Here at the Temple of Lavioletteism, I have begun a project to create mini-bios of the unsung heroes of the sport such as up-and-coming prospects, underrated performers of the past, and victims of missed opportunity – the latter probably best representing this particular scenario. Let us begin with a dear personal friend of mine and the path his career took.
Jeffrey G. Caron was born in Moncton on December 7th, 1985. His skill as a puck-moving defenseman and shut-down player first brought him to the attention of the suits in the world of scouting and player-agency in the late 90’s during his second season of Bantam AAA’s. In this time, Caron gained honors such as AAA first team all-star and top defenceman. At age 15, he reached an agreement with an agent whose name has been lost to history (which, as the reader will learn, is probably for the best), and was rated 18th on a list of prospects for the QMJHL draft. Circa 2002, Caron was drafted by the Prince Edward Island Rocket based out of Charlottetown, a member of the Q’s Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference. However, prior commitments and interest in learning led the bright young man Jeffrey instead to Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. It was hereabouts on his walk of life that I met Jeff, who instantly became an idol of mine.
The Merrimack Warriors certainly were aware of Caron’s awe-inspiring Denis Potvin-esque set of skills, but due to the jump from Bantams to NCAA Division I being a fairly significant one for any player, the school’s athletic committee saw it in his best interest for him to develop for a year back in Canada in Junior A. Caron chose to join the Wellington Dukes of the OPJHL, a decision that most certainly would hold great benefits. Wellington tore through the league in a fashion similar to that of the 1970-71 record-shattering Boston Bruins team. The club’s final regular season record was a wolf-whistle inducing 47-1-1, permanently cementing the ’02-’03 Dukes as one of the titans of Junior A hockey. Along the way, Caron posted numbers of 9 goals, 21 assists, and 44 PIMs over the course of 44 games played. The Dukes’ achievements carried on throughout the post-season, which saw them winning their League Championship, All-Ontario title, and finishing 3rd in nationals at the Royal Bank Cup. To revise the famous lines of the Dead’s “Truckin'”: What a long, strange trip it had been.
Heading to Merrimack for the ’03-’04 campaign, still young at the age of 17 but with valuable experience in his back pocket, Caron definitely shined, serving as a candle in the dark for a struggling Warriors team, especially considering his youth compared to certain opponents. Caron was aware from the beginning of these discrepancies and their bizarre nature. In select cases, some players were around 25, having joined schools with Division I programs through crazed athletic scholarships after completing all of their years of junior eligibility. All the more enforcement for my theories regarding the corruption of elite hockey, I say. At any rate, Jeff’s freshman season saw him put up numbers of 1 goal, 5 assists, and 23 PIMs in 32 games played. Ironically, but in the most fortunate way possible, his strongest performances came in divisional match-ups against Hockey East opponents, which is where the Warriors of this time had their most significant struggles, finding themselves unable to compete with juggernauts such as the Green Line rivals, Maine, UNH – you know, the usual suspects. His performance made him the 72nd ranked North American prospect for the NHL draft, though the aforementioned villainous agent encouraged against him declaring eligibility in the expectation that he would be ranked higher the next year. Jeff never lost sight of other priorities when off the ice, excelling in the classroom, most notably in the Literature class taught by Professor Jay Atkinson (mi padre) – although both he and his classmates will tell you that I had a better grasp on the material as a 9-year-old than any of them.
The ’04-’05 campaign was a continuation of the floundering of the Warriors program, but a step-up for the personal performance of Caron. Over 36 games played, he tallied 5 goals and 20 assists along with 30 minutes “IN THE BOX!” (Hey, “Cool Hand Luke” is a masterpiece.) These stats along with the intangibles earned him placement on two all-tournament teams (Maverick Stampede in Omaha, Nebraska and the University of Minnesota Christmas Tourney) and gained him Hockey East Player of the Week honors in December. Despite his performance, he was not placed higher in the prospect rankings. The potential for a good team was present, especially considering their 7-4-1 record in non-conference match-ups, including a victory over Harvard (“Hey, we’re not lookin’ too bad – We beat the SMAHT kids!” – Jeff’s own words). But yet again, Merrimack’s Hockey East division counterparts slaughtered them year long, with the boys posting a record of 1-22-1. Reasonably enough, Caron didn’t see much chance to gain entry into the NHL through Merrimack, especially considering his agent’s theory being a flop, and thus decided in July of ’05 to leave to play in the Q. (NOTE: It should be worth pointing out that the Warriors are now in a major renaissance, being ranked #1 in the U.S. at one point in the 2011-12 season, under the direction of current coach Mark Dennehy. I guess whatever’s meant to be shall be.)
