Let’s get one thing straight before we continue.
Luke Esposito would have been on the 2012-13 Chilliwack Chiefs roster if his name was Joe Smith and he was recommended to Harvey Smyl by a Wal-Mart cashier.
He’s just that good.
But when you’re an 18-year-old kid who’s grown up playing hockey in Connecticut, sometimes it’s difficult to find the spotlight.
And in those cases, it’s helpful to have a Messier in your corner. Specifically, Doug Messier.
Doug is Luke’s grandfather and a well connected hockey man.
There’s Mark, of course, Doug’s son and a winner of six Stanley Cups, two Hart Trophies and one Conn Smythe trophy.
There’s also the hundreds of young men Doug has coached in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Take the 1980-81 season for example. Scan the roster of the Saint Albert Saints and you’ll find a young fella named Harvey Smyl, who wore No. 8 and tallied 56 points in 58 games (216 penalty minutes too).
Smyl, of course, went on to Michigan State University and then a coaching career that has turned out fairly well.
Ask him today who influenced him the most as a coach and Doug’s name quickly enters the conversation. And when your mentor phones you out of the blue and suggests you take a look at a couple kids, Esposito and defenceman Ben Masella, you’re apt to listen.
“Doug called me back in the early spring, and knowing the type of players he loved way back when, I figured he was sending me character,” Smyl said. “He was all about character, and Ben and Luke both exemplify that. They’re both intense competitors who love the game.”
So that’s how both got to Chilliwack, and then it was up to them to impress.
With the Chiefs losing their entire top line (Derek Huisman, David Bondra and Malcolm Gould) in the offseason, Esposito knew he was in prime position to grab a spot.
“The ultimate goal for a lot of prep-school kids is to come out, get another year to get bigger stronger and faster and learn about the game,” Esposito said. “We want to get a scholarship, and my main goal was find a place where I’d get an opportunity.”
Throughout the preseason, he showed good chemistry with another newcomer Austin Plevy, displaying enough flash and dash to make Smyl’s decision an easy one.
“He was judged on his skill just like everyone else was,” Smyl said. “And so far this season he’s done a lot of what we’d hope he would do.”
The most interesting aspect of the BCHL is where the players come from.
Esposito hails from Greenwich, CT., a beautiful town that serves as a sleeper town for New York’s Wall Street power brokers.
“It’s right on Long Island Sound, which kind of feeds into the Atlantic Ocean,” Esposito explained. “You get the suburb-style living, but you’re also close enough to go into New York City for Ranger games.”
What it doesn’t have is the outdoorsman potential that Chilliwack has.
Esposito came a long, long, long way to play hockey, but he’s also discovered other benefits to life in the ‘Wack.
“Plevy and I, and a few of the other guys, have been fishing a fair bit,” Esposito said. “The Vedder River is right behind my house, and we’ve seen quite a bit of salmon and trout. We haven’t gotten lucky yet, but it’s a nice way to relax and take your mind of the game.”
Esposito angles for bass back home in Greenwich, and considers himself a pretty good fisherman.
He’s plucked a few eight pounders from a reservoir back home. As relaxing as fishing on the Vedder might be, he would like to catch something.
“Hockey players are competitive, so yeah, we’d love to catch one and we’d probably go running around the banks of the river if we actually did,” Esposito laughed. “We had a few bites yesterday, but we couldn’t get anything in. We saw them jumping, and we’re just wondering what we’re doing wrong.”
When they’re out, they get looks from the Vedder River veterans, the longtime fishermen who know how to snag the salmon.
“Two days ago, we saw them bring in a really big salmon, so they do exist,” Esposito said. “We asked them what they’re using for bait and they said they’re using exactly what we’re using. I thought they were lying, but they weren’t. I looked.”
Being thousands of miles from home can be tough, and fishing serves as a welcome distraction. Hockey takes up a ton of time too, but there are moments when Esposito starts to miss his family and friends.
“I just graduated high school and all my friends have gone on to different colleges and stuff,” Esposito said. “They’ll all be together, hanging out on the American Thanksgiving, and I’ll probably be the only one not home. But it’s a sacrifice I’m making to try and get to the next level and something I knew I was getting into.”
It helps having a whole new group of friends within the Chiefs locker room, even if there are some cross-border disputes.
“The way we pronounce certain words, the Americans go at it with the Canadians over that,” Esposito laughed. “We throw it right back at them with the eh’s and the aboot’s.”
Back on the ice, Esposito feels he’s getting better with every passing game, and it’s backed up by the stats.
Through the first five games, he was leading the team in scoring with one goal and five points.
“I think I’ve got a pretty decent passing touch, and people would say I’m a pass-first kind of guy,” Esposito said. “The goal right now is to get more shots on net and hope that something goes in. It is an adjustment coming from prep school, but we had meetings with the coaches recently, and I just expressed how happy I am to be here.”
As long as he keeps putting pucks in the net and helping others do the same, the Chiefs will be more than happy to have him.
Chilliwack hosts Coquitlam Saturday night at 7 p.m.