By Owen Newkirk || AHL On The Beat Archive
First impressions are frequently a terrible gauge of a person and his or her character. At first glance, Texas Stars rookie right wing Alex Chiasson might be misconstrued as being a bit quiet, even slightly reserved. But beneath a thin veil of stoicism flows a passion coursing so strongly that you might wonder how he maintains such a composed façade.
After playing three outstanding seasons at Boston University, things did not start as brightly as expected for Chiasson (pronounced SHAY-sahn) as he struggled to make the transition from college to the pro game. Following his junior year with the Terriers, the 22-year old St. Augustin, Que. native signed an amateur tryout with Texas and made his pro debut on March 29, 2012 against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
He enjoyed a decent spring with the Stars, scoring one goal and four assists in nine AHL games. That gave him the confidence heading into the off-season to start thinking about making the Dallas Stars lineup, all the while knowing his most likely path was to gain experience playing in Cedar Park.
“I was confident,” said Chiasson. “I knew that I could come here and start right away, be an impact player. But it didn’t turn out that way. I thought I had a pretty good training camp, came in to camp in great shape. There were things that Willie didn’t like in my game and things I needed to change.”
In Texas’ first 16 games of the season, Chiasson scored just one goal, playing in primarily in a third-line role and not seeing much ice time on specials teams. Additionally he missed four games at the end of October due to injury. Clearly things were not going according to plan for the young forward who was drafted by Dallas in the second round (38th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
While he was prepared physically, he found it difficult mentally to adapt to the lifestyle of pro hockey, both on and off the ice. Thankfully, he had excellent support from one of his closest and oldest childhood friends, Springfield Falcons’ AHL All-Star forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault.
“We grew up playing together when we were little kids, playing on the same team. We’ve kept really close. He wasn’t drafted and the same thing happened to him in Quebec. He had to work his way through the lineup in major juniors and ended up signing an ECHL deal.
“Last year he made the Connecticut Whale roster and ended up being an all-star player there. He just played his first two NHL games this past two weeks. He helped me a lot. Things aren’t always given to you’ve got to work for it.”
Stars first-year head coach Willie Desjardins was tasked with not only putting a winning product on the ice, but also developing Dallas’ budding young prospects to make the jump to the National Hockey League. Even with Chiasson’s solid pedigree, Desjardins was not entirely sold on the rookie power forward until he too discovered that incredible amount of passion.
“I think at the start, I wasn’t sure where Alex fit in, just with his overall game,” said Desjardins. “Then we got together and we talked and I was really impressed with his intensity, with how much emotion he had inside.
“I didn’t know that he was that hungry and had that much passion. Once I had that meeting with him it kind of let me see a different side to him.”
Stars captain Maxime Fortunus also took notice of both Chiasson’s struggles and his burning desire to succeed.
“I think it’s a big evolution,” said Fortunus. “When he came in at the end of the season last year, he still had to get adjusted to the pro game. It’s a totally different game from college hockey and even guys coming out of juniors.
“It’s really different, so they have to have that little period of adjustment. Same with the beginning of this season, I’m not sure if he was 100-percent comfortable with the pace of the game, but we saw that he was working really hard in practice and when you see guys working as hard as he was doing, you know that good things are going to come along the way.”
Still nothing happened right away.
Coach Desjardins did not immediately boost Chiasson’s ice time and throw him out on the power play, but the entire team was catching on to what this rookie was all about. Assistant Coach Doug Lidster lobbied with Desjardins, eventually convincing the Stars’ bench boss to give Chiasson a bigger role.
On Nov. 27 the Stars began a ten-day five-game road trip through Illinois and Michigan. Facing the Rockford IceHogs that night, Chiasson made his first big step forward as the coaching staff moved him up to a line with Cody Eakin and fellow rookie Reilly Smith. He scored a goal in the game, just his second of the season, and then followed it up with a two-point performance (1 goal, 1 assist) three nights later at Grand Rapids.
“We went through that road trip in November,” Chiasson recounted. “Where Willie gave me a chance to play with Eaks [Cody Eakin] and Reilly Smith. I did pretty well there and I gained a little bit of confidence. Plus it was a big road trip for the team, we won five of six.”
Seizing on the opportunity of playing more ice time and being on a top scoring line, Chiasson flourished. He played the next 19 games with Eakin and Smith and posted 12 points (5 goals, 7 assists. It was an awakening for a player who expected to produce from day one.
