Norwich hockey players prove
Div. III stars can make it to the top © July 6, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Keith Aucoin, now playing with the Washington Capitals, joined the NHL after five years with the American Hockey League.

photos courtesy of the National Hockey LeagueKeith Aucoin, ’01, now playing with the Washington Capitals, joined the NHL after five years with the American Hockey League.

The hockey careers of Norwich University alumni Kurtis McLean, ’05, and Keith Aucoin, ’01, have paralleled each other in many ways. Both are the same height [5 feet, 9 inches], have played for national championship teams at college, and are among the Cadets’ all-time leaders in points and goals scored.

But since 2005, Aucoin had one thing over McLean—he had played in the National Hockey League. That is, until January 2009, when McLean debuted with the New York Islanders. It’s a rare accomplishment for players from a Division III school.

“You’re speechless,” recalled McLean, who scored his first NHL goal in his second game. “You realize all that hard work has finally paid off.”

Kurtis McLean, ’05, joined the New York Islanders in July 2008. He has sinced signed to play with a Finnish league.

Kurtis McLean, ’05, joined the New York Islanders in July 2008. He has since signed to play with a Finnish league.

McLean’s time with the Islanders was limited to a few games, however, due to his rupturing an Achilles tendon while warming up for a game in Montreal.

“I took a quick step forward and it just popped, and it required surgery,” he said.

The rehabilitation time is four to six months, limiting his chances for an NHL contract in the upcoming season. Deliverance [and job security] came from Lukko, a team in a Finnish professional league, SM-liga, one of best in Europe.

“It was a tough decision. I thought about it for a good month or so,” said McLean, who signed with Lukko in May 2009.

The 2008–09 NHL season saw Aucoin back in the league. After three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, he signed with the Washington Capitals in July 2008. The Capitals assigned him to their American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, where Norwich’s all-time points leader was named the Reebok Player of the Week, and then the AHL Player of the Month for October 2008, scoring eight goals with 21 assists.

Aucoin was called up to the NHL in December, and scored two goals and four assists in 12 games. Released back to Hershey, he sealed the team’s victory of the AHL finals with an empty-net goal tally in the closing minute of a game versus the Manitoba Moose.

Norwich hockey coach Mike McShane is not surprised by their achievements. Aucoin, whose high school coach Jack Fletcher played for the Cadets, wasn’t recruited by any Division I programs because of his size. McShane said the Chelmsford, Mass., resident was a “perfect fit” for Norwich.

“He only weighed about 148 pounds, but he worked his tail off,” McShane recalled. “He had good skills and a second sense of where to be at the right time. He had tremendous anticipation and he got stronger every year.”

Like Aucoin, McLean isn’t tall but “very strong,” according to McShane, and one of most skilled players he’s ever coached. Aucoin and McLean credit their physical conditioning at Norwich for preparing them for the rigors of professional hockey.

After graduating, McLean, the first college hockey player in U.S. history named a first-team All-American four times, signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins after time in the United Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League. He was called up to the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2005, where he played for most of the next three years, helping to lead the Penguins to the Calder Cup finals.

McLean signed with the Islanders in July 2008 and played for their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, before being called up in January.

“The two games I saw him play [with the Islanders] he did very, very well,” said McShane. “He looked liked he belonged there.”

McLean first came to Norwich on the invitation of a friend to work in the summer hockey school. McShane approached him about playing for the Cadets after watching McLean on the ice.

“I didn’t pay much attention to how big a school it was,” said McLean, who majored in physical education and biology. “The classes were small, and I’m from a small town…so it really wasn’t much of adjustment to be at a place like Norwich…Of course, the academics were great.”

Aucoin and McLean both said their fondest memories of playing for Norwich involved fan support.

“You hear about it, but when you come out for your first game and see the rink sold out and see everyone cheering and going crazy, it’s incredible,” said McLean.

For Aucoin, the lasting benefit of his Norwich career, aside from honing his game, were the bonds he forged with teammates.

“We were close then, and we’ve stayed in touch with each other since then, getting together occasionally,” he said.

Although he would love to return to the NHL, McLean thinks he might have a longer career in Finland, where playing seasons are shorter and the travel less strenuous.

Aucoin is uncertain about the upcoming season.

“I just finished the Calder Cup finals, and then I go into training camp in the best shape possible and see what happens,” he said. “It’s fun to go out there and play a game you love, and I’m lucky enough to do that.”