The Farm Report
NORFOLK, Va. - When word reached Junior Lessard that the Dallas Stars had shipped him to the Tampa Bay Lightning, his reaction was similar to that he experience when scoring a goal. It's a familiar sensation for the 27-year-old, who's had a combined 67 tallies the last three AHL seasons, mostly with Dallas' affiliate in Iowa.
“I won't lie; I was excited when I heard about the trade,” said Lessard, who along with Iowa teammate Paul Szczechura, was moved on Jan. 15 and joined the Norfolk Admirals shortly thereafter. “Being with a new team gives me a challenge I was lacking in Iowa. I got called up for two games this year and when I came back down, I didn't have a bad attitude but it was hard to stay focused.”
After 3 ½ seasons in Des Moines, Lessard wasn't seeing much light at the end of the Stars tunnel. He believes that organization did him a favor with the trade and he's helped spark an upturn in the Admirals' performance since he arrived.
“Since I've been here, every game I'm excited to play,” said Lessard, who has four goals and 11 points for Norfolk, which embarks on a 17-day, nine-game road trip this week “I think I had lost a little bit of that excitement.”There wasn't much in the way of conventional excitement in St.-Joseph-de-Beauce, a rural Quebec town of 4,500 where Lessard grew up on his family's dairy farm. Lessard shot so many pucks at a net under the family's carport and so ravaged a nearby wall that his mother tried to hide his hockey goal in the barn.
In the winter, the youngster, given name Lucien Lessard, Jr., skated and played on the farm's frozen pond. But his dreams of hockey progression were calculated, and he acted upon them in his teens when he failed to reach an elite youth level needed as a steppingstone to major junior competition.
From then on, Lessard was determined to earn a U.S. college scholarship. Recruiters rarely came to his French-speaking region, however, because the language barrier was a deterrent to most players wanting to move away. Not Lessard, who jumped at the chance when a Saskatchewan scout offered to bring him West for a lower-level junior tryout.
Participating at that level, called Tier II in Canada, allows players to retain their U.S. college eligibility, unlike those a step higher in the major junior ranks. But Lessard found no room at his original tryout and was planning to head home to Quebec even after his rights were traded to a league rival in Manitoba.
Because that team's hometown was in the direction Lessard was headed anyway, he stopped and wound up making the team, called the Portage Terriers. Two seasons later, he was the Canadian Tier II player of the year after scoring 60 goals in as many games.
In reality, the transition wasn't nearly that smooth because Lessard knew only scattered English words. He understood virtually no practice instructions and would put himself last in line, watching those of ahead of him to make sense of the drill.
Off the ice, it was worse. He didn't know how to order food at restaurants, even fast food joints. “The same'' and “Me, too” became frequent phrases and he was taunted for his struggles and had his accent imitated.
Heading home at night to the family with which he was billeted, Lessard would watch an hour of soothing, French-language television. He didn't want to hear another word of English and he'd fall asleep by 7 p.m., utterly drained and often disheartened from the strain of trying to communicate in a foreign tongue.
“When I see new guys come here from someplace else, I don't make fun of them and I look out for them,” Lessard said. “I know how frustrating it is and how hard they try.”
Lessard's refusal to take the easy way out paid off when he accepted a scholarship to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, an NCAA Division I school with a long hockey tradition. The Bulldogs were only 7-28-4 his freshman year, the difficulty of which was compounded when he elected to become an English major.
Lessard's plan was to become an English teacher back home in Quebec when college was over. He later discovered he could have pursued an easier major specifically designed for that profession, but he stuck it out on a track that forced him to write hundreds of pages in term papers and wrestle with the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer, among others.
``I went through heck and it was really time-consuming, but I made it,'' Lessard said. ``The best part was that by the end, teachers were telling me I was better at writing than three-fourths of their English-speaking students.''
Lessard was also a pretty good swimmer, which saved his life one sunny and windy August day before his senior year. Park Point is a long, sandy-beached peninsula that separates enormous and foreboding Lake Superior from Duluth Harbor, and Lessard and linemate Evan Schwabe were enjoying the water with two female friends.
