Lessard sees NHL future in the Stars

by Lisa Colonno || Des Moines Register

Junior Lessard spent summer hours under a carport on his family’s Quebec dairy farm, armed with a hockey stick and puck, practicing shooting techniques.

He skated away winter days on the frozen family pond envisioning a professional career in the sport he was determined to dominate.

His path from rural to pro hockey involved learning a new language, moving to the and winning the Heisman Trophy of college hockey — the Hobey Baker award — in 2004.

The right wing now skates for the Iowa Stars in his second American Hockey League season. The AHL All-Star has returned from a late November injury with a vengeance. Lessard surpassed his rookie season points total in about one-third of the games and is in a tie with center Toby Petersen as the Stars’ top goal scorer.

The dream began in rural French-speaking Quebec.

"I drove (my parents) crazy sometimes, but I’d play hockey under the carport and shoot pucks on the asphalt," said Lessard, 25. "I’d move the car back and shoot and just wreck the wall. They had to change the door probably about 10 times when I was growing up. Summer, it’d be 95 outside and I’d have my hockey stick, my net. My mom would go and hide my goal in the barn and I’d go and get it."

Lessard felt the pain instantly after taking a hard check, but finished the Stars’ Nov. 19 game against Hamilton.

The hit, which resulted in a separated collarbone and sternum, kept him off the ice for the next three weeks. He missed nine games.

Putting on a shirt turned into a challenge.

"I couldn’t sleep for about a week," Lessard said. "I could only sleep on my back and the first three days I had to fall asleep in my La-Z-Boy."

That collision changed the course of his season.

Lessard played preseason games with the Dallas Stars and stuck around with the team until the final roster cut. Dallas called him up to the NHL twice in October, and he played five games and notched his first NHL goal.

When he returned to Des Moines, he said he worried too much about Dallas instead of his game.

He had seven points and a minus-six rating with Iowa at the time of his injury.

"I was mentally tired. I needed to get away a little bit, to rest and change my mind," Lessard said. "I think it gave me time to reflect on what type of player I was and what were my goals… I just started from scratch."

He came back with a renewed focus on having a complete game offensively and defensively.

Lessard has 32 points in the last 39 games since returning to the ice Dec. 16. He played for the Canadian All-Star team in the AHL All-Star Classic Feb. 1.

The AHL named him player of the week after a five-point performance in Chicago on Jan. 7.

"I had been waiting for that since I’ve been in the American League, to have that type of game and have a huge impact," Lessard said. "That’s what I want to be. I want to be a leader. I want to have an impact on everything I do."

He posted three points in Iowa’s 5-4 shootout win at Hamilton on Monday and is tied with Petersen for a team-high 20 goals.

"He’s been a dangerous player as of late," said Scott White, Iowa’s director of hockey operations. "I’m sure he’ll credit his linemates, but he’s a part of that line too. I’m sure he’s on the scouting report when teams play the Stars."

Lessard left home at age 17, without knowing English, to play in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League with the goal of snagging an NCAA scholarship.

Minnesota-Duluth came calling during his second season of junior hockey. Lessard chose to study English at UMD and steadily improved his numbers on the ice each season.

"I took a very different route for a guy coming from Quebec," Lessard said. "Maybe one kid out of 5,000 would go to U.S. college. I had my road traced in my head. I knew what I wanted to do."

In the summer between his junior and senior seasons, Lessard got caught in a dangerous rip current while swimming in Lake Superior. A fellow swimmer came to his rescue, pulling him ashore. Like this season’s injury, the near-drowning seemed to galvanize Lessard.

He became dominant in his senior year, finishing as the top scorer in college hockey (32 goals, 63 points), winning the Hobey Baker and leading UMD to a berth in the NCAA Frozen Four.

Expectations quickly followed the award.

The undrafted free agent signed with the Dallas Stars less than one week later in April 2004 and he started his first AHL season in Houston that fall.

Francois Giguere, Dallas assistant general manager, said the Stars liked Lessard’s work ethic and offensive flair.

"He was a scorer in college and it’s always a little tougher to find a player who is good at putting the puck in the net," Giguere said.

Lessard posted 22 points in 71 games last season with Houston.

He’s taken another step from rural Quebec toward the NHL while in Des Moines.

The ultimate goal of playing regularly in the NHL remains within reach.

"This year he’s at another level," Giguere said. "He’s come back from his injury and his line with Toby Petersen, Loui (Eriksson) or with Mathias (Tjarnqvist) has taken off. He’s also taken pride in his all-around game. He’s focusing on his own end so he can be in situations where we’re down one goal and want to shut down the opponent.

"That’s part of the maturation process of a hockey player."

Lisa Colonno covers the Stars and the AHL for the Des Moines Register