(photo: Jack Lima Photography)
The game gets you, it’s in the blood. When it is all you’ve known since you could walk, it’s hard to let go. The passion is there, that never dies. The body is another thing altogether. Hockey is brutal to the body, especially for a defenseman, who is asked night in and night out to check hard, sacrifice the body blocking shots and sometimes drop the gloves for a teammate. Just when you think you are done, the game calls you back; just one more season, one more. In mid-December, defenseman Mario Larocque left his wife and two children back home in Quebec to get another chance to play the game he loves for a coach he believes in with the Stockton Thunder.
“At first I thought I was going to retire this year. I have a family back home, so having a family that can’t follow me anymore made things way harder and as far as my career goes so I thought that was going to be it, but then you know you still have the passion to play. This is what I’ve done for my entire life so I started looking around and surprising as it was the next couple days I had a few options.”
At 36 years old, Larocque has played in every major league in North America along with teams in Europe and the United Kingdom, racking up over 900 games across the leagues. He was drafted in the first round, 16th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1996 and went on to play in five games in the NHL after three seasons with the QMJHL Hull Olympiques. To be drafted in the first round and then go on to play in the NHL the first year you go pro, is a dream for so many hockey players.
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Although he didn’t spend long in the NHL, he had the chance to play in Montreal in front of his friends and family, an experience he would never forget, particularly since he almost had to start the game with borrowed equipment, given that the airline lost his luggage. Luckily, it all arrived right before the game.
Larocque has been a consistent player in the minor leagues, collecting points and penalty minutes along the way. He first met Thunder Head Coach Rich Kromm in the 2009-10 season when he played for the IHL Muskegon Lumberjacks. He then followed Coach Kromm to Evansville and served as the alternate captain for the then CHL Icemen. Last season he spent overseas with the Braehead Clan of the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) and finished the season in April. It was an easy decision to become a part of the Thunder with Kromm as coach.
“He’s a coach I respect a lot. Obviously he’s played the game, so it’s always fun when you are coached by a guy that knows exactly how you feel and what you are going through as a player. Just the way he runs things at practice or the way he is around the guys, I like him a lot as a coach, so he was a big part of me coming here.”
Larocque, in all his seasons of professional hockey has also never played out in the Western Conference, so the opportunity to play for a team on the West Coast was a big draw for him as well. He finished up his season with the Braehead Clan back in April and had not played since then. When he joined the Thunder in Mid-December, it was on the road immediately to face the Bakersfield Condors. Those were his two first real games since last April. Getting your hockey legs back after such a long break can be tricky and in those first few games back on the ice Larocque wanted to stick to a simple game plan.
“For a guy that hasn’t played that kind of level for a long time I thought I felt pretty good. The second night I felt way better. The first night I kept it pretty simple, I didn’t want to over commit or anything. I stayed back a bit but then I felt better the second game and Krommer gave me a little more time on the power play and stuff like that so obviously that helps to get into it.”
The simplicity paid off and he racked up two goals in his second game back and managed to get under the skin of the opposing goaltender, Condor’s Frans Tuohimaa with his first goal.
“The first goal was huge for me. I was just hoping to get that pass and I was wide open in the slot there and he saw me at the last second so and I battled through it and found a way to score that goal. I was kind of surprised to see that the goalie came at me, but it made my goal even better.”
Larocque is making an impact for the team, especially since the Thunder are without their veteran defenseman Ryan Constant managing the blueline due to injury. He finishes his checks, points the power play, buzzes the net and heightens the energy on the ice when it’s needed, exactly the kind of player Coach Kromm wants on the ice night in and night out. In the end though, Larocque is happy to be back out there, playing his passion.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m just trying to be the best I can be out there every night and if I can be a leader for the younger guys then great, but I just want to be one of the boys you know and enjoy my last few games.”