Brighton native Joel L’Esperance is returning to Michigan from the heart of Texas.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Joel L’Esperance grew up in Brighton, Mich., roughly halfway between Grand Rapids and Detroit, the seventh of 10 kids and the youngest boy in a family that was always bustling with activity.
“Life was pretty hectic,” he recalled. “When I was about 10, that was probably the time when it was the craziest. All 10 kids were still at home, so things were busy. There was always something going on, some sibling’s sporting event to go to or your own. My parents were always busy running someone one place or another.”
It proved to be the ideal environment for breeding his competitive nature.
“I had two older brothers who played hockey; one was four years older and the other eight years older,” he said. “I always wanted to compete with them and become better than them. As the younger brother, you want to show them up as best you can. I think they helped push me to get where I am today.”
L’Esperance grew up playing hockey for the Kensington Valley Rebels in the Brighton area. When his coach, Tom Miller, became the head coach of the Detroit Compuware Major AAA team, his dad suggested that he follow his hockey mentor.
“I told my dad that I wanted to play high school hockey with all my buddies, but he convinced me to play AAA hockey for a year to see how I liked it,” he said. “I enjoyed it and I obviously made new friends. Eventually, I was able to get a scholarship to Michigan Tech.”
He continued to play for Compuware until the USHL draft. He played two seasons in Iowa and Nebraska before joining the Houghton-based Huskies in the U.P.
“Playing in the USHL was a big adjustment,” he said. “The biggest thing was not having all the commotion that I had at home. I had one billet brother instead of three younger sisters and a couple of older siblings still at home. It certainly was a little quieter around the house during the evening.
“I was going to school out there my first year so it kept me busy and kept me from thinking about home too much. By my second year, I felt pretty comfortable there.”
For L’Esperance, choosing which college to attend proved to be a fairly easy decision.
“I looked at a few schools, but in the back of my mind, it was always going to be Michigan Tech if I got the opportunity,” said L’Esperance, who still spends his summers in the U.P. “I had grown up in the area because my parents had a summer place on the water in Houghton, which is where Tech is located.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that his older brother, Alan (the middle of the three brothers) had lettered in hockey at Michigan Tech in 2010-11, so L’Esperance headed north to play college hockey for four seasons (2014-18).
It was in Houghton where his work ethic truly was forged.
“My freshman year I basically played every Friday night and then sat out Saturday – I didn’t usually dress for the second game,” he said. “It helped me realize that I had to play the right way both nights on the weekend in order to stay in the lineup.”
Consistency became his mantra.
“Playing the same way night in and night out was probably my biggest area of improvement,” he said. “Over the course of my career, it’s something that I’ve continued to work on, playing every game with the same intensity, the same style of play every time – not taking any nights off.”
His maturity extended beyond the ice.
Before his senior season at Michigan Tech, L’Esperance wed Liana Haataja, the daughter of a former St. Cloud State defenseman who coached hockey in Minnesota. The newlyweds would be later blessed with their first child, daughter Lyla, born on Christmas Eve 2018.
Following the completion of his collegiate career with the Huskies, L’Esperance signed with the Texas Stars, the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Dallas Stars. He played the final nine games of the 2017-18 AHL regular season, long enough to earn a role in the postseason.
“I figured I would finish the regular season and then hang around for a little while, but I found a spot in the lineup at the beginning of the playoffs and ended up playing every game [22, up to and including Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals],” he said. “That experience was huge for my development.”
Although the Stars fell to the 2018 AHL champion Toronto Marlies in the finals, the experience helped set the tone for his first full pro season that would follow.
“Going into the next year, I felt like I still had that Game 7, Calder Cup Finals mentality,” he said. “I think it helped me have the kind of rookie season that I had in the AHL. If I hadn’t played in the Calder Cup Playoffs as I did, I don’t know if I would have had the season that I enjoyed in my rookie year.”
L’Esperance tallied 30 goals in 54 AHL games with Texas. He was the AHL’s leader in goals when he got the call to make his NHL debut with Dallas on Feb. 16, 2019 against Carolina. Even though he was held scoreless, he remained in the lineup for several games due to the positive impression he quickly made.
Eventually, he was sent back to the AHL, only to be recalled three days later. He scored his first NHL goal on March 14, 2019 at Minnesota when he deflected a pass from Jamie Benn over Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s left shoulder in a 4-1 win.
“There’s really no words for it, I guess,” L’Esperance said in the moment. “It’s pretty exciting, as you could probably tell with the way I celebrated. It was a surreal experience because my wife had several family members there as well as my brother Alan.”
Actually, his brother missed seeing the big moment.
“It’s pretty funny – he was running a little late from work, trying to get to the game,” L’Esperance recalled. “When he sat down close to my wife, she said, ‘Joel just scored.’ From the time he had got out of his car, listening to the game on the radio, and then into the rink, I had scored.”
L’Esperance spent most of the 2019-20 season in the AHL with Texas, notching 25 goals in 58 games while potting one goal in three NHL games with Dallas. The following year, the pandemic season of 2020-21, he was a fixture on the Stars’ taxi squad, still managing to appear in 12 games with the NHL club.
Although grateful for the opportunity to play hockey during a time that was a struggle for everyone, L’Esperance said it was not easy to maintain the proper mindset.
“It was definitely hard mentally,” he said. “You were traveling with the team, but at the same time, you didn’t know if you were going to be in or out. You would show up at the rink and you didn’t want to prepare like you weren’t going to play because all of a sudden you could find yourself in the lineup.
“So you had to prepare yourself every day like you were going to play and then you’d experience a little letdown when you found out you weren’t playing. With time, it got harder to be prepared when your name wasn’t being called for a couple of weeks.”
He spent the entire 2021-22 season in the AHL, recording a career-high 49 points (24-25—49) in 62 games with the Stars, who were eliminated in the opening round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
At the end of his stint with the Stars, L’Esperance showed five goals in 33 NHL contests. “I don’t have any hard feelings,” he said. “I enjoyed Texas. I loved the Austin area. It’s a phenomenal place, as is Dallas. I don’t hold any grudges against the management there. I feel like I was given a fair shot by the organization.”
L’Esperance was eager to play closer to home, especially after losing his father in December 2021. He couldn’t have been happier when he was able to sign a two-year AHL contract with the Griffins.
“I was hoping to get closer to my mom in Brighton and, as a free agent, obviously the Red Wings and Griffins organizations were at the top of my list,” he said. “It worked out to sign in Grand Rapids and my family and I couldn’t be more excited.”
After four-plus seasons with the Stars, L’Esperance is ready to begin a new chapter in his career. That he is able to join the organization of his favorite boyhood team makes it even more special.
“I’m excited to get started with a new organization,” he said. “You always have a few nerves and anxiety when you start with a new team, but I’ve always played with a good group of guys, so you just find a way to slide into the lineup and do your best to help the team.”
In his own words, L’Esperance sees himself as a strong power forward who likes to take the puck to the net. “I feel like I’m a shoot-first type of player,” he said. “If I get a chance in the slot or the offensive zone, I’m looking forward to shooting first.”
He is ready to fill any role as needed. “I feel like I can play anywhere up or down the lineup if Grand Rapids needs me to do that,” he said. “If I’m playing on one of the top lines, I’ll try to produce as much as I can for the Griffins. I’m just going to show up and wherever they put me, I’m going to play and try to produce as best I can.”
At the age of 27, L’Esperance will be one of the older players on the team. He hopes to be a leader by example. “In my opinion, the way you carry yourself in the room and on the ice is the best way to show leadership,” he said.