“Something just changed for me around Christmas time,” said Chaisson. “I realized that if I wanted to make it to the next level I had to be consistent every night, every shift, really bring my ‘A’ game. I couldn’t afford to take a night off, because the competition within the team between me, [Tomas] Vincour and [Colton] Sceviour for a top-two right wing spot was high. It’s good. This is what a team wants and why we are so successful, because guys are pushing each other. But also it’s tough because your spot is not always guaranteed. There are other guys fighting for it too.”
The next big step for Chaisson came as every team in the American Hockey League had its roster sent in disarray, courtesy of the NHL work stoppage coming to an end.
Texas was rolling, enjoying a season-best six-game winning streak, even as some of the top players in the Stars lineup headed up for training camp in Dallas. Thanks to a break in the schedule, Texas was able to rearrange a flight to Chicago and instead took the entire roster to Frisco to participate in two days of on-ice work at the Dallas Stars practice facility. Texas then flew to Chicago on the evening of January 15th, leaving eight players behind in Dallas for the rest of the short NHL camp. Chiasson was not one of the players getting an extended look with the parent club.
“I was a little disappointed,” Chaisson admits. “Obviously, you always want to make it up there, but I looked up and I said, this is a chance, there are guys going up, we’re going to need some guys to step up. I’m not the most vocal guy. I’ll talk here and there in the locker room, I’ll say a few things. I just knew that I had to step up on the ice.”
Amidst his disappointment, and seeing both of his linemates get the call to the NHL, Chiasson needed a new line. The coaches put him with center Justin Dowling, who had just been called up to Texas after leading the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads in scoring, and left wing Mike Hedden, who also stood to benefit from an expanded post-lockout role. It was evident to all that Chiasson took it upon himself to step up and take more responsibility on the team.
“Right after the lockout, after the training camp in Dallas, I think that’s kind of where he stood out the most,” said Fortunus. “He was skating hard and he kind of gave himself another role on the team. Because he saw that he was one of the leading guys up front and he had to lead the way for some of the guys.”
“He took a real big step at the end of the lockout,” said Desjardins. “All of a sudden we were missing quite a few players out of our lineup. We were looking for someone to take charge. We didn’t just have NHL players gone, but we also had some injuries at the time too It wasn’t that we went out and asked him to [take a bigger role], he just naturally stepped up and started doing it.
“He’s a winger, but all of a sudden he was taking key face-offs. He really battled for the team; he really took charge of the situations. He wanted the responsibility and he wanted the opportunity to be a leader. He carried us for quite a while.”
The next game did not go well, not just for the line, but for the entire team. Texas played a rare uninspired game and had its six-game winning streak snapped by the Wolves 4-1 on January 16th at Allstate Arena. Two nights later, the Stars earned revenge against Chicago as Chiasson produced the first virtuoso performance of his pro career. He scored twice in a four-goal first period that vaulted Texas to a 6-4 win over the Wolves. Chiasson grabbed the opening goal less than three minutes into the game and then scored perhaps the Stars’ best individual goal of the season seven minutes later. He received a long pass from rookie defenseman Jamie Oleksiak at the offensive blue line, toe-dragged around Chicago forward Andrew Gordon in the high slot and, in one fluid motion, fired a backhand shot below the glove of former Texas goalie Matt Climie and just inside the right post.
It may have just been the seminal moment of his rookie season.
“We had a tough night the night before and we needed something to get us going,” said Desjardins. “We needed somebody to step up and make things happen. It wasn’t just the goal; it was his approach to the game. He wanted to make something happen. He wasn’t just hoping we had a good game, he was going out after it.”
When asked about his highlight-reel goal he smiled almost sheepishly before admitting it was one of his best.
“It was pretty good. I’ve scored a few nice goals, but to do one like that in pro hockey […] that was something.”
Then he quickly turns serious again.
“Early in the season I was so scared to make plays and show the coaching staff and management what I could do,” adds Chiasson. “I just wanted to make sure I was a complete player and did the right thing and didn’t make mistakes. Now, the way the game is so fast, guys are so skilled, you have to play at that pace if you want to get up to Dallas.
