(photo: Lee Calkins )
I play a pretty simple game. I’ve been well coached throughout my career so I understand the game, the systems, and that makes the game easier for me. I want to help the young guys realize that you can be as skilled as you want but if you don’t play within a system you’re not going to be successful.
Derek Couture has earned every inch of ice that his aggressive power forward role for the Ontario Reign demands. Having just surpassed his 500th professional game, he didn’t find it to be that big of a deal, making the 500 mark, and Couture is certain there are lots of players that make it that far. At the same time, he realizes that to have made it this far, it has taken commitment, sacrifice, and dedication.
“I’m just proud that I’ve made it,” Couture said. “I haven’t had the easiest career in hockey. It’s been disappointments, there’s been adversity. There were times early on in my career when I was like, ‘what am I doing? I should figure it out, get a job.’ For me I’m just proud that I was able to work through that, just continue to play and continue to live the dream.”
A captain who has weathered the highs and lows of a professional hockey career, grinding it out in the minor leagues, gives young guys coming in to the league a perspective on the game and the work ethic that is required to truly make it. Couture has lived it and his career has been a learning by doing experience right from the get-go.
Derek Couture grew up near Calgary, Alberta and began skating as soon as he could walk. He had an older brother that was 2 years older than he was who started playing hockey. His parents didn’t want to wait and started Couture at the same time, around the age of 4. Surprisingly, he didn’t watch a lot of hockey growing up. He grew a love of the game, from playing the game for hours on end with his friends.
“If we weren’t playing ice hockey, we were playing street hockey for six hours a day. I never started watching hockey until my friends started playing in the NHL, and the only time I was watching the game was to watch them play.”
His parents, particularly his dad, gave him the drive to play and to work hard, especially when it came to pushing his career professionally. He had many coaches growing up, but Couture said that because of where he grew up, making it to the next level was never really talked about as a possibility. He believes that the way he was raised gave him the work ethic to play hockey.
“My dad never told me like some dads, if you want to play at the next level what you have to do is this or that. He more encouraged me to just have good morals, work hard at it and be a man. Even if I had a job being a welder, he would have told me that. He supported me no matter what.”
His parents learned along with Couture about how the junior hockey system worked in Canada. They had no experience with how it all worked and it was overwhelming at the time to be forced into making some pretty life-shaping decisions at such an early age.
“The WHL teams are calling you before the draft, I didn’t even know what it meant at the time. They would call me and say ‘what are you going to do? Are you going to play in the Western Hockey League or are you going to go to college?‘ And at 14, I was like I don’t know?”
He remembers a call from one team where they asked him if he had made a decision. They asked him what his marks were in school at the time and Couture wasn’t necessarily the best student at 14. When he told them his grades, they convinced him that the WHL was where he’d need to be as his marks wouldn’t be good enough for college hockey.
He played for the WHL Saskatoon Blades for four years from 2000-2003 and then went to the Seattle Thunderbirds for one season before turning pro with the AHL Omaha AK-Sar-Ben Knights. The WHL overall was a good experience for Couture and while playing you still get a quality education. He learned a lot about how to handle himself as a professional athlete. The WHL rolls four lines, players are healthy scratched and you have to earn your spot to play. He thinks that what he learned in juniors helped him immensely in his first professional year.
“I went through that hardship, getting healthy scratched or not getting playing opportunities when I was young which gave me tougher skin when I turned pro. I learned how to battle through the adversity and keep playing.”
Now that Couture is captain for the Ontario Reign, he takes a lot of pride in helping out the younger guys navigate their first year. He wants to make it easier for them, easier than he had it. It’s one of the main reasons he likes coming back to the team. He knows how difficult it is to be in the ECHL, especially for guys who have been sent down from the AHL level. It’s an adjustment and Couture wants to support them as they strive for the next level. He’s found that the best way he can be there for the guys coming in is to show them how important it is to be a professional off the ice. The coaches take care of the on-ice skills and he realizes that a lot of the young guys have way more skill than he has, so Couture doesn’t feel it’s his place to critique their game, but he can help them get to the rink on time and show up looking like a pro.
“That stuff counts. If you handle yourself professionally off the ice, coaches and general managers and everyone at the next level will respect you that much more. I tell them too if you are going to go out and have a good time, you better be the best players out on the ice the next day at practice. It’s those little things I can do to help them get to the next level.”
Work ethic is a big part of the game for Couture, both on and off the ice. He says that players have to realize that it’s more than just the game, it’s a business and that you are getting paid to be the best you can be, regardless of whether you are on the ice or out with the fans. Presenting yourself in a professional manner has helped him get to where he is. He tells young guys that this is just one more thing that can help separate them from the pack, because there are so many players out there that have the same skill set and drive.
Skill and work ethic aren’t the only pieces that new players have to have. They also have to understand how to play within a system. Couture plays a pretty simple game and he hopes that young guys see that how he plays is how their coach wants them to play. He plays hard within the system and that is why he is successful.
“You can be as skilled as you want, but if you don’t play within a system you’re not going to be successful. At the next level, the American League, they are so systematically sound that if you don’t know how to play within that you are going to get sent back down to the ECHL.”
Couture understands how important it is to play within a system. It’s one of the reasons that the Los Angeles Kings Organization has been so successful at all levels. Their coaching staff is dedicated to developing young players. Couture feels Reign Coach Christie and Coach Hardy have been instrumental in his success on the ice. With new players in and out all the time at the ECHL level, having a good system is key to a complete team and Couture believes that the way they coach has set both him and the team up for success.
Couture enjoys playing for the Ontario Reign and he realizes how lucky he is to play for a team in Southern California. When he isn’t on the ice, he loves to get outdoors, play golf and spend time with his friends at the nearby beach or even Disneyland. There aren’t many teams that have those amenities close by almost year round, especially in the ECHL.
“I love it but I appreciate it. I’m living in California, sitting by the pool and playing hockey, going to the beaches and I deserve this, I’ve made my sacrifices, because I’ve played in places where you just don’t want to be.”
Now that Couture has surpassed 500 games, does he think he’ll go another 500?
“I’m just going to ride this thing out until somebody with credibility comes up to me and tells me ‘Listen you don’t have it any more, you’ve gotta stop.’ Who knows when that will be.”