ALEC DOPP — Many of the timeless stanzas from Johnny Cash’s iconic hit “Ring of Fire” have over the years become all too familiar for first-year Green Bay Gamblers forward Luc Lalor – though some admittedly more than others. “Bound by wild desire,” found in the third line of the song, seemed to resonate well with him, and it’s fairly easy to understand why.
Growing up in the hockey-rich environment that was and still very much is St. Albert, Alberta, Lalor’s grandfather, Mick, invariably had a ‘Johnny Cash: Greatest Hits’ album plugged into the CD player of his car; ready to crank the tunes or just casually listen while driving Luc and his friends to hockey practice throughout their first few years with the sport.
Minutes of anxious arrival to some of the oldest hockey rinks on Alberta’s countryside for critical practice with teammates turned into hours, and those hours eventually turned into unavoidable memorizations of some of Cash’s best and most well-known hits. This, of course, was all made possible by the van Lalor’s grandfather had driven back then. Funny how things work out sometimes.
Still, this was no doubt a recurring theme of his childhood.
On only the rarest of occasions did his grandfather not commit to making the often multi-hour drive to and from a practice, game, or even for non-team oriented drills, which showed that his grandfather, too, had a burning desire to serve as mentor during Lalor’s early hockey career. The reason? “He always had a vision for me that no one else really had,” Lalor said. “He saw me in a different way than others did.”
Perhaps he saw a lot of himself in Lalor. Growing up, his grandfather became entrenched in the sport and at the same time developed an unwavering passion for it that continues to this day. Though he had never played in college or at the professional level, he knew a good hockey player when he saw one – and his grandson fit the mold perfectly, despite what others may have thought.
To be sure, few had the same visions for Lalor as his grandfather. Often physically undersized by comparison to his teammates and the rest of the competition, doubters and detractors became the norm for Lalor, who found himself scratching, clawing and pulling to make every team he’d ever been a part of early in his career. Once he made the team, though, perceptions of his game changed.
“When I was younger, I never really played on the top-top team my first year,” Lalor said, “and I was never the standout kid in my hometown. There were always kids who got drafted to the Western Hockey League. I was always undersized, and people would say, ‘you might barely make that team.’ But by the end of the year, people were going, ‘whoa, that kid deserves to be here.’”
Indeed, he did deserve to be there. The numbers speak for themselves.
Lalor’s first amateur season on record transpired in 2008-2009, when the then 13-year-old right winger made the roster of his hometown’s double-A bantam club. His 31 games played over the course of that initial campaign brought about 23 points – 9 goals, 14 assists – in 31 contests, helping to lay the foundation for success against heightened competition in the seasons to follow.
The next year brought about similar results, tabbing 26 points – 6 goals, v 20 assists – over 32 games with the local triple-A bantam organization. Continuing his productive play, Lalor accumulated a personal-best 45 points – 22 goals, 23 assists – with St. Alberta’s midget minor triple-A team in 2010-2011, and followed it up with 14 points 2011-2012 as a member of his hometown’s midget triple-A club.
With a hefty sum of 108 points on 41 goals and 67 assists added to his sterling amateur resume, Lalor, the kid whom many previously deemed too diminutive in stature to even make some of his four bantam teams, much less thrive with them, was prepared to face his next challenge: The Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Acquired by the Fort McMurray Oil Barons prior to the 2012-2013 AJHL season, Lalor made his presence on the roster known quickly. After several weeks of practice and pre-season games under then head coach Gord Thibodeau, widely known as one of the most well-respected amateur hockey coaches in North America, the left-handed shooting Lalor bagged his first goal in a 4-2 victory at the Casman Centre — his new club’s home arena.
The moment itself remains almost surreal for Lalor.
“I think it was a power play and I had just walked off the half wall, and I kind of just threw a puck high on net and it just went over the goalie’s shoulders,” Lalor said. “It was almost one that was supposed to go in. Not very much was going through my mind at the time, except that I was really excited. I grew up watching those junior-A teams and local hometown teams. It was a really cool moment.”
Mick and his parents, Darcy and Louise, weren’t able to make the five-and-a-half hour drive from St. Alberta to the arena that night, but Lalor made sure to give his dad a call after the game – something he had always done after each one of his amateur games leading up to that night, and still to this day. It was a tradition that bonded the two together: father and son, talking hockey.
Plenty more phone calls were on the way.
With his first goal at the junior-A level of amateur hockey under his belt, Lalor proceeded to score on seven more occasions over the course of his initial season with Fort McMurray. Perhaps more impressively, though, he showcased his ability to find open teammates on the ice, evidenced by a team-best 22 assists in 48 games. His 30 points were a team high, too – an accomplishment that helped earn him rookie of the year honors.
Much like Lalor’s grandfather, Thibodeau had an inkling that success would come long before anyone else believed it would. The long-tenured Oil Barons coach pulled him aside after one practice during summer camp prior to the 2012-2013 season, and told him: You’re going to be a really good player. It was at that point in which Lalor realized: committing to Fort McMurray would change everything, and for the better.
“At the time, that definitely meant something to me,” said Lalor, “and it still does to this day. I think I had a coach there who believed in me. He pushed me very hard, though. He wasn’t easy on me. But he believed in me. I think that was a big factor to my success that year.
“I think he (Thibodeau) pushed you as a person. He pushed every single one of his players to be a better person, and to learn the process of how to win. That was the biggest thing for him. Attention to detail, and just the little things that make a successful person.”
Lalor’s second season with Fort McMurray didn’t go exactly according to plan, as he suffered a broken collarbone at the beginning of the 2013-2014 campaign and wouldn’t return to the ice until the Oil Barons’ playoff chances had already been secured. He then went untaken in the United States Hockey League’s 2014 entry draft this past spring, and once again faced the challenge of having to prove his talents despite his impressive production in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and bantam ranks long before.
Gamblers head coach and general manager Pat Mikesch extended an invitation for Lalor to attend Green Bay’s tryout camp in the summer. The two instantly connected both on the ice and off it, and Mikesch was well aware of the talent Lalor possessed. Thus, the decision to offer him a one-year stay with Green Bay made all the sense in the world.
“I think coming to this league is going to force me to do some things to become a better hockey player,” Lalor said. “I want to focus on winning battles consistently, and eventually I think my skill will take over. You just have to keep playing hard and competing hard in practice, too.”
With his first few games donning the black and gold under his belt and a commitment to play at Cornell University next season, it’s difficult for Lalor not to reminisce about everything he’s gone through. Once the kid whom many cast aside for few reasons outside of his physical stature, the 5-foot-11 forward now owns a commitment to an Ivy League school and currently suits up for one of the most successful franchises in all of junior hockey.
“My parents have been unbelievable to me, and so has my grandpa,” Lalor said, “and when things aren’t going well, you wonder what he (Mick) might say. But I really bring it back to my dad. When I got cut from a team, he would always say, ‘Well, how are you going to respond?’” I think that quote has gone a long way with me. I enjoy proving people wrong.”