|4/11/2019 3:52:00 PM|
A KING FROM THE NORTH
From heartache to exuberance to excitement to relief, former Chisago Lakes’ hockey standout Blake Lizotte hit nearly every range on the scale of emotions over a nine-day stretch.
On Friday, March 29, his St. Cloud State Huskies, ranked number one in the nation nearly all year, were bounced in the first round of the NCAA Division I hockey tournament in a shocking upset to American International College.
By Tuesday, April 2, though, his mood had drastically changed. Lizotte, 21, put a pen to his first National Hockey League contract, signing a three year entry level deal with the Los Angeles Kings.
The excitement ratcheted up a notch though by Thursday afternoon’s practice with the Kings. Lizotte was told by coaches he would make his NHL debut on Saturday, April 6, in LA’s season finale against the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
If a hectic time in someone’s life is a whirlwind, Lizotte’s was a literal hurricane. The talented centerman’s teams have always been based in the midwest. He played for Chisago Lakes, and then in Minot and Fargo, North Dakota, and then St. Cloud State. Not the most glamorous destinations.
Lizotte was not only making the biggest jump in competition of his career, he was doing it in one of the biggest cities in the world.
“It was an absolutely wild couple of days,” Lizotte said from his hotel room on a balmy Los Angeles afternoon last week. “It’s been crazy.”
Lizotte, who had never been to Los Angeles prior to signing his contract, said he did have other teams he was in contact with, but picked the Kings strictly for on-ice opportunities. “There’s a chance for me to play here and I want to get my foot in the door and make a career in the NHL, not just get a couple of games here and there,” he said.
But, he also couldn’t complain about the weather or views so far. “The team took me down on a little tour of Manhattan Beach, and it was gorgeous. It’s a real-life poster and it definitely lived up to the hype,” Lizotte said of the famous sun-drenched beach town south of Los Angeles.
It hasn’t always been good vibes for Lizotte. He was only in a position to sign the entry level deal because he went undrafted despite finding success at every stop he’s made.
He’s strong on his skates, lightning quick with his hands, smart and a natural leader, but he’s always had one knock on him: his size. Lizotte checks in at 5’8” and just over 170 pounds. The average NHL player is 6’1” and 200 pounds. The biggest player in the league is Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara at 6’9”, 250 pounds.
But, the league has started to move away from slow, plodding, ultra-physical players and move towards speed and craftiness, something Lizotte has in spades. “The game is changing and it’s changing in a hurry. It’s getting smaller and faster. If you look at the top of the standings, some of the best teams have small players starring for them,” he noted. “There’s always been whispers at every level, but I can adapt. I don’t know any different and I’ve crafted my game around it. At this point, my size is beneficial to my quickness and staying light on my feet. The way I play will hold up.”
Playing hockey has always been something Lizotte has done. Since he was two years old skating on the rink behind his family’s Lindstrom home, he wanted to play in the NHL. And it hasn’t been easy. Yes, he is talented, but it’s taken an immense amount of hard work, discipline and sacrifice to get to this spot. “At every stop of my career, there has been sacrifices by me and by my family,” he said. “ But I understand if you’re not going to work hard, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Speaking of the Lizotte clan, Blake, who is the youngest of three boys, said they might have been more excited than he was when he signed with the Kings. “They’ve been there for me since the beginning and it’s taken me 15 years to get where I’m at,” he said of his family; mom Lisa, brothers Brett and Brock and sister-in-law Madeline. “I didn’t wake up recently and decide to work hard, it’s been a long journey and they’ve supported me every step of the way. They’ve watched the growing pains and the good and the bad. It was just awesome to be able to celebrate with them.”
The whole family was able to make the trip to LA to take in the debut of their youngest sibling.
Taking the ice
By Thursday afternoon, Lizotte got the word that he would be centering the fourth line in LA’s last game of the year. “It was surreal when I found out. Just to know my dream was coming true,” he said.
His dream happened to be coming true at the same time as a former teammate. Jimmy Schuldt.
