March 27, 2013

From NEHJ: Aucoin answers Isles' call

If you had to give Keith Aucoin’s night at TD Garden on Jan. 25 a headline, “Worth the Wait” would’ve been doubly accurate.

The Chelmsford, Mass., native had the first multigoal game of his NHL career for the visiting Islanders, scoring twice against a Bruins team he grew up rooting for. “It was one of the highlights of my career to do that,” said Aucoin. “I played in the Super 8 in high school and played there a bunch with Washington last year in the playoffs. I scored in the Garden in 1997, so it took me 16 years between goals there. It was nice to finally get on the board.”

A lot’s changed over the course of those 16 years. When the gifted pivot led Chelmsford High into the tournament, he was a fresh-faced, 18-year-old boy on the cusp of adulthood. Now, he’s a 34-year-old hockey veteran with a wife and an infant son. But all the while, Aucoin has continuously had to prove one naysayer after another wrong.

Despite an AHL career that’s seen him win two Calder Cups and crack the top 10 on the league’s list of all-time leaders in both points and assists, stints in the National Hockey League have been sporadic for Aucoin. After racking up 70 points in just 43 games for Hershey last season, Aucoin spent the stretch run up with the big club and made his long-awaited NHL playoff debut with the Capitals.

But after helping Washington knock off the defending champ Bruins and push the Rangers to seven games in the second round, there again seemed to be no room left at the inn for the former Norwich standout. He went on to sign a one-year deal with the Maple Leafs.

“I think that was the best chance I had to make the NHL out of training camp,” Aucoin said of joining the Toronto organization. “Washington signed a bunch of guys between July 1 and when we talked, so I thought it was a good opportunity for myself to stay in the NHL.”

After the lockout concluded, Aucoin headed to training camp as the leading scorer for the Leafs’ AHL affiliate, the Marlies. Little did he realize his time in Toronto would be ending soon, as the Bay State native was waived and subsequently picked up by the Isles. “We had two days of pretty hard practice and then we had an intrasquad game,” Aucoin recalled. “They put me on waivers the next day. I was with Mike Mottau (Avon, Mass.). We were going to the bus area for a road trip and I got a phone call right around 12:10. It was something new for me. I’d never been picked up on waivers. I’d never been traded. It was definitely a weird situation.”

Fortunately, the Islanders had no intention of sending Aucoin down to their farm team in Bridgeport. “It was good,” he said of having an NHL opportunity right off the bat. “Last year I spent half the season in Washington and then in the playoffs. It was just a matter of getting an opportunity to do it, and I’ve got an opportunity here. I felt it’s always been a numbers problem or my age. The league is getting a lot younger. It’s just all about getting my chance and capitalizing on it.”

With four goals in his first seven games with the team, capitalizing on an opportunity is exactly what Aucoin did on Long Island.

“Well I came in already in good shape,” he said. “Last year when I was with Washington, my role was a fourth-line guy. Here, they wanted more scoring out of me and they told me that. I’m looking for my offense a lot more, and I’m on the second power-play unit, so I’m getting a lot more ice time here.”

In the past calendar year, Aucoin has gone from Hershey to D.C. to Toronto and then down to New York. As a family man now, being on the move so frequently has been a bit of a challenge. “It’s tough,” said Aucoin. “I think the best part about Washington was it was only an hour and a half ride (from Hershey). Up in Toronto, if I made the Maple Leafs, we wouldn’t have had to move. It’s hard when you have to leave your family. They’re in Boston right now just waiting for me to get settled here, but in the long run it’ll be worth it.”

While earning a permanent NHL role has always been his goal, leaving behind a place like Hershey, where he led the league in scoring and won two championships, wasn’t easy either.

“I was there for the better half of four years,” Aucoin said. “I made a lot of close friends and the organization was great to me and my family. I wouldn’t trade anything for what we did there. Anytime you win a championship, it’s something you’ll never forget. I played with a lot of great players that helped me out. You don’t get the numbers I put up without great players around you. But at the same time, it was better for my career to move on.”

One of those close friends who aided in his success was Chris Bourque (Boxford, Mass.), who was traded to the Bruins and, much like Aucoin, is taking advantage of an opportunity as a third-liner and power-play presence at the NHL level.

What would Aucoin have said if told last season that he and Bourque would be going against each other in an Islanders-Bruins game in 2013? “I probably would’ve thought you were crazy,” Aucoin said. “Chris is a very good player. He’s a goal scorer and a playmaker. This year, he’s getting his first real opportunity to do it. I kind of felt bad after I scored against him, giving him a minus. But only for a little bit though.”

One thing Aucoin’s never felt bad about is how his hockey career has panned out. The 5-foot-8 center had to overcome being an undersized player from a Division 3 college when he joined the pro ranks. He spent part of his first pro season in the United Hockey League and later battled his way back up from the Central Hockey League and the ECHL to go on to become a surefire future AHL Hall of Famer and one of the all-time greatest hockey players from New England.

There are still plenty of goals he hopes to reach, including every hockey player’s be-all, end-all dream of winning the Stanley Cup. But for now, Aucoin is pretty proud of what he’s accomplished.

“Coming out of high school, I was told I wasn’t good enough to play college at the Division 1 level,” Aucoin said. “I’ve always been told I’m too small to play and it’s always been in the back of my mind that I’ve got to prove everyone wrong, and I’ve been able to do that. I’ve always believed in myself. If you want to call it a success story, you can. I’ve done everything I could and it’s been a great run.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