EL SEGUNDO, CA — On November 9, forward Brooks Laich earned his first point with the Los Angeles Kings.
Five days later, he would play his last game with them.
Being a healthy scratch four times after that, and with some player personnel changes forthcoming, the writing was on the wall for Laich, who was placed on waivers on November 24. He cleared waivers the next morning, and was, on paper, anyway, assigned to the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League.
The Kings gave Laich the option to play for the Reign, but he chose not to do so, with their blessing.
“I think that option was available,” said Kings head coach John Stevens. “I think in Brooks’ case, he wanted to try and continue to play in the National Hockey League. This is home for him, so I think it was kind of a win-win situation for him and for us, but I think he’s at the point in his career where I do think he has other things that he has a lot of interest in doing.”
“He’s a very active guy,” added Stevens. “He’s a great personality, he’s a really solid guy. I don’t think, at this point in his career, he wants to go back to the minors and do that. I think if he wanted to, it would’ve been available to him, but I don’t think he wanted to go back to the minors, at this point.”
Almost immediately after Laich cleared waivers, by mutual agreement, he was placed on unconditional waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract. On December 1, a few days after his contract was terminated, he posted the following on Instagram:
“I want to sincerely thank the entire Los Angeles Kings organization for the incredible experience I had with you this season! The entire organization is first class in every sense of the word.”
“I am forever grateful for the opportunity you gave me, and the relationships and memories that came from it. I personally want to thank Mr. Blake, Mr. Stevens and his staff, the medical, equipment, weight room staff, and notably, of course, my teammates—what an incredible group of genuine people. I wish you all the success in the world, may you all have long and prosperous careers, and thank you for sharing in the mutual love of the game of hockey!”
Laich only played in twelve games for the Kings after being signed to a contract after Jeff Carter was injured on October 18.
As reported by several different outlets, Laich, who resides in the Hollywood Hills area of Los Angeles with his wife, dancer, singer and actor Julianne Hough, best known for her time on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars, worked out this past summer with some Kings players and was invited to the Kings training camp on a professional tryout contract.
The 34-year-old native of Wawota, Saskatchewan, a twelve-year NHL veteran, did not make the Kings roster out of training camp, but continued to practice with the team, and as reported earlier, when Carter was lost to injury, Laich was signed to a contract.
While this might seem like just the typical story of an older player in the twilight of his career, it is far from it. Indeed, Laich’s story runs deeper than that—it’s one about character, professionalism, what makes a player a good teammate, why players play the game, why they should play the game, and about how the business side of hockey can be so hard on the players.
After eleven seasons with the Capitals, Laich played the end of that season with the Maple Leafs. Last season, the Maple Leafs assigned him to their AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. But he played in just 27 games.
Laich talked about his road back to the NHL a little more than a week before his first game with the Kings as a healthy scratch.
“[Being traded to the Maple Leafs] was very difficult, especially because the way it was dealt with was difficult,” he said. “I just thought it could’ve been handled in a different manner. But missing out on playing in the NHL was what mattered the most.”
“I love the sport of hockey, but I really love NHL hockey,” he added. You don’t win the Stanley Cup at any other level than the NHL, and that’s what my goal is.”
The Maple Leafs made it clear what their situation was—they were going to play their young prospects the majority of the time—exactly what one should expect from a rebuilding team.
Laich understood the situation, but for an experienced, seasoned NHL veteran, sitting out for long stretches of games still stung.
“That was a big chunk of my life that really hurt,” he noted. “They were giving the keys to the kids there, and I understood that.”
“I’ll be honest. Some days, it was [very difficult to be a good teammate],” he added. “But they’re human beings. They’re kids who were trying to make it to the NHL. Having been there, knowing how special that is, I wanted them to get there, too.”
Indeed, one way Laich worked to keep his head up and remain positive was by helping the young prospects with the Marlies.
“There were some guys on the team who I developed special relationships with,” he said. “Kasperi Kapanen was one of them. I spent a lot of time with him, and there were other guys who I really connected with. It was actually their energy, and those relationships, that helped me get through the really dark days. They helped me as much as I, hopefully, helped them.”
By all accounts, Laich was the epitome of what a good teammate should be with the Marlies, using his NHL experience to help and encourage their young prospects. Nevertheless, as he alluded to earlier, his situation, not to mention how it was allegedly handled by the Maple Leafs organization, was extremely difficult and frustrating for him.
“I was in a very dark place,” he said. “One, missing out on the chance to be playing in the NHL. Two, in everything, even in sport, I know it’s a business, but the situation could’ve been handled with a little more of a human touch.”
The alleged lack of a human touch caused problems in his family life.
“I was doing the long-distance thing with my wife, and we had a set schedule, with her work schedule and mine, based off the [Maple Leafs] schedule, and being told to follow that, while [playing for the Marlies],” Laich explained. “That complicated things for my wife and I—we were unable to see each other. That was a struggle.”
But even from long distance, Hough played a key role in her husband’s ability to remain positive and focused.
“I’m very lucky that I have a strong and understanding relationship with my wife,” said Laich. “She’s very supportive. The year was a struggle for both of us. But I didn’t want it to be the end of me, and I didn’t want that to be the end of my career. Most important, I didn’t want to go out of hockey being upset at the game.”