“I set high standards. Obviously sometimes it doesn’t work out that way and you make turnovers. At the same time, you make a couple good plays, that goal I scored in Chicago, gave me a lot of confidence. I just said ‘I could do this here’ and I could pull off a lot of things that I knew I could do. Confidence wise, that really helped me a lot.”
Chiasson firmly grabbed the reins and led the charge through a dominant road weekend where the Stars scored 20 goals in a three-game sweep of Chicago, Peoria and Rockford. He tallied four goals and three assists in the three games, announcing himself as a force to be reckoned with in the AHL.
Chaisson has now played in 42 games and has 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists), ranking in the team’s top five in every offensive category. Couple his personal success with the fact that Texas currently sitting on top of the league standings and it is no surprise that he is relishing the moment.
“I look forward to coming to the rink now every day,” said Chiasson. “Willie plays me a lot. I think he has a lot more confidence in me and he expects a lot of me and so do I. With the NHL playing again, that’s where I want to be. I know there are lots of guys that spend a few years here [in the AHL]. For me to gain a lot of experience here, playing a lot of ice time, penalty kill, power play, it’s good for me. I’m around good guys here. The whole environment has made these last few weeks much better. This is something I was expecting, but like I said, I think I earned it. I just have to stick with it and keep moving forward.”
“He doesn’t want to stop at the level that he’s at,” said Desjardins. “He wants to go to another level. And you have to push yourself to do that. It was hard to find ice time in certain positions for him and in certain places. He didn’t get to play on the power play and I think he is one of the reasons that our power play has taken off. He is huge with the changes that happened to our power play.
“It is something that when you have good players, sometimes coaches just aren’t that smart and it takes a while to fit in. He wasn’t happy, but he was ready when his turn came and he made the most of it. He’s right, that’s the nature of our game. If you don’t keep playing you lose it. His only choice is to make sure he’s ready every night and ready to play.”
“I believe that everything happens for a reason,” echoes Chiasson. “I understand that sometimes it’s hard to make it to the NHL. You get so close, but the hardest part is getting there. That’s the thing; you just have to stick with it. You have to believe yourself, in your abilities to be a good player. When the time is right hopefully I make the jump and stick there.
The Stars’ head coach has high praise for Chiasson’s development to this point of the season, but quickly cautioned not to start predicting the future or gauge how far he can go.
“You can’t put limits on guys,” said Desjardins. I think that’s a big mistake when you go ‘well I think this guy can only get here’ because so often I’ve been wrong and guys have proven me wrong time and time again. I think Alex is the type of player that has a big upside and it remains to be seen where that upside goes. That’s kind of in his corner, where he wants to take it. He has the ability and the talent to play at a high level and to play there for quite a while. I think that’s something that he has to work on.
“The key is, when your chance comes, that you’re ready. It’s not about how quick you get there; it’s how long you stay when you get there. He’s the type of guy, with how he approaches the game, that I think has a chance to stay for a long time once he gets there.”
There is no doubting the incredible potential Chiasson has to one day make a big impact up in Dallas. Even his captain sees the possibilities.
“He is a big part of our team on the ice as a forward,” said Fortunus. “He’s a big face-off guy [even though he plays right wing], particularly on our power play. He’s been really good. His role is just going to keep going up and up. He’s one of the guys that goes the hardest in practice. For this year and for years to come he’s going to be good for this team and for other players around him.
Passion is a vital ingredient in sports. No professional athlete can succeed without it. Any team worth its salt plays with heaps of it. Alex Chiasson has an abundance of passion. It is because of that passion that he thought long and hard about leaving Boston University after his junior year. He made his professional debut with Texas on March 29, 2012 against the Hamilton Bulldogs at Cedar Park Center. Eleven months later, just days before the Stars winger will again face Hamilton, he confirms that it was the right move.
“I thought about staying for my senior year and getting my degree,” said Chaisson. “I’m only four or five credits away from graduation. Inside of me I thought that going back would be good, but I knew that the right thing was that I needed a new challenge. I needed something new for my hockey career and for my dream. I thought that coming here would be the best for me. As much as it was hard the first couple of months this season, now I’m really happy that I made that decision.”
The Terriers probably wish he was still playing in Boston on Commonwealth Avenue at Agganis Arena, but fans in Texas are glad that Chiasson is racking up points in a Stars sweater. In time, perhaps sooner than we think, the crest on his jersey will probably read “Dallas.”