Hockey players can be nomads.
They leave to far-away towns as teenagers and spend their high school days on bus trips. They go off to college in different states. They turn pro and who knows where they’ll end up.
Keith Aucoin knows that the opportunities for him near his hometown of Chelmsford, Mass., – directly next door to Lowell – are rare.
“I was excited,” Aucoin says about the phone call this summer from Lowell head coach Tom Rowe, telling him that the Carolina Hurricanes were interested in signing him. Aucoin had helped eliminate the Lock Monsters from the Calder Cup Playoffs just months before with the Providence Bruins.
“The first idea was to give myself a good shot at making the lineup in Carolina,” he says. “But it was nice knowing that if I didn’t make the team I’d be playing close to my family. They’ve been driving so far all these years to watch me play that it would be great for them.”
For Aucoin, the story starts much earlier though. He starred at Chelmsford High School, but undersized at 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds when he graduated, the Division-I offers didn’t exactly pour in, despite his dominance.
But having a connection with former high school coach Jack Fletcher landed him at Division III Norwich University in Vermont, where he shattered every offensive record at the school. He was named ACHA Player of the Year during his senior season in 2000-01 and won a Division III National Championship in 2000.
Meanwhile, midway through his college career it was announced that Lowell would join the American Hockey League.
But it still didn’t happen for him right away. From Norwich he made the jump to the United Hockey League, in Binghamton, N.Y. Though he played just 44 games in 2001-02, Aucoin ranked second among all rookie scorers and was named to the UHL All-Rookie Team, but not before he bolted for his shot at the American Hockey League – in Lowell.
“Tom [Rowe, Lock Monsters president and GM that season] knew my college and high school coach in some roundabout way,” says Aucoin. “They were talking about me and Tom was looking for someone to help out and [Coach Fletcher] told him he thought I could play at this level.
“So I got my shot.”
And he took advantage of it. Aucoin relished the opportunity to play in the AHL in Lowell and impressed with six goals and 16 points in 30 games. But two seasons with Providence and one season with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks gave him a taste of being a visitor at Tsongas Arena and playing against the Monsters.
“I didn’t put any more pressure on myself for those games. But obviously you want to play well against your old team and make them feel like they made a mistake by letting you go.”
The Aucoin entourage paraded through the turnstiles last year to see the local boy wearing the sweater of the Baby B’s, and scoring prolifically in a memorable AHL season. He led the Bruins in assists and finished third in points. And he performed admirably against the Monsters in that Atlantic Division Final series, putting up one goal and six assists in the five-game elimination of Lowell.
Now they come through in droves to see him in the red and white of the Monsters, on some nights more than two dozen of them.
“My friends and my family are calling all the time for tickets,” he says, shrugging it off. “But I figure you have to enjoy it while you can. It’s not every day that your family all gets a chance to come see you play.
From right in Lowell’s backyard where he started this trek he has returned. He’s the native son who never seemed to get a break along the way, back full-circle in Lowell and thankful for the opportunity that came his way because the AHL came to him.
“I never knew if I’d get a chance to play after college,” he reflects. “But Tom and the Lock Monsters made it possible. If there wasn’t a team in Lowell, I may never have had the chance to play in the AHL.”