Ten years ago Tuesday, on Aug. 6, 2003, the Carolina Hurricanes made a routine and barely noticed offseason signing of a 21-year-old undrafted prospect who was unlikely to ever make a ripple in the hockey world at large, let alone in the NHL, let alone the Hurricanes.
He scored at will in junior hockey, but for three years in a row, no NHL team was willing to draft a player who was optimistically listed as 5-foot-10, 173 pounds. His hometown Detroit Red Wings had him in camp – twice! – but passed. The Hurricanes finally extended a contract offer late in the summer, as much a bone thrown to a kid who spent his entire career in the Peter Karmanos hockey empire as anything else.
Ten years later, Chad LaRose exits the scene as quietly as he entered it.
His contract with the Hurricanes expired June 30. He didn’t show up for his end-of-season exit interview, according to Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford. He has not been reachable through multiple phone or text messages this summer.
LaRose joined the Hurricanes as an unknown. He leaves a mystery.
This is the only player ever to play for all of Karmanos’ teams, someone who grew up outside Detroit, playing for the youth teams sponsored by Hurricanes owner Karmanos, who played junior hockey for the team owned by Karmanos, who played minor-league hockey for Karmanos’ Florida Everblades of the ECHL, who was eventually signed by Karmanos’ NHL team, who played 508 games for that team over the course of eight years, who won a Stanley Cup with that team.
That made LaRose as much a part of the Hurricanes hockey family as any player, as much as Ron Francis or Glen Wesley or Rod Brind’Amour. He was the Tripp Tracy of players, someone whose ties to the franchise that went far deeper than his role or contract, which only makes his swift, sudden and silent separation all the more discordant.
Ten years ago, it all started just as quietly. While a recently drafted and signed Eric Staal was the complete focus of attention at a September rookie tournament, LaRose turned a few heads, too.
“Maybe he’ll be one of those guys who figures out a way to play at the NHL level,” Rutherford said after the rookie team’s first practice.
The Hurricanes had 24 players on their rookie team in Ottawa that year. Fourteen were drafted. Only two of them went on to significant NHL careers – Staal and Cam Ward. (The Hurricanes passed on future star David Clarkson, on the team as a free agent on a tryout deal.)
And then there was LaRose, who wasn’t invited to training camp in Raleigh after the tournament. He was shipped down to the Everblades to begin his pro career, but played well in the AHL during the 2004-05 NHL lockout and was called up to the Hurricanes in December 2005. He ended up playing an important fourth-line role for Peter Laviolette along with Craig and Kevyn Adams, appearing in 21 of 25 playoff games on the way to the Stanley Cup.
He’d go on to score 19 goals twice, make as much as $1.9 million a season and cement his position as a fan favorite for his size and fiery style of play. Yet he eventually became a polarizing figure among fans – by so greatly exceeding expectations, he created new expectations he could never meet.
The odd circumstances of his exit are a strange and silent end to an unlikely and unexpected tenure with the Hurricanes. It began without fanfare 10 years ago Tuesday. It ended without fanfare this summer.