by Brandon Kisker | AHL On The Beat
It’s all smiles for Stockton Heat forward Curtis Lazar.
Like, every day.
You’d have thought the smile would’ve taken a break when the 23-year-old native of Salmon Arm, British Columbia, was put through waivers for the first time in his career with the intention of being assigned to the AHL, where he’d only ever played 13 games.
But you’d be wrong.
A solid base growing up, the oldest of four siblings in a family of six, forced Lazar to be unselfish, kind, considerate and motivated.
“If you’re not having fun doing it, why do it?” Lazar questioned. “For myself, I’m in my fifth year pro at the age of 23, and I’ve been very fortunate and lucky to have the opportunities that I’ve had. All in all, I’m no different than anyone else.
“I can’t have a sense of entitlement, I’m just one of the guys who’s expected to come to work and earn my ice time like everyone else.”
With 245 games of NHL experience with the Calgary Flames and Ottawa Senators, the 17th overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft admits that the lofty expectations put on his shoulders haven’t panned out as planned.
But being even-keeled and grounded have helped Lazar persevere time and time again, and this time working with the Heat to try and get back to Calgary is no different.
“You control what you can control and if you can do that, you can hold your head high,” Lazar said. “I looked at this being my chance to come down here and better myself. If I can come down here, leave an impact on the guys, work on my game and enjoy the game again, then I’m going to do my job here and I’ll be in good hands.
“You have to learn and grow, and that’s not just hockey, that’s life in general.”
Life for Lazar hasn’t always been easy, but he’d always found his escape in hockey. And a set of morals by which to live and do right — not just by him and his teammates, but by everyone.
That, he says, starts with his parents.
“My parents and siblings have been very influential in my life,” Lazar said. “They taught me never to do something I don’t want to do and have always been supportive. As I got older they passed that torch to my girlfriend, Reanne, and she’s been that rock. She’s up in Calgary now taking care of our two dogs [French bulldogs Ollie and Duke], and I wouldn’t be able to come down here and do my thing if it weren’t for her.”
Coming to Stockton, Lazar was asked to “find his game.” A big point producer with the Edmonton Oil Kings during his final two seasons as a junior hockey player, Lazar’s best NHL season came in 2015-16 when he scored six goals and added 14 assists with Ottawa.
But the centerman will tell you that he’s not the razzle-dazzle kind of player. He’s a heart-and-soul kind of guy.
Lazar’s versatility and leadership ability are what made him such a special player then, wearing an “A” on his chest with the Oil Kings for two seasons and even captaining Canada to a World Junior Championship gold in 2015.
Those same leadership qualities, that same versatility, and that smile, is what will earn Lazar his full-time spot back in the NHL sooner rather than later.
“When I come to the rink, I know what’s expected of me, and I have to focus on working, that’s when I’m at my best,” Lazar said. “In the end, you work towards a common goal, and that’s to work and improve each and every day.
“We’re a month in now, and I really feel like I’m starting to find my game again.”
And if you define “game” as points, then yes, Lazar is finding his game, with a pair of goals and eight points in his first 10 games of the season.
However, his game isn’t just about producing points. It’s about winning faceoffs, playing responsibly across the ice.
Some are born leaders, and Lazar is that way.
A mature young man, Lazar may not have a large number in the “age” column, but he has experience, has a winning track record, and has worn an “A” for the Stockton Heat as part of head coach Cail MacLean’s rotating captaincy throughout the season.
Finding his offensive game, combined with his attitude and demeanor in Stockton, and his ability to lead the Heat are exactly the things that the Flames want to see out of a player they acquired in a 2017 deadline deal.
“You can lead by speaking, and you can lead by example,” Lazar explains. “I look at how hockey teams run and it’s just like a family; you have different aspects and dynamics in a family, and it’s the same with Reanne, Ollie and Duke. But Reanne is the captain of that relationship.
“That’s motivation enough to get back to Calgary. Here, I have all the tools to be successful, and it’s up to me to utilize them.”
It’s not just about his family away from the rink though, but his family at it. He thinks of his teammates as family, and when family hurts, Lazar hurts.
A morning meeting in Stockton ahead of the team’s cancer event on November 3, MacLean announced that forward Andrew Mangiapane had given up his “A” for the night and given it to defenseman Adam Ollas Mattsson, who lost his mom to cancer six years ago.
A terrific gesture for sure. And not the only one of the day.
During the morning skate, MacLean and Lazar shared a moment together, and a suggestion, about how cool it would be to buy Ollas Mattsson’s jersey in the auction and give it to him.
A proposal to the team (minus Ollas Mattsson) later, Lazar found himself bidding against Heat fans after the game on the ice.
“You can see [family values] in the way our group as a whole embraced that idea,” Lazar explained. “It was pretty special, the way Adam acknowledged it. A simple thing like that goes a long way. It just shows that hockey is a game, it’s a job.
“But life is a lot larger than chasing a piece of rubber around the ice.”
Wise beyond his years, and looking to earn his spot back in Calgary, Lazar’s determination to earn back his spot chasing around a puck on the Saddledome ice might be great motivation.
Until the day that Calgary comes calling, Lazar’s attitude and his friendship will continue to be a guiding light in the Heat locker room as a top contributor on the ice, and a friend and confidant off it.
And that smile.
That smile will continue to light up the dressing room, and remind his teammates that they are more than just that to Lazar.