Despite the failures of some of the ideas concoted by Caron’s agent, one piece of good fortune came about in the form of a rookie tryout with the Florida Panthers in September of 2005. “[That tryout] was one of my best experiences in hockey,” Caron told me in an email interview. “It was the real deal. NHL jersey with my name on the back… We played games against other rookies from [the] Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes, and Ottawa Senators [in] a rookie tournament [at the then-Corel Centre]. My dad flew up and got to see me play against the Senators. Very cool experience. Something I’ll never forget.” I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, especially not that of a friend, but it seems that to me Caron was confident in his abilities as a defenceman, but was aware that certain other players in the development camp were just a step ahead. The organization felt the same way and chose to release him, prompting Jeff to join the Q as an alternate captain for the Saint John Sea Dogs.
Saint John were an expansion franchise and thus were effectively destined for failures of epic proportions. In other words: the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, they ain’t. Caron’s streak of personal accomplishments did not cease, however, as he scored the first goal in team history. Subsequently, the HOF board chose to include his jersey, stick, gloves, and the puck in a year-long exhibit at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Caron’s final statistics for ’05-06 were 7 goals and 28 assists along with a Chris “Knuckles” Nilan-like 109 PIMs. His team’s lack of offensive production created his only blemish on his stat sheet, with a -19 plus/minus ratio. Regardless, his performance earned him two year-end awards at the League Banquet – Best Defenceman and the Community Service award. Caron’s own words: “Both were very cool honors but I was really proud of the community service one because it was the part I enjoyed most about being a “Sea Dog”: Visiting schools, hospitals, etc. and bringing a smile to some people’s faces. Doesn’t get much better than that.” Wow, what a classy gent, eh? Caron’s one season in the Q earned him several professional contract offers, but not of the sort that kids from New Brunswick dream of – Coming from the low level pro minor league East Coast Hockey League (which would be career suicide). Under these circumstances, Jeff chose to continue with school.
Of the members of the CIS that attempted to recruit Jeff, he chose to attend St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The great academic reputation of St. FX was an attractive aspect, especially the kinesiology program, along with the historical greatness of the X-Men’s hockey team (although this was probably also an intentional slap in the face to my father, an Acadia University alumnus… Nahhh, I jest). Academically, the school proved to be a fantastic fit, but he describes his hockey experience in three seasons as “mostly uneventful”. A rare highlight during this time (his first season) which I witnessed in person was the X-Men’s mini-U.S. tour, during which he recorded a goal and an assist against the UNH Wildcats in a 3-2 win and a goal the next night against the UMASS Lowell River Hawks (despite my allegiance with Hockey East, I absolutely had to rub this in the face of the student fanbase). Three seasons of play with X saw Jeff tally a total of 9 goals and 40 assists.
In his last two years studying in Antigonish, Jeff really hit the books in a Phi Beta Kappa worthy manner. His studiousness earned him a spot in a Master’s program at McGill, referred to by some as the Harvard of Canada (kind of a stock phrase at this point, isn’t it? Stanford is the Harvard of the West Coast, etc. … What the hell does it mean?) As luck would have it, at the same time he received an offer to play in Europe (presumably the now KHL though he cannot recall due to insignificance.) “I weighed the pros and the cons,” Caron says, “but at the end of the day I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to study at McGill.”
Jeff’s master’s thesis took a look at career ending concussions of former NHL players (R.I.P. Scott Stevens’ stable mind.) This research caused him to take a step back and contemplate the luck that allowed him to stay in the game. I suppose we should all take a minute of each day to count our blessings. Currently, he still studies at McGill in pursuit of a PhD in Sport Psychology and still has hope and a good shot for a career in athletics, and looks to possibly be a university professor in the future.
“Forget about style; worry about results.” – Robert Gordon Orr