Star Power On and Off the Ice

Although I’ve never met David Beckham in person, he immediately comes to mind when I am introduced to Ontario Reign captain Derek Couture. Couture, 28, is a veteran of eight seasons of professional hockey which have taken him from Omaha to Charlotte, Elmira to Victoria, with a stop in Europe thrown in, and now, for two seasons, to California.

He has, in his own words, “bounced around” in hockey, an obvious contrast to becoming the shining star that Beckham did in soccer. But it’s his look and poise that remind me of Becks. Couture is sure of himself in a way that some athletes are, but every actor is. He resembles the Beckham who took his skills off the pitch and onto Madison Avenue. He’s a natural winner, the kind of guy who could raise millions in the venture capital business just by reassuring you that the idea he’s proposing is going to be successful.

So what’s he doing in the minors, and why hasn’t he played even a single NHL game? The obvious answer: he’s good enough to dominate in the ECHL and survive in the AHL, but not talented enough to compete in the top league. But saying that diminishes his efforts on the ice and his magnetism off of it.

His stats show that in 427 professional games coming into Friday, December 7th, he has 844 penalty minutes. Last year in Ontario, he had 179 PIMs. This year, coming into Friday, having played 19 games, he already had 90.

None of this squares with the face I see in front of me, which has nothing of the hockey thug’s features. And in truth, it’s in no way fair to assume that fighting is the limit of Couture’s talent. He also had 60 points in 65 games last year, and has 20 points in 21 games this season (following Saturday).

On the night I saw him play, he had one fight and got high-sticked once more, right under the jaw late in the game by the same player he battled earlier. He also scored a goal on six shots.

The fight seemingly happened out of the blue. Other post-whistle action was going on in the corner when he jumped the defenseman who had been covering him on the play in front of the net, and they duked it out. Watching from the press box, I thought immediately of what Shane O’Brien told me one time about his minor-league hockey life.

“I knew the only way to move up was to fight my way out of the league I was in,” he said. “So I fought every night. And these were men, big men.” But Couture’s stature at 6’1” 205lbs and his obvious grace on the ice don’t add up to an NHL career forged with one’s fists. So what was his motivation?

When I asked him about it after the game, he said frankly, “Well, I just thought he [Erik Burgdoerfer of Bakersfield] was taking liberties on me. He was giving me stick work. To me, I don’t have to take that stuff.”

The tone is what’s interesting here—kind of questioning. When I ask about the late high stick, and whether it was retaliation, he says, “I don’t know, I mean, I got all stick in the jaw there, so I think it was.” Again, the tone is tentative, not angry, and not resigned to violence as part of the life of the minor-leaguer. The statement is one of fact, coupled with a kind of puzzlement. Why should a veteran and the captain of a successful team have to put up with cheap shots? Couture’s answer is simple: he shouldn’t, and I won’t.

But that still leaves a contradiction, because Couture’s actions don’t square with the image of the man I see in front of me, sharply dressed in a new skinny-fit suit, raffish hair styled in the combined shaved-and-long look of a GQ model, and with a perfect set of what look like natural teeth.

In larger perspective, I wonder why his numbers haven’t added up to a career which ended in the NHL? Forget the fighting. He dominates with the puck, and he scores a point a game at the ECHL level.

This is the puzzle of Derek Couture, a puzzle which has two parts. One is to ask how he has survived the battles he has obviously fought, yet come out seemingly so unscathed. The other is to wonder why he continues to make these kinds of efforts. Of course, this should be obvious—like everyone else playing hockey at all levels, he has an NHL dream.

The truth is, it’s getting pretty late for him to see that dream come true, and he knows that. “Twenty-eight years old,” he starts to explain, “I don’t want to say the dream is dead, but the possibility of making the NHL is pretty minimal. Me being a veteran in the AHL doesn’t help. You know the veteran rule of five guys per team doesn’t help. It fills up with guys who put up sixty points in the American league, or ex-NHL guys or something like that.”

So if he’s resigned to that not happening, and if his career right now consists of dominating night by night at two tiers down from the NHL while fighting his way through the various thugs and cheapshot-artists that other ECHL teams send his way, is it possible to make sense of his story, to feel good about what must be frustration at not having made the biggest league?

This being Christmas season, my mind wanders to all the feel-good movies on cable in December. Maybe, somehow, Ontario, California, serves as a place where Couture can find peace with the loss of his hockey dream?

Sort of. He explains: “You know what? I like being in Ontario and working with the young guys here and trying to be a leader.” He expands on what he sees as his role: “I am a guy that everyone in the room can come talk to. I’ve been through most of the things guys are going to go through, so I give them what I think. They take it, however it can help them.”

I ask him where he might end up after hockey, thinking he might say “right here.” The Christmas plot again—guy looking for self find roots where he least expects them. But his answer is immediate. “Calgary. I can’t live anywhere else. California is great, but I’ve gotta be in Calgary, for friends and family.”

And when he does end up back there one day, what will his summation of his career be? He described the journey to me by saying, “I’ve bounced around. I don’t think I got fair shots in the American league, especially the first few years. Under Ryan McGill with Calgary’s organization, I don’t think I got a fair shot there. Four minutes a game for two years straight, there’s nothing you can do. I did what I had to do, and then Calgary didn’t sign me after my third year there. [I] went to Europe. Things obviously didn’t work out there, came back. Um, had a good thing going on in Hartford, but same thing—they never wanted to sign me to a contract. But, you know what? I’m happy here.”

So is that why he is still playing?

For some, stretching out a hockey career past the point where there’s going to be a big payoff might seem like delaying the growing up process. Maybe it’s a matter of a lack of ability to create an identity aside from hockey.

“I don’t know. I mean, so many questions, but I just take it one day at a time. I don’t know how long I’ll be playing this game. With all honesty, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I just, every day, I want to do a job. They’re paying me, so I gotta work.”

He follows up by saying, “You should think about what you’re going to do after hockey, but I’ve never been that guy. I’m focused on one thing right now, and that’s the game. And when this game comes to an end, I’ve gotta take it from there.”

His answers are honest in their indeterminacy. But they lead me to wonder: Take it where? With some players, you worry. Their prospects after the game seem vague, lost, their lives so narrow for so long that there’s nowhere else for them to go. With this guy, there’s the sense that his genuineness, combined with his seeming lack of knowing how powerful a presence he is, will somehow add up to offer him his next opportunity. It’s like he’s got the fame gene, but he doesn’t quite realize it. Maybe he won’t get wildly rich like Beckham has, especially if he moves back to Calgary. But he’ll find a way to be successful, even if he doesn’t know what that is right now.

I find myself going away from my encounter with Couture with a combination of envy of his sense of his roots, and sadness. The latter comes because, pro sports being what they are, the numbers game just ends up catching up with some people.

Derek Couture seems to be one of those guys. He’s been close to the top, and he has obviously done everything any coach could ever ask him. He’s got talent. But the combination of circumstances have added up so that the situation just hasn’t been right to let him move up.

Maybe he wouldn’t play on the first line of an NHL team. Maybe he wouldn’t even be a regular on the third. But this is a guy who is good enough to get into a handful of games, and whose effort in the minor leagues, especially in his late incarnation as the Ontario Reign’s Captain, shows that he deserves it.

Maybe, if the script were written right, he’d score at least one NHL goal that he could remember and enjoy during the long, cold Canadian winters of his after-hockey life.

Follow Brian on twitter @growingup hockey, and during the lockout, take time to read his new book, My Country Is Hockey.

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