The quartet wasn't even swimming, just wading offshore in depths up to the men's chests, when their feet were lifted off the bottom and their bodies pulled irresistibly into the lake by a rip current. When the group's screams for help couldn't be heard above the waves, Schwabe made it out of the water and flagged down college professor David Israel, who had a boogie board, swim fins and a wet suit nearby.
Israel first rescued the two women, including Lessard's friend Leah Kasper of the UMD women's hockey team. That left Lessard fighting for his life a few minutes longer, swallowing large amounts of water and literally seeing his life flash before his eyes.
“I seriously saw everything going down the drain,” Lessard told the New York Times several months later. “My family, my hockey, my school, my career. And I was just telling myself not to think about it, I was going to get out of it. But you just panic.”
By the time Israel returned and towed Lessard to shore, he couldn't move his body except to heave it while he vomited blood from the 10-minute ordeal. He was taken to St. Mary's Medical Center and released after five hours and a batch of intravenous fluids. Meanwhile, other rip current victims were brought to the hospital.
Israel aided in the rescue of three more swimmers that day, but 21-year-old Matthew Rheaume died in roughly the same area where Lessard struggled, one of about 100 annual rip current fatalities in the U.S. It took Lessard three weeks to regain his strength and there was initial worry his lungs had been permanently damaged. At first, he couldn't sleep, envisioning his near-drowning every time he closed his eyes.
“A lot of people caught in a situation like that might have been history,” Scott Sandelin, UMD's coach, told Minnesota hockey writer Jess Myers. “Junior's lucky to have been an athlete in top physical shape.”
Given a fresh sense of perspective, Lessard had a mammoth senior season. He'd scored only four goals as a freshman and put in a combined 38 as a sophomore and junior. But he exploded for 32 tallies his final Bulldogs campaign and led them to the national championship semifinals.
Along the way, he captured the Hobey Baker Award as the nation's top Division I player, receiving it over the likes of Zach Parise and Brandon Bochenski, both of whom now play in the NHL. That's what was also expected of Lessard.
“He deserves all the accolades he's gotten,” Parise, who's now skated more than 220 games with the New Jersey Devils, said at the award ceremony. “I guarantee I'll be playing against that guy in the NHL soon.”
What made Lessard's ascension to the big leagues seem even more likely was that as an undrafted free agent, he was in the enviable position of being able to pick with which NHL organization to sign. Dallas showed long and intense interest and days after winning the Hobey, Lessard signed a $1.1 million contract with the Stars.
He had to be with them to earn that much cash, however, and after failing to make the team in his first training camp, he instead earned less than a tenth of that amount during a disappointing rookie season.
Dallas had no AHL affiliate at the time and spread its prospects to three different teams. Lessard went to Houston, where Minnesota Wild prospects comprised the majority of the roster and, skeptics would argue, got preferential treatment. Lessard had just 22 points in 71 Aeros games.
The 5-foot-11 redhead couldn't crack Dallas' lineup in any of its next three training camps, either, although he played eight Stars games scattered over those seasons, scoring a couple of goals. He earned AHL All-Star honors one winter and led Iowa in goals (27), points (52) and power-play goals (12) last season.
Lessard had 10 goals and 21 points in 36 Iowa games this season when he was sent to Norfolk in exchange for Admirals defenseman and team captain Dan Jancevski. Although he hasn't torn up Eastern Conference nets, Lessard has nonetheless impressed Norfolk coach Steve Stirling.
“He's a much better all-around player than I would have suspected,” said Stirling, who uses Lessard for penalty killing as well as for offensive situations. “But he's also scored a couple times where you said to yourself ‘That's a goal-scorer's goal.’ “
Lessard will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and again able to choose for which NHL team he wants to labor. But he's hoping to boost his appeal with some games for Tampa Bay before the end of the current campaign.
“You start from scratch with a new organization and I have to prove myself here first,” Lessard said of Norfolk. “Then if I get a chance, I have to prove myself to the coaches up in Tampa.”