TOP OF THE WORLD
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Travis Roche was born to play on ice -- not that he had much of a choice.
The Houston Aeros defenseman spent the first six years of his life in Inuvik, a town of 1,500 people about an hour south of the Beaufort Sea, which is basically the southern portion of the Arctic Ocean.
Which means he grew up not far from the North Pole.
Inuvik, in fact, is about 2,000 miles north of Grand Forks, North Dakota, where Roche played his college hockey. That’s about the same distance as Grand Forks is from Mexico City in the other direction.
Needless to say, it was cold.
“I don’t remember much, but I know it was freezing cold,” Roche says.
“My mom says that we didn’t like waiting for the school bus much.” In January, the thermometer in Canada’s Northwest Territories routinely drops to 20 degrees below zero -- that’s the average temperature. It’s not unusual to have the mercury fall to 30 to 40 degrees below zero.
“My mom and I went back there for a visit when I was 15 and it was quite an experience,” Roche recalls. “All the houses are built about three feet off the ground because of the perma-frost. They can’t have basements because their houses would shift and crack.” The other thing Roche remembers is the color of the houses, which were painted in warm hues of pink, green and orange. “It was strange -- it was like they were all color-coded,” he says.
Roche started skating before he was three years old. “Obviously, ice wasn’t a problem,” he says with a chuckle. “Affording the skates was probably a bigger issue.” Growing up in the Arctic circle had additional challenges. Roche had to play hockey against kids much older, a fact of life which ultimately aided his development.
His family -- Roche has a older sister and younger brother -- eventually moved closer to Edmonton when his father left the hotel management business for the steel industry and, later, the petroleum industry.
Roche played midget AAA hockey for a team from St. Albert, a suburb of Edmonton, for one season, before playing two years of Tier 2 junior hockey in British Columbia. He performed well enough to earn a scholarship to the University of North Dakota.
Unfortunately, Roche was academically ineligible when his credits failed to transfer.
“It was awful,” he recalls. “I couldn’t play and I couldn’t practice with the team. It’s hard because you don’t want to lose what you’ve worked so hard for so long, but shooting pucks for 20 minutes by yourself doesn’t quite get the job done like skating with the team.” His work habits weren’t all that suffered. His attitude was less than what it should have been, as his head coach at North Dakota attested to the Grand Forks Herald.
“When (Travis) first came here, he didn't have character, he was a character,” Sioux hockey coach Dean Blais told the Herald. “He always tried to cut corners, to find the easy way around things.” Roche, for his part, felt misunderstood, although he would be the first to admit that he needed to do some growing up.
“When I played in juniors, I lived with a family who did everything for me just as my own parents would,” Roche recalls. “As you get older, you get wiser and you realize that you need to work a little harder every year.” Before Roche blossomed as a player, it was important that he matured as a person. Sometime while sitting out his freshman season -- “I had to be just a normal student, going to school,” he says -- the light came on in his head.
By the end of his junior season at North Dakota, Roche had earned All-American honors as a defenseman, won a national championship and signed an NHL contract with the Minnesota Wild.
His maturation process, however, was not over, as he learned when the Wild sent him down to Houston to spend most of the 2001-02 season.
“It was disappointing, for sure,” Roche says. “I don’t think anybody goes into a season hoping for second best. But I think I fooled myself into believing that I could have played every day in the NHL last year.” Roche could have complained. He could have sulked. He could have become cold, colder than those winters in Inuvik. But if his frigid rearing taught him anything, it taught him to have a warm heart.
With the Aeros, he dedicated himself in new ways. As a sign of his commitment, he pledged to personally donate $100 for every goal, $50 for every assist and $5 for every penalty minute to Kids Unlimited, a non-profit organization created to benefit kids with cancer and their families.
“Once I realized I was going to be in Houston for a while, I approached the coaching staff about getting involved in charity work with children,” says Roche, who figured his involvement would be strictly financial.
