because I knew we were going to have a chance at a deep playoff run.”

Indeed.

Aucoin helped the Bears to a 4-0 sweep of the Philadelphia Phantoms in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs, and then facilitated a narrow escape in the second round when Hershey fought back from a 3-2 series deficit to defeat the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in seven.

Round 3 saw the Bears take down Providence in five games. And then there was Hershey’s six-game ouster of the AHL’s top overall team, the Manitoba Moose, in the Calder Cup finals, capped off by Aucoin’s empty-netter.

“Scoring that goal was really awesome,” said Aucoin, who ranked fifth in playoff points with 18. “We were up 3-1 and I thought we were playing really good, but I knew it wasn’t going to be over until that final buzzer. (Manitoba’s) a good team and were coming at us pretty good, but as soon as I shot it I knew it was going in and I saw the bench erupt and it finally kicked in that we were going to win it.”

After the customary pig pile and handshakes, Aucoin and the Bears each took their turn hoisting the Cup.
“It was a lot heavier than I thought it was going to be,” Aucoin said. “But, to finally put it over my shoulders and celebrate was pretty fun. … The ultimate dream is to win the Stanley Cup and now that I have this one, hopefully next year I’ll have a chance to do it with Washington.”

If history’s any indication, that appears to be only a matter of time.