Keith Aucoin remembers all too well when he was told he was too small to go far in hockey, and when he couldn’t get a Division 1 college offer coming out of high school in 1997.
Now 40, he can look back and have a big laugh.
The former Chelmsford (MA) HS star helped lead Munich EHC to the German Ice Hockey League (DEL) championship in 2018, then announced he was hanging up the skates for good. It capped what turned out to be a 17-year professional hockey career that included 145 games in the NHL. He retires as one of the all-time greats in the American Hockey League (AHL), the seventh all time leading scorer in league history (857 career points).
“Looking back at it, I guess it worked out for the best,” Aucoin said. “I never thought back then that I would play 17 years (of professional hockey). I was also told, even back in high school, that the knock on me was that I was too small. I always thought if I get a chance, at whatever level, I could prove myself. I had a lot of good coaches help me develop my game.”
His senior year at Chelmsford, Aucoin was one of the top forwards in Massachusetts HS hockey, putting up a scoring line of 33-33-66 heading into the post-season. Yet, there was minimal D1 interest at best.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “We went to the Super 8 my senior year. I showed that I could play with and against the best players in Massachusetts. A couple of coaches said I could go to prep school for a year, but there was no guarantee. My coach, Jack Fletcher, had a relationship with the coach at Norwich and I ended up there. It drove me to prove them wrong. In the end, it all worked out well.”
“In the summer before Keith’s senior season, I had asked the Norwich coach, Mike McShane, if he or a member of his staff could take a look at Keith in the HNIB Tournament,” recalled Fletcher, now the athletic director at Lowell Catholic HS. “Bob Norton came to see Keith and fell in love with everything he did. Pat Norton, the assistant at Norwich and coach McShane came to watch him and thought that Keith would be a good fit. Having been around Keith for the amount of time we were we thought that he would have a very positive career at Norwich, which was an understatement for sure.”
It certainly was.
All he did at Norwich was pile up 240 career points in four years, graduating as the school’s all-time leading scorer. He was named a Division 3 All American all four seasons. After his senior season in 2001, Aucoin was chosen the American Hockey Coaches Association (AHCA) College Division Player of the Year. He was elected to the Norwich Hall of Fame in 2016.
His professional career started with the B.C. Icemen of the old United Hockey League. Halfway through that first season, Aucoin signed with the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters, affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes. He had 16 points in 30 AHL games that season. The next season, he played the full year with the Providence Bruins, putting up an impressive scoring line of 25-49-74. He was well on is way to a prolific career in the AHL.
After a second season with Providence, Aucoin returned to the Lock Monsters for the 2005-06 season. It was that season he made his NHL debut, playing seven games with Carolina. After the 07-08 campaign, Aucoin signed with the Washington Capitals organization, and for the next four seasons, played for a powerhouse Hershey Bears team in the AHL, while seeing some NHL time with the Caps.
His time in Hershey saw a Calder Cup championship in 2009, and after a career-high 106-point season, a league MVP Award in 2010.
“The best experience I had was winning the Calder Cup,” Aucoin said. “We had a really good team. It was an experience I will never forget.”
In those 145 NHL games, Aucoin accumulated 17 goals and 32 assists.
“I would have liked it to be a bit more,” he said. “By the time I got to the NHL, I felt I was an all-around forward, but was looked at as a one-way player. I was labeled as a 13th or 14th forward and could never get that off my back. I got a chance with the (NY) Islanders during the lockout year (2012-13) and was with them the whole year. I thought it could be a stepping stone to stay in the NHL but it didn’t happen.”
Following the 2013-2014 season spent with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, Aucoin made the decision to play professionally in Europe. He played one season in Switzerland with Ambri-Piotta and then three with Munich EHC in Germany.
“I loved playing in Europe. The first year in Switzerland was tough because nobody spoke English” he said. “It was a learning experience. Germany was a great experience. Everyone spoke English so it was easier. The hockey was great. Each team was allowed 10 imports so English was spoken in the locker room. My wife and kids loved it as well.”
As a 39-year-old, Aucoin knew the 17-18 season with Munich would be his last. His children were getting to be of school age and he felt it was time to come home. He put up 79 points in 68 games counting playoffs to lead the club to a title.
“Winning the championship made my decision easier,” he said. “It would have been a lot harder if we had lost. I probably could have played a couple more years, but it was time. It was a little different for me this year, not going to a training camp for the first time in 17 years.”
“Keith has always fought the size thing and he has proven everyone wrong at every level that he has played,” Fletcher said. “I honestly think that is what drove him.”
Aucoin may have hung up his skates, but he remains involved in the sport. Still living in Chelmsford, he is now coaching with the Boston Junior Rangers organization in the Eastern Hockey League (EHL), helping out with both the Elite and Premier squads. The Rangers Elite head coach is Rich DeCaprio a friend and former teammate from his Chelmsford HS days.
“It is different being behind the bench instead of on the ice,” he said. “Now I know why I pissed off so many coaches. No, really, we have a good group of kids and they make my job easier. I had stayed in touch with Rich and when he needed someone, he thought it was a good time to call me. I think this could be a good stepping stone for me to get into coaching.”
Is a coaching career in the future?
“I am still getting settled back at home,” Aucoin said. “I don’t really want to move around any more. I’ve been doing it for 17 years. If a perfect college job came up where I could stay at home, I would definitely consider it. I am just going to take things a year at at time.”
The former Chelmsford HS star also put up some big numbers while playing for the Middlesex entry in the Hockey Night In Boston Showcase in the summers of 1995 and 1996. He remembers it well.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “You got to play against the best players from the area. Also, you got to play next to guys you played against during the season and didn’t really know. It was a great opportunity to play against great players.”
His advice to younger players that may be in the same boat he was coming out of high school?
“I would say believe in yourself. If you get an opportunity, you have to take advantage of it,” Aucoin said. “Division 3 players are going pro now. There are good hockey players everywhere. If you’re good, someone will notice you.”