“I wasn’t a big fan of hospitals -- they scare me because I don’t know how to act, what to say. I was kind of worried about that, but once I met some of the kids, it was an easy decision to stick around.” The 23-year-old promoted Kids Unlimited at every opportunity. “It’s a great organization,” Roche says. “If I can do anything to make a kid’s life a little happier for two months or two days, that’s something I’m more than happy to do.” He formed friendships with many of the children and their families, including a three-year-old boy who underwent a successful bone marrow transplant. Roche, unable to visit him due to the post-operative quarantine, made a videotaped greeting from himself and his teammates.
When he was sidelined with an injury, Roche decided to sponsor the Aeros’ top scoring defenseman, Curtis Murphy, for the duration of his recovery. On t he ice, Roche totaled 13 goals, 21 assists and 107 PIMs in 60 games. With Murphy’s stats, the bill came to $3,375.
The rookie from North Dakota dug a little deeper and presented a $4,000 check to the organization.
For Roche, it was a small price to pay for an invaluable lesson.
“To see these kids struggling to live is something that’s not easy, but it’s made me appreciate every day,” says Roche, who lost a grandmother to cancer and whose fiancee’s mother is a cancer survivor.
“There are a million reasons to be involved. Being in the Houston area, I don’t think hockey is a big thing for most of these kids. I think it means something just to be someone who is willing to spend the time with them, when you don’t have to be there.
“Seeing the children’s faces light up, it’s such a gratifying feeling.” His involvement with Kids Unlimited, which continues this season, is a testament to the moral fiber implanted by parents who knew that it was more important to give than to receive.
“My family always preached that sooner or later I’d be in a situation where I’d be able to help people who were less fortunate,” Roche says. “My dad used to read me clips about charity golf tournaments or a person doing something in the community. He always made a point of bringing up those things because, hopefully, I’d someday be in the position to help.
“I thought last year was a good time to start.” In recognition of his commitment, Kids Unlimited named a room at its retreat ranch “The Travis Roche Room.” In May, he was honored as AHL Man of the Year with the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, presented annually for outstanding community and charitable contributions.
This past summer, the Minnesota Wild rewarded him with a new two-year contract to continue his development. “Any time you get those things done early, you can get yourself focused,” Roche says. “The new deal was great because it felt like I had done something right.” Roche, who saw NHL action in four games with the Wild last January, came into training camp more determined than ever. “I knew I had to be in better shape physically and, more importantly, mentally,” he says.
He had a good camp but was unable to win a job in Minnesota.
“Unfortunately, I was fighting for the same job against the same eight guys who had a whole year to prove to (Wild head coach) Jacques Lemaire what they can do,” Roche says.
Don’t expect Roche to give up trying. “I haven’t gotten my chance yet, but I’m sure somewhere along the line, I will,” he says.
Having spent enough time with Kids Unlimited, he’s seen plenty of people face more unsurmountable odds than he hopes to ever face. It’s why he’s going to continue to go the extra mile to help those in need.
Roche knows what it takes to walk against the wind. Braving the frozen tundra of the Arctic Circle, he knows what it’s like to be on top of the world, so to speak.
Nothing could be better than to eventually earn a regular spot in the NHL.
His brief stint with the Wild was more nerve-racking than anything. “I was never in the situation where I felt like I belonged, like I was going to be a big part of their plans,” Roche says.
“When you get called up because of injuries, you don’t feel like you can play your own game. You don’t feel as confident. You think that everything’s going to be under the microscope, like every mistake is going to be magnified.” The book on Roche has always been that he’s a strong offensive player, but that his defense was suspect at times. He’s determined to do everything in his power to change that perception.
“Offense has always come easy for me -- I’ve never really had to work on that part of my game. I’m not a big guy and I’m not that strong, but there aren’t too many situations where I’ll get beat one-on-one.” Roche came into training camp this fall determined to show the Wild that he could be responsible in his own end. “I showed them that I can play solid defensively, and then they told me that I have to work on my offensive play.
I guess I still have to find the right balance.” He’s confident that his time will