At 19 years old, Brooks Laich had to choose a path. Playing in juniors for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League, Laich's coach, Dean Chynoweth, told him to make a decision.
"I could either be a 100-point American League hockey player, or a 50-to-60-point NHL hockey player," Laich recalled. "He said, 'You make the choice.' "
When Laich saw Chynoweth last year, he gave him a signed jersey with a simple message: "This jersey wouldn't have been possible without you."
It's hard to put a number on how valuable that moment was — maybe $27 million, the amount on the six-year contract the Washington Capitals signed Laich to last offseason.
Laich has said that he doesn't play for the money, and his story about misplacing checks in his trunk and line going into free agency that "Saskatchewan is a pretty cheap place to live," makes the talk easy to believe.
And even though Laich's mind isn't on his money, that doesn't mean he didn't warrant the deal.
Laich won't score 30 goals or pile up 100 points; he has never put up more than 59 points in NHL career. But he'll earn $6 million this season, his seventh, largely for his ability to do so many things so well.
"I take a great deal of pride in being able to be on the ice in every situation," Laich said. "I never want the coach to look down the bench and say, 'OK, in this situation, I can't put him on.' So it's something I work hard at."
Making of Laich
Laich, 28, learned the value of work ethic as part of a humble upbringing in Wawota, Saskatchewan, from parents Harold and Jane. But he became Brooks Laich the hockey player thanks to Chynoweth.
Laich knew how to score, putting up 103 points in 57 games in midget AAA hockey a few years earlier. But he stepped back and thought about it what his coach was saying, and it all clicked.
"I had to learn how to kill penalties, I had to learn how to pick up assignments, chip pucks out, do little things — learn the game more than just the offensive side of it," Laich said. "It's advice that I've never forgot, that I'm very thankful for, and it actually amazes me how spot-on he was."
Laich always jokes with Chynoweth that he's going to run the New York Islanders' defense, the unit his old coach is in charge of now. But he remains eternally grateful for the priceless words.
"That was a major point in my life that determined my career path," Laich said.
All-around hockey player
Laich did just what Chynoweth said, making Canada's world junior team and becoming a second-round pick of the Ottawa Senators. George McPhee pulled off what turned out to be a heist by getting Laich for the past-his-prime Peter Bondra in February 2004.
Laich just appears to be hitting his prime now, blossoming into a complete player. He's a natural center but has been able to adjust to left wing and right wing. Recently, he was even used as a defenseman when injuries crippled the Capitals on the blue line.
He's happy to do it whatever he's asked.
"I love it. I don't know why I love it. But I do," Laich said. "It's something that keeps it interesting for me; you never fall into just a solid routine where maybe you get complacent with this or that. The game's always changing, you're always learning. ... I think it helps you learn a lot more about the game, which ultimately makes you a better player."
Karl Alzner flashed a wide smile when talking about Laich the defenseman and his new appreciation for defense. Forwards and defensemen constantly rib each other about their positions, but now Laich knows how the other half plays.
"I think when he signed his contract, they had no idea he was going to play defense," right wing Troy Brouwer quipped. "I don't think we need to worry about that. It's not a regular thing — you pay D-men to play D, not forwards to play D."
But the Capitals pay Laich to do everything, which includes blocking shots, backchecking and scoring. He said his role depends on the game and the situation. If his team is down 3-1, he knows his job is to score; if his team is up 3-1, he switches into defensive mode.
"Sometimes I have to sacrifice my personal goals of maybe trying to get an offensive chance or whatever, because you understand consequence and you understand the moment in the game," he said.
Laich doesn't wear a 'C' or 'A' on his chest. Those honors belong to Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble.
But anyone who thinks Laich isn't a leader doesn't know the Caps and doesn't know him. Assistant coach Dean Evason called him "an extension of the coaching staff" — a player who can take messages to the group at-large with the certainty they'll get through.
Some players are better leaders without a label, and that's Laich.
"He just goes out, plays hard every night, practices hard every day, he trains hard," Evason said. "He does all the right things, says all the right things."
Seemingly equal parts vocal and example, in a room full of players who have had varying levels of individual and team-oriented success, Laich fits in perfectly.
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