Nothing ever came easy to Dean Arsene in his hockey career.
The Abbotsford product was never drafted – not by the Western Hockey League, not by the National Hockey League.
And yet, against all odds, the rugged defenceman managed to carve out an impressive 13-year pro career, which he officially closed the book on this week after 129 ECHL games, 680 in the AHL, and a sublime 13-game NHL stint with the Edmonton Oilers.
“You always kind of want to go out on your own terms,” the 33-year-old told The News on Monday, confirming that he’s hanging up his skates for good.
“You don’t want anybody telling you you can’t play because nobody wants you. I kind of knew physically and mentally that it was coming down to the wire, it was coming down to the end. To end at home was the best way for me to go out.”
Arsene quietly built a resumé as one of the more decorated AHLers of the past decade. He won Calder Cups in 2006 and 2009 with the Hershey Bears, and wore the captain’s C for five franchises: Hershey (2006-08), the Springfield Falcons (2009-10), the Peoria Rivermen (2010-11), the Portland Pirates (2011-12) and his hometown Heat (2013-14).
Five team captaincies could well be an AHL record, but the league doesn’t track that officially.
Ending his career with the Heat was a treat for Arsene. After spending 2012-13 with the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps, he told his agent the only place he wanted to play this season was Abbotsford.
But with the Heat set to bring in a deep crop of rookie defencemen, he had to wait until just two days before training camp to land a tryout.
He made the most of it, earning an AHL contract for the season and being voted captain by his teammates.
“My family’s here, my wife’s family is here,” Arsene explained. “I’ve been gone, if you count junior hockey, 18 years away from home.
“If this (the Heat’s move out of town) had happened last year and I hadn’t had a chance to play at home, I would have been pretty upset. To at least play one year is pretty big . . . it was the cherry on top.”
Late in the 2009-10 season, while plying his trade with the Springfield Falcons, Arsene was summoned for his first career NHL stint with the parent Oilers.
“That was the goal – I think every kid who laces up skates wants to play in the NHL,” he said. “Obviously I would have loved to play 1,000 games, but I played 13, and they were the 13 greatest games of my life. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I made a lot of lifelong friends and a lot of lifelong memories, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Arsene said he’s not sure exactly what the future holds for him – whether he’ll seek a career in the hockey world, or whether he’ll join his brother at his food brokerage company.
Heat head coach Troy Ward lauded Arsene’s leadership this season, even as the necessity of getting the young defencemen into the lineup resulted in him frequently being a healthy scratch – he saw action in just 42 of 76 regular season games.
“That’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re a vet,” Ward noted. “But he was really good about that – he kept leading our kids.
“If you looked back and said, ‘Geez, who was instrumental in the room?’ I’d have to point to Dean. There were a lot of good players in there, and lot of good people. But Dean kept this thing afloat all by himself – right up to January, he was the only vet.
“It was a tremendous last year for Dean as a pro. I’m tremendously proud of him.”
Ward said that Arsene’s career path is a great example to young hockey players.
“He was always told no, you’re not good enough,” he said.
“Whether you want to say he was a crusher or a rusher, he wasn’t either one. He made it just on hard work, and just being a really good man. That was the part that was most encouraging – you can still do something you really love just by being a really good human being.
“That’s pretty cool.”