Story and photos by Mark Newman
Maybe it's the early hours. Maybe it's living in the country. Or digging your fingers into the earth. Or the endless, everyday chores. Heck, maybe it's the smell of manure.
Something about growing up on a farm stays with you. Whatever it is, Stacy Roest knows that it's made a difference in his life as he continues to pursue his National Hockey League dreams while playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Growing up on a farm in Lethbridge, Alberta -- about 50 miles north of the Canadian border and Montana -- Roest and his older brother Shane learned the value of feeling sweat on your brow.
Their parents, Dick and Irene, made sure of it.
"We lived on a farm of 40 acres," he recalls, "and we had some alfalfa, which meant that we had to change (irrigation) pipe every morning and every night in the summer. It wasn't easy.
Roest and his brother also worked for their father's construction company, D. R. Stucco. If you're thinking the boys got to fling plaster at walls all day long, think again.
"Oh no, we didn't have that job," Roest says. "We had to haul the cement in a wheel barrel and shovel it up to him or put it in a bucket and pull it up a ladder. You definitely learned how to work hard.
The work also toughened the boys mentally.
"Boy, there were some long days, but looking back, you appreciate it. At the time, we were ticked off because our friends were off golfing or doing other things. We got to do that stuff too, but only once or twice a week.
For the Roest boys, who shared the family chores with sisters Shantel and Shelley who shared the family chores, respite came on a pond near their home.
"My brother and I would be on that pond every day after school," Roest says. "We'd shovel it off and play forever. It's not like you went out there
for an hour and they kicked you off.
To this day, that pond is where Roest believes he learned the most about hockey. "We'd go out for however long we wanted, or until our mother called us in, or you couldn't find the puck any more because it was too dark, or you shot the puck into the snow and buried it.
If nothing else, Roest learned to have fun on that pond. "When the snow started melting, we'd always find 50 pucks in the snow bank," he says, laughing at the memory.
Playing with his older brother harvested lessons that fed his psyche over the years. "I was really fortunate to have an older brother, somebody I could look up to," Roest says. "He was obviously bigger, stronger, faster and could skate better. I think it pushed me to be better at a younger age.
While his brother went on to play for the University of Lethbridge, Roest played junior hockey for Medicine Hat in the Western Hockey League. His parents made the two-hour trip to see most of his games.
"It was a great learning experience, especially after leaving home at age 17," he says. "The more ice time I got, the more responsibility I was given, and I was fortunate to score quite a few goals.
Even so, there weren't a lot of pro teams clamoring for a 5-foot-9 center, no matter how gritty or determined he was. "Coming out of juniors, I didn't have many options," he concedes.
Fortunately, he caught the eye of Ken Holland, current Red Wings general manager, who had been Detroit's amateur scouting director for the five previous seasons. Roest signed a minor league contract with the Adirondack Red Wings.
"Kenny Holland was really good to me," Roest says. "He gave me an opportunity to play.
Roest steadily improved during three full seasons in the American Hockey League with Adirondack, before earning a roster spot in Detroit during the 1994-95 season. He played 59 games with the Wings that year, then saw action in 49 games the next season.
But he was forced to say goodbye to the Wings after being selected by the Minnesota Wild in the 2000 expansion draft. At the time, it seemed like a bittersweet move. He was leaving the organization that had nurtured his talents for a chance to play regularly for a new one.
It didn't quite work out that way.
"Obviously, I would have liked to have stayed in Detroit," Roest says.
"Going to Minnesota, I hoped I was going to get a chance, but I don't know -- it just didn't work right from day one.
After playing in 76 games with the Wild during the 2000-01 season, he opened last season by scoring five goals in Minnesota's first five games.
"Even after that start, I never really got going," he says. "It wasn't long after that I was back in the stands.
Roest found himself a healthy scratch more often than he could have possibly imagined. "It was very tough emotionally," he says. "When things don't go right, you get down on yourself.
When Roest found himself in the lineup, he was often pressing. "You go out there and you know you can do it, but sometimes you try too hard.
Like any hockey player, Roest wanted to play. But inconsistency on the ice caused him to lose favor with Minnesota head coach Jacques Lemaire.
"He's a great coach, but it was a tough two years for me," he says.
Roest says he never knew if he was going to be in or out of the Wild's lineup. "Oh yeah, it was frustrating," he says. "I'd beat myself up, thinking about why I wasn't playing. Then, when I'd get in there, I'd get away from playing my game. Before I knew it, I'd be sitting out again.
Even so, Roest scored 10 goals in 58 games -- his best total in four NHL
seasons -- but he could see the handwriting on the wall. When the Wild failed to extend an offer to him this past summer, he wasn't the least surprised.
When the Red Wings expressed an interest in bringing him back into the fold, he jumped at the chance -- even though he knew the odds of sticking with the club out of training camp were slim.
"Detroit has always been good to me, so I was pretty excited to be back," Roest says. "I think it's the top organization in the league. I know some guys might argue with that, but everything they do is first class. From
the coaching staff to the training staff, everybody is top notch. They're proven winners.
Roest contends that he can live with being on the bubble. "I know the situation," he says. "You just keep going and hopefully you'll get a chance up there and play well. If not, we've got a good team here.
If he learned anything in Minnesota, it was how to deal with adversity.
"Obviously, if I could go at it again, maybe it would be a different story, but that's life. Things happen and you learn from them. You chalk it up to experience.
"Whatever happens, you gotta keep a smile and keep working hard. Whether
you're scoring or not scoring, playing or not playing, you have to keep happy. If you can learn from the situation, it'll make you a stronger and better person.
It's that positive attitude that has Griffins head coach Danton Cole singing his praises.
"Stacy's one of those guys who's a pleasure to coach," Cole says.
"He's very conscientious, both offensively and defensively. As a forward, he
probably gets more ice time than anybody else because we can use him in every situation. He's a fantastic player. We'd all like to see him back in the NHL -- he has that kind of talent.
Not surprisingly, it's Roest's work ethic that has impressed Cole the most. "It's a tribute to his conditioning that he can handle as much ice time as he does," Cole says. "We played three games in three nights recently
and by the third game he still looked fresh, like he had been resting for two or three days.
Roest no longer works the family farm or stucco business like he used to
do during the summers. He and his wife Billie have moved to Vernon, British Columbia, and it's just not as easy to get back to Lethbridge.
But don't be fooled. Roest hasn't forgotten his roots. How could he? He owes everything to hard work -- work that began on the farm.
All the ups and downs have been like fertilizer to his soul. In an odd way, he thinks it's even helped his three-year marriage.
"Everybody says you don't take it home, but sometimes you do," Roest says. "You go through good times and bad times -- that's part of life, not just hockey players. You just make the most of it -- I think it's helped us grow as a couple.
Although he wishes he were playing in Detroit, Roest is thrilled with the amount of ice time he is getting in Grand Rapids. "I love playing," he says.
"Ice time helps you improve -- it makes you a better player. When you're winning and you're contributing, it's a great feeling. That's what it's all about.