“My wife was an amazing sounding board,” added Laich. “I went through a lot, personally. I always wondered if I would be able to get back [to the NHL]? Will I get another chance? Is this the end of it? You always have that in the back of your mind. But more than that, you just have a work ethic and desire. The way that I say it is that I still have a voice in that conversation, and that’s why I’m so grateful to be [a part of the Kings organization].”
As reported earlier, knowing that he was going to be doing more watching than playing with the Marlies, Laich shifted his focus towards this season.
“The whole time, I knew what the situation was,” he noted. “I knew that I wasn’t going to be playing much, so I had to develop and use the time to practice, absent the playing time. Even with the Marlies, they were playing the kids. I was caught in a very tough place, so I had to re-train my brain to come into the rink with a positive attitude, trying to get better and faster, as much as I could, whether it was working on my skills, working out, or watching video. It was a lot of hard work.”
Leaving Toronto, Laich brought his renewed focus to Los Angeles to try to catch on with the Kings, and as reported earlier, he earned an invitation to their 2017 training camp.
“Before camp, I was really in a peaceful place, because I had put in as much dedication and commitment to training and preparation this summer as I could,” he said. “It was almost a spiritual journey, because it was pretty much decided—I couldn’t do anything else [to get ready for the season]. I’m going to go out and do my best in camp. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen. The Kings asked me to stick around after camp because they liked some things that I did.”
Although Laich ended up being signed by the Kings, it looked like no contract was forthcoming, at least, not until Carter was injured, which had to be discouraging. But Laich stayed positive.
“I tried to keep that off my mind because that’s the wrong source of why I’m playing the game,” he emphasized. “Last year, I learned the hard lessons of the business side of the game. That made my angry and frustrated towards the sport, which I don’t want.”
“I just kept showing up with effort every day, and was luckily rewarded due to some bad breaks for some of my teammates,” he added. “That’s not the way you want it to happen, but sometimes, you need a little luck. We all do. I was able to get the opportunity, and now, I’m trying to make the most of it.”
It may sound rather cliché, but for Laich, playing hockey is all about his love for the game.
“I started playing this sport because I loved it,” he said. “This summer, that’s what I wanted to focus on—don’t worry about not having a contract. Don’t worry about not having a team, or that I might be on a professional tryout contract. [Instead], play the game because it’s your choice to show up and play because you love it. Get back to being your five-year-old self.”
“When I came to camp here, I said that I was just grateful to be here,” he added. “I was just excited to play the game, and that way, I feel like my best hockey comes out, as opposed to playing to try to earn a contract. I’ve always said that the day this becomes a job is the day I’ll retire because I’m playing for the wrong reasons.”
“I’m fortunate to still be playing now because I love the game, and I’m playing for the league minimum—it’s like I’m proving that it’s not about money,” he added. “I drive an hour to practice and an hour back home, so it’s a commute. I’m just excited to play the sport. I’m excited that my love of the game and why I play it is back in my life, and for the Los Angeles Kings to grant me that, I’m eternally grateful.”
Laich also heaped praise on his teammates, most notably, for the way they treated him before he was, technically speaking, a teammate.
“I’m very thankful for, and grateful to, my teammates, because even when I didn’t have a contract, they still treated me like I was part of the team,” he emphasized. “They didn’t push me to the outside like, ‘why is this guy here? He’s not signed,’ and they easily could’ve. They’ve been amazing to me. I’ll always remember this, and I’ll give it right back, ten-fold.”
“There’s a sign on the wall [in the Kings dressing room at their practice facility] that says, ‘it’s amazing what you can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the praise,’” he added. “It’s something we want to continue to build, and it’s something that I believe, for a winning team, it’s an absolute foundation. If you’ve ever had that before, you can’t go backwards to a team that doesn’t have it.”
“I’ve been on a team that’s had that before, and I want to help bring it here. The top guys already have it, and throughout the whole locker room, it’s already present. I just want to help add to it.”
Even though Laich had been signed to a contract, it seemed as if he knew his situation was tenuous, as if he could be right back where he began the season—without a contract and out of the NHL, which has, obviously, happened. But he certainly had the right attitude about it all.
“I just come in every day, enjoy my teammates, and enjoy the team I’m on. I think we’re building something special here, and I want to be a part of it,” he said. “I don’t think too far into the future.”
As of this writing, Laich has not announced if he will retire from the NHL—there is no indication that he has filed the necessary retirement paperwork with the league. As such, he could still try to find a spot with another team. But if you look at his Instagram feed, it does appear that he has moved on, perhaps going into fitness-related work.
Professional hockey is big business now, and has been for many years. It’s a machine that often chews up players and spits them out as if they were fodder, of some sort. It is so very easy to attend a game, or watch one on television, and completely forget or ignore the fact that the players are human beings with families and personal lives of their own. Laich’s story serves as a reminder of that fact. It also indicates that it deserves considerably more of our attention and care than it gets now.
LEAD PHOTO Former Los Angeles Kings forward Brooks Laich. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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