Schuldt, a St. Cloud State teammate who signed with the Vegas Golden Knights the same day Lizotte signed with the Kings, was also going to be making his NHL debut in the game opposite of Lizotte.
With the Kings eliminated from the playoffs and locked in their lottery spot for the draft, there wasn’t much to play for in the standings department. But, in a poetic twist, as Lizotte was celebrating his first game, longtime Kings star Anze Kopitar was celebrating his 1,000 career game with the franchise, so the Staples Center was packed and full of diehard fans ready to celebrate new beginnings and impressive accomplishments. To top it off, Kopitar, one of the best players in Kings’ history, picked Lizotte up before the game and gave him a ride to Staples Center. “For him to come and pick me up when we are heading to his 1,000th game celebration shows you what type of human being he is,” Lizotte said. “Everyone looks at professional athletes in a different way, but they are humans and they are some great guys.”
The Lindstrom native connected with Kopitar, of Jesenice, Slovenia, during their ride. “He really just talked to me about professionalism and how to always help not just yourself but the game of hockey,” Lizotte said. “Him and Drew Doughty, both legends and Hall of Famers, have really taken their time to make me feel welcome here.”
In warm ups, Lizotte’s adrenaline was through the roof, but being able to chat with Schuldt, a familiar face in the same position, really helped calm him down. “A week ago, we were in the players lounge at St. Cloud State, and now we were playing in front of 20,000 people at the Staples Center in Los Angeles,” Lizotte exclaimed.
Lizotte got off to a fiery start. He won a few board battles early and eventually wedged his body between a defender and Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury just eight minutes into the game, nearly scoring a goal on a tap-in.
“I got a stick on it, but I just couldn’t quite get it above [Fleury’s] blocker,” Lizotte said of the shot against the three-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender.
When asked what was going through his head on the first couple shifts of the game, Lizotte said the first thing that popped up was “don’t mess up” and just make the easy play. “I just wanted to get in the game and do what I do best,” he said.
Both Kings’ television personalities were impressed with the grit Lizotte showed getting to the greasy areas of the rink. Lizotte officially recorded one shot on goal in 11 minutes of ice time in a 5-2 Kings win, but that didn’t quite tell the story. His advanced analytics were very positive and painted a promising picture of what he could do with regular minutes in the NHL. Schuldt got an assist in his debut, but Lizotte said he’d much prefer the team win that the Kings grabbed.
For Lizotte, although his dream just came true last week, he understands there is a lot more hard work ahead if he wants to make a mark in the league.
He’ll travel back to Minnesota this week and spend the off season training with Kings personnel based in the Twin Cities. He’ll make the trip to LA for a few mini camps and events that the team holds through the off season, but he’ll enter next season’s training camp with a wide open chance to make the roster.
His contract is a two-way deal, which means he could start next season in either the NHL or American Hockey League for the Kings’ minor league team, the Ontario Reign. Even if he is assigned to the Reign to begin the season, Lizotte noted that they are one of just three AHL teams that share all the same facilities as their NHL affiliates, so he’ll always be right on the doorstep of the NHL.
Lizotte paused and took time to express how blessed he is at this moment, but is painfully reminded that his dad, who passed away when Blake was a freshman in high school, isn’t here to celebrate with him and his family. Mike Lizotte was a coach throughout most of Blake’s formative years. “It’s tough thinking about him. I know he’d be the most proud person in the world for me. He’d be in tears,” he said. “My dad was a person that continues to teach me lessons to this day from things he taught me when I was young. God used a tough thing in my life in the best way possible.”
As Lizotte reminisced about his journey to get to this spot, he joked about how he used to be teammates with guys like Kopitar and Doughty and Jonathan Quick all the time, if only when he used Create-A-Player mode to put himself in his NHL video games. “It’s surreal that I’m actually teammates with them now. It’s something every kid dreams about,” he said. “God has given me so many opportunities in my life and all the glory goes to Him.”
In his video games, Lizotte always ended up being a star on the ice. Now it’s his time to make that virtual accomplishment a reality, and he’s ready to seize the opportunity.