(Photo by Rich Zacher)
What was newly-signed Wolf Pack goaltender David LeNeveu’s reaction when he heard that the Pack were interested in him?
“I said, ‘Let’s sign the papers right now!,’” the veteran netminder said with a chuckle.
Like his new Wolf Pack stablemate, Dov Grumet-Morris, LeNeveu is going “back to the future” with the Pack. Grumet-Morris had spent time in the Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale net in 2010-11, and LeNeveu played 13 late-season games with the Pack in 2007-08, after the parent New York Rangers acquired him in a trade-deadline deal with the Phoenix Coyotes.
“I loved my time when I was here,” LeNeveu said Wednesday, a day after inking an AHL contract with the Wolf Pack. “We tried to come back (after 2007-08), and unfortunately it didn’t work out before. I’d been saying I’d want to come back every year since, so finally it came through for me, and I’m real excited to be back.
“Actually, it (this chance with the Wolf Pack) came right out of the blue. Obviously I’ve seen the struggles that they’ve had this year, and they brought Dov in and I thought they were pretty set with what they were doing, but I was thankful for the opportunity to try and make the most of it here and get this thing going.”
LeNeveu had excellent success in his short earlier stint with the Wolf Pack, going 8-3-2 with a 1.83 goals-against average, a 92.4 % save percentage and one shutout in his 13 appearances. That was for a Pack team that finished with 50 wins and a franchise-record 110 points under first-year head coach Ken Gernander, but were upset in the first round of the postseason by the Portland Pirates.
“I was just coming in here trying to do everything I could to win,” LeNeveu remembered of that stretch run in Hartford. “Obviously, we were gearing up for playoffs, and we were trying to make a playoff run, but unfortunately we fell short that year, and that’s the real goal. Coming in here, it’s the same idea again, we’ve got to win. We’ve got to get a bunch of wins going here, and that’s all the focus is right now.”
This has been a bit of a strange year so far for LeNeveu, who is in his 11th year of pro hockey out of Cornell University. After playing last season in Austria, the 30-year-old Fernie, B.C. native found himself squeezed out of a tight North American goaltending jobs market, and was without a team until signing with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL November 27.
“We decided last year that my goal was to get back to the NHL, and the only way to do that is to come back over to North America,” LeNeveu said. “And unfortunately, there just didn’t seem to be a job that showed up. We thought we could get one early and it didn’t happen, guys took spots and I was kind of left on the outside looking in. And that unfortunately happens, especially as you get older, and sitting out is no fun. I kept busy, though, we had a bunch of stuff going on, but at the end of the day I was going a little bit crazy, and I said, ‘I gotta play. Just get me anywhere, I gotta play.’ And we were given an opportunity down in South Carolina, which is a great organization.
“The coaching staff down there is unbelievable, they move guys in and out all the time, their goal is to move guys on and upward. That happened for me as well, so I was thankful for the opportunity there, and I was able to come out with this job.”
LeNeveu did a terrific job of maximizing his chance with the Stingrays, winning his first two ECHL starts by shutout and compiling a record of 4-4-0, with a 1.64 GAA, a 94.0% save percentage and three shutouts in eight games. Clearly, he did not allow any rust to form on his game during his down time.
“I was raring to go,” LeNeveu said. “It worked out well when I was at home (in Nanaimo, B.C.), too, because my goalie coach that I’ve work with over the summers, he lives 20 minutes north of me on (Vancouver) Island. So I was seeing him every week, I was working out with my old junior club, the Nanaimo Clippers, they were nice enough to let me come skate with them and work with their goalies. So it’s not like I was just sitting at home, I was on the ice every single day, I was working out every single day. I was just chomping at the bit to get going, and once the opportunity came, I was just stepping right in.”
So LeNeveu has gone from being full-time at home with his wife April and three daughters, to being all the way across the continent, first in Charleston, South Carolina and now in Hartford. With LeNeveu’s oldest daughter, Ashlynn, being six years old and already in school, and her four-year-old sister Hannah going to preschool, the family is going to stay in Western Canada.
“I’m going to go visit over the All-Star break, and then hopefully they’re going to come over here over spring break,” LeNeveu said. “Then we’re just going to play it by ear, because there’s no point in pulling our kids out of school mid-year. It would be too late, it would be tough on the family life. And my wife’s got a good routine going at home too.
“We’ve got Face Time, we’ve got Skype, we’re talking every day. It’s not the ideal situation, but it happens from time to time in a hockey life and we’ll make it work.
“That’s the life of a hockey player usually. There’s a very select few that get to stay in one organization for most of their career or their whole career, and everybody else has to kind of go where the contracts are. And that’s just life. If you want to play hockey, you’ve got to go where your offer is.”
This latest offer gives LeNeveu not only the opportunity to return to familiar ground, but also to share a net with Grumet-Morris, who is a fellow Ivy League product (Grumet-Morris played at Harvard at the same time LeNeveu starred at Cornell) and has also had a much-traveled career throughout the pro ranks.
“It’s funny, me and him were talking this morning, everywhere I go or everywhere he goes, one of us follows,” LeNeveu said of his former ECAC foe. “He went to Austria, and I followed and I was in Austria. I was in San Antonio and then up in Phoenix, and he was in San Antonio. Everywhere he is, I am, and vice versa. We know each other very well and we have a great relationship, so I’m looking forward to working with him.”
It’s been over a decade now since the two years (2001-02 and 2002-03) in which LeNeveu and Grumet-Morris went head-to-head as backstops of a pair of bitter ECAC rivals, but LeNeveu remembers it fondly.
“Obviously it’s a huge rivalry,” he said, “and at that time we probably hated each other, because nobody wanted to lose those games, that’s for sure, but we had a blast. We both had successful college careers, and I’m just happy to be riding this wave along with him.”
Though he already has ten professional seasons under his belt, LeNeveu is still relatively young, especially by the standards of the goaltending position, which has seen a number of individuals in recent history not make a breakthrough to the top level until past their 30th birthdays. LeNeveu believes that the beginning of this year goes into the “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” category, and feels that he still may be reaching his peak as a player.
“If I didn’t think I could play, this would have been a year that could have sent guys home, saying, ‘You know what, that’s it, I’m retiring,’” LeNeveu said. “But I have the belief that I’m playing my best hockey right now. These last couple of years I think I’ve been at the top of my career. That belief has kept me going. I believe it, and I know the coaching staff here supports me in it, and you’ve just got to keep going. You’ve got to keep believing in yourself, get in the right place at the right time, put some wins together and get a little lucky, get the timing right, and you’re off and running.”