Ask Jim Playfair why he picked Quintin Laing as captain of the Abbotsford Heat, and the first of many superlatives the Heat head coach offers is that Laing is a “great family man.”
Laing, for his part, is simply thankful to have a great family.
The 31-year-old centre credits his support system at home – wife Aimee and sons Hunter, 4, and Hayden, 2 – for helping him through a dark time in his hockey career.
Laing spent the better part of the 2009-10 campaign in the NHL with the Washington Capitals, suiting up for 36 games with the Presidents’ Trophy winners. But as a free agent last summer, he faced a tough job market and was unemployed when the season opened.
Stuck in limbo, the Laings enrolled Hunter in preschool in Saskatoon, and Quintin practiced with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies to stay in shape.
Finally, just before Halloween, the ECHL’s Victoria Salmon Kings came calling. Laing uprooted his family and moved them to the B.C. capital, only to pack things up again in short order when the Heat offered a tryout contract in early November.
“It was a tough situation,” Laing said. “But my family was great through the whole thing. My wife was real supportive. A lot of days you get down and depressed, just because you haven’t gone through it before and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It was nice to have her to lean on.”
Upon arriving in Abbotsford, Laing immediately became the Heat’s elder statesman by quite a margin. Matt Keith, at 27, had been the most senior citizen on the youngest team in the AHL, and ten first-year players have suited up for the Heat this season.
With so many youngsters on the roster, Laing has noticed parallels between fatherhood and Heat captaincy.
“You always want to set a good example,” he said. “I’m not going to tell the guys to do something and then not do it myself. It’s the same way with kids, too. If you want them to have good table manners, you’ve got to show them by example.”
The most obvious illustration of Laing’s lead-by-example philosophy is his fearlessness in blocking shots. He never hesitates to throw his body in front of a slap shot – it’s a task he earned plaudits for during his time with the Capitals.
During a recent game against the Peoria Rivermen, Laing hobbled off the ice after taking a puck in the leg on the penalty kill. But the very next shift, he hopped back over the boards.
“It’s the little things that win games and get you more ice time,” he explained. “When you get called up (to the NHL), you have to do something to stand out, something that makes them go, ‘Wow, this guy really wants to be here.’ That was kind of the thing that got my foot in the door with the Capitals. I wanted them to know I’d do anything to stop that puck from going in.
“I’m the kind of guy who, if the puck went by me and went into the net, I just couldn’t sleep at night. I’d do anything possible not to get scored on.”
The Heat went captainless until Dec. 31, when Playfair bestowed the ‘C’ on Laing. With such a young group, the Abbotsford bench boss thought it wise to get a good feel for his personnel before making a decision. A litany of injuries at the start of the season delayed the process further, but when Laing arrived, Playfair knew had a leader made to order.
The Heat are the third AHL team Laing has captained – he served the same role with the Hershey Bears and the Norfolk Admirals.
“He’s a great family man, a great father, a great person, ” Playfair said. “He’s had NHL experience with a top organization, and he has aspirations of getting back there.
“He’s got a great deal of respect in the dressing room, as well as from the coaches and the trainers. When you ask the players, he’s a logical choice because he’s so consistent with his work ethic and his effort.”
Ryan Stone, one of two Heat assistant captains along with Keith, echoed Playfair’s praise of Laing.
“When he speaks, people listen,” Stone said. “Guys watch him around the rink, and on the ice. You want your captain to be kind of like that – someone people listen to and watch.”
After the uncertainty of last fall, Laing has found an element of stability in Abbotsford. He’s got the ‘C’ on his chest, and his AHL contract has been extended to the end of the season.
The Harris, Sask. native is enjoying watching his boys grow up.
“They’re both hockey-obsessed,” he said with a chuckle. “They do it 18 hours a day – the only time they’re not into hockey is when they’re sleeping. They watch it, they play it on Wii.
“Hunter, when he comes to our games and the other team scores in a shootout, he starts crying. He’s pretty hardcore.”
If Dad can help guide the youthful Heat to a second-half surge, it’ll be nothing but smiles.