Chad LaRose has a chance to become a better NHL pro

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Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network
Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network

Peter Koutroumpis –

RALEIGH, N.C. – Chad LaRose will have many questions to answer when he begins his journey back into playing professional hockey with the Charlotte Checkers this season.

The Carolina Hurricanes’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate club signed the former NHL forward to a one-year contract on Tuesday following his one-year absence from the game.

It’s the restart of a career that stopped following the end of the 2012-2013 lockout-shortened National Hockey League (NHL) season.

Leading up to that time, LaRose had played eight seasons (2005-2013) for Carolina, and was a member of the team’s 2006 Stanley Cup-winning team.

However, he was apparently too upset with his and the team’s performance in missing the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season that he didn’t attend his end-of-season exit interview with then-president and general manager Jim Rutherford.

He subsequently did communicate with Rutherford and the team at some point that summer, but that didn’t prove fruitful as his then two-year contract expired and the Hurricanes didn’t re-sign him.

As an unrestricted free agent, no other NHL team signed him either, particularly if he was seeking anything close to the $1.9 million salary he had been earning at that time.

That left him with the option of trying to continue his career in the AHL and even overseas, but either he opted not to pursue those options, or he never had anything available beyond playing with the Hurricanes.

Just a few more questions in a string of inquiry that will ensue once he steps back onto the ice in Charlotte, and if he subsequently makes a return to PNC Arena at some point in the future.

The first and obvious question for LaRose to answer will be, “what happened, and why did you just drop and abandon an eight-year NHL career and everything that went with it?”

“Were things so bad with your game and the team’s and the organization’s state of being, that you couldn’t and didn’t want to be part of it any longer?”

Obviously there had to be a combination of all those factors, but how much?

Only LaRose will be able to answer such questions, if he is willing to.

He owes curious and concerned fans and media members that much especially if he’s trying to make it back into the NHL, be it with Carolina or another team.

He owes some explanation to teammates for why it was so bad for him to just pick up and leave, particularly following another disappointing end to a season with Carolina.

Rather than wading through and picking up the pieces and dealing with the situation as many other players in the Hurricanes dressing room did and have continued to do, why couldn’t he?

Why did he deal with it the way he did?

Again, only he will be able to answer those questions.

If you were to look at it through his eyes, it indeed was tough year for him as he missed 10 games from Mar. 3-21, due to a concussion injury.

Up to that point, he had only tallied three points (2g, 1a), while the Hurricanes sat with an 11-8-1 record.

When he returned on Mar. 26th, Carolina carried a 15-13-2 record into its home against Winnipeg, but ended up losing 4-1.

It was the fifth loss in six games for the Hurricanes and the early part of what eventually ended up as a colossal collapse and winless stretch that ended the team’s season earlier than anticipated.

Every player on the team experienced the frustration in losing games that were winnable.

The postgame explanations from many on the team, including then-head coach Kirk Muller, became repetitious and were searching to the point of ending abruptly as the loss for words was strikingly evident.

However, those were important occurrences that allowed media members to relay to fans what players emotions were – even if empty and speechless.

For LaRose, that type of interaction was something he shut down as his form of coping with the situation, if that’s why it happened.

Again, only he can say.

During the early part of April 2013, rather than speak with the media, he reduced his availability in doing routine pregame and postgame media interviews as the Hurricanes eventually finished the month winning only three of their final 15 games.

His play on the ice saw him posting only one more assist to eventually end his season with four points.

He must have been frustrated; but so was everyone else.

The most sizable and significant statistic he posted during that final month and entire season in fact, consisted of 17 minutes in penalties which he incurred on the road against Ottawa on Apr. 16.

While the Hurricanes eventually lost 3-2, it was LaRose’s reaction to the Senators’ sizable defenseman Jared Cowen laying a tremendous open-ice hit on Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, bordering on being a head shot, that allowed him to vent during the early part of the game.

LaRose was the closest Carolina player to take Cowen to task in defense of Skinner whose history of suffering concussions made everyone watching feeling queasy as he lay on the ice holding his head.

He defended his teammate, and unloaded a little bit of frustration during the entire sequence which earned him an instigating minor, a fighting major and 10-minute misconduct to go along with a cut below his left eye.

The reason for that outburst was explainable and showed the kind of energy and grit that had allowed him to play in the NHL as long as he had up to that point.

His character and work ethic in playing hard and being a good pro on the ice doesn’t need to be questioned.

That’s the reason why the Checkers inked a deal with him.

“I think we’re getting a hungry player,” Checkers head coach Jeff Daniels was quoted as saying upon signing LaRose.

“We’ve got a guy who’s going to play with a purpose and show not only Carolina, but all of the NHL, that he’s still a young guy and still has a lot of hockey left in him. He’s going to need to prove that he still has it, and I’m sure it will take some time to get the timing in game situations back, but he’s a guy that competes. He’s hungry, and he wants to get back to the next level.”

Where the mystery of LaRose’s situation rests is in why he disappeared and dropped himself down to almost a starting level when he had been a regular at the game’s highest level.

It seemed that he didn’t deal with it well off the ice and avoided his other pro responsibilities in dealing with the media and even communicating and meeting with his club’s management when asked to do so.

Where he exhibited exceptional effort to express himself on the ice, he failed to do so effectively and professionally off of it.

Everyone has a choice to do or not to do something, but if it is a part of your employment responsibilities and you exercise your right not to meet certain expectations and responsibilities, then you don’t deserve to be employed.

If he had to ‘cool off’, as subsequent reports noted, before talking to Rutherford after missing his exit interview, a true pro would have done it in another way and still showed up.

Every other Hurricanes player did.

Being frustrated shouldn’t cloud your judgment to the point of being respectful.

That conduct made it understandable that no other team would be willing to sign a player with that kind of a mindset.

Maybe there were other issues that LaRose was dealing with, and he wasn’t willing to divulge at the time and since.

Maybe there weren’t.

Only he can answer those questions and he must do so if his credibility and leadership is to be earned and regained.

The Hurricanes, indirectly through the Checkers, have given LaRose another chance, amongst the organization’s young prospects no less.

They have given a former player, who was really frustrated and thumbed his nose with his conduct in dealing with the front office, another chance.

They’re putting him in front of the most influential group of players they have – future NHLer’s who are working to develop good habits in becoming good pros, on and off the ice.

It is a peculiar move that could help or hinder at many levels, but one that maybe is intended to truly put LaRose to task.

Will he pass the test?

On the ice, yes he should – there is little doubt that he will do so.

That’s the easy part.

His comeback will be close to complete when he answers questions about his absence with the cameras and recorders in front of him, as well as amongst his teammates in the dressing room, at team meals, and anywhere else off of the ice.

He’s a former NHL pro who’s trying to become one again.

Daniels indicated that Larose ‘can lead by example’ and will have to do so to get back to the level he was.

“The way we’re shaping up, we’re going to be a little younger this year than in years past,” Daniels said.

“A player like Rosey can lead by example and show guys what it takes to get to the next level.”

The Hurricanes organization has never stopped short of being generous to former players – members of the family, so to speak.

In extending this opportunity, they must proceed with caution because the manner in which LaRose left the team cannot be allowed to stand as an acceptable nor tolerated form of professional conduct.

During a successful comeback attempt, his willingness to be humble, open and honest in answering the myriad questions on his past conduct that will come his way, along with showing he still possesses the ability to play competitively at the NHL level will correct much of that and hopefully make him a better pro the second time around.