Beaulieu is perfect fit as IceMen captain

Written for ProHockeyNews.com and re-published with permission.
(Click the link to view the story on PHN.)
 

Evansville IceMen forward Josh Beaulieu rarely flashes raw skills that would be considered “highlight material.” Far from being “Usain Bolt on skates,” the former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick does not possess blazing speed. And at just 6’1″ and 190 pounds, the Ontario native and OHL product is never going to be the biggest guy on the ice – except maybe when he’s skating with his children.

The 7th-year pro currently has 19 points in 31 games, ranking 7th among the IceMen and outside the Top 100 in the ECHL. He sports a -7 rating, worst on the team. His average offensive production has dropped by about one-third compared to a season ago, from 0.93 points per game to 0.61.

And yet, he just might be Evansville’s most valuable player.

In sports, it is often said that numbers “tell the story” or “never lie,” the implication being that individual stats can be the ultimate indicator of a player’s worth. Similarly, much emphasis is placed on measurables, with judgments made based on stopwatch readings and tired old phrases like “you can’t teach size.”

But in reality, perhaps more in hockey than in any other sport, the story told by a player’s stats and measurables can sometimes be a work of total fiction.

Numbers are unable to quantify the heart and passion Beaulieu displayed in overcoming a career-threatening severe wrist laceration that prematurely ended his 2012-13 season, returning months ahead of schedule and joining his team at the start of training camp – instead of at Thanksgiving or Christmas, as originally expected.

Numbers don’t illustrate the consistency with which Beaulieu grinds for loose pucks in the corners, battling larger defensemen and earning additional possessions for his team through sheer grit.

Numbers can’t tell you about the countless bumps and bruises Beaulieu acquires while camped out in front of the opposition’s net, playing a power forward’s game without a power forward’s body.

And numbers fail to demonstrate the value of the leadership Beaulieu brings to the IceMen both on and off the ice, serving as captain of a young team that has already rostered 17 different rookies this season thanks to a host of injuries and AHL call-ups.

The “C” resides on Beaulieu’s chest because he epitomizes the vision Head Coach Jeff Pyle had for the IceMen when he inherited a cellar-dwelling team last summer and began tackling the task of building a winner.

Since his hiring, Pyle has repeatedly talked about players “buying in” and putting the team first, playing a solid two-way game, working hard at all times, and always being disciplined and accountable.

Quite simply, Josh Beaulieu is the perfect guy to lead a Jeff Pyle team. He’s also the perfect guy to serve as the face of the Evansville IceMen.

Beaulieu (right) joins Gwinnett Gladiators captain Joey Haddad and Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke for a ceremonial puck drop on New Year’s Eve 2013. In front of 8149 fans, Beaulieu had one goal in the 6-0 victory for the IceMen, who were wearing a special Columbus Blue Jackets jersey design as a nod to the team’s NHL affiliate. The jerseys were auctioned off after the game, raising more than $16,000 for the Shriners.

In many ways, Beaulieu and the city of Evansville are a match made in hockey heaven.

After turning pro in 2007 at the age of 20, Beaulieu spent 3 seasons in the Flyers organization at the AHL level, totaling just 12 points in 136 games. He then played a season in the CHL for the Rapid City Rush, with 26 points in 65 games.

Earlier this season, Beaulieu told the Evansville Courier & Press that when he came to Evansville in 2011, his career was at a crossroads. He said that if it didn’t work out with the IceMen, it would be time to “pack it in.”

Now, not yet three full seasons later and at the ripe old age of 27, Beaulieu is among the franchise’s all-time leaders in games played (1st), goals (2nd), assists (3rd) and points (4th).

He will always be a part of Evansville hockey history, having scored the first goal at the sparkling new Ford Center on Nov. 5, 2011.

He is the only remaining current IceMen player who also played for the team in the CHL.

And he is the only IceMen player ever given the bobblehead treatment – complete with his long hair, scruffy stubble, and a missing tooth.

Beaulieu is quite possibly the most beloved player on the IceMen roster, embraced as essentially the embodiment of Evansville.

He’s a classic “lunch pail” player, the blue-collar guy who may not have the greatest talent or size but who will never be out-worked. He can have a major impact on a game without actually showing up on the stat sheet.

And win or lose, when the game is over, he’ll always take the time to talk to a fan or sign an autograph for a kid – with a smile on his face and a genuine appreciation for his position and what it means.

That mentality is Evansville in a nutshell, and what makes Beaulieu so valuable to the IceMen.

But if you’re still in the camp that believes the answers are always in the numbers, forget about the individual stats and instead look at what is ultimately the single most important stat in sports – the team’s record.

In 10 games this season without Beaulieu due to injury, Evansville is just 4-5-1 (a .450 winning percentage). In 31 games with Beaulieu, the IceMen are 17-7-7 (.661). [Update 2/10/14: In the weekend immediately following the publishing of this story, the IceMen went 1-2-0 with Beaulieu on the shelf due to a broken foot, dropping the team's winning percentage without the captain to .423 in 13 games.]

No player is as directly linked to whether the IceMen win or lose. Fitting, for a guy who has proclaimed that individual stats don’t matter to him as long as the team is winning.

So as it turns out, numbers CAN tell the story as long as you look at the RIGHT numbers.

And in this case, the story is clear: With Josh Beaulieu serving as captain of the IceMen ship, Evansville’s voyage could very well conclude in prosperous fashion.

Beaulieu talks to game night emcee Stephen Rickard on the Ford Center scoreboard after Evansville’s 4-1 victory over South Carolina on Jan. 18, 2014. Beaulieu was named the #1 Star, with a goal and an assist against the Eastern Conference leading Stingrays. A standing-room only crowd of 9458 fans witnessed the IceMen victory on the team’s annual “Pack the House Night,” which was completely sold out before the doors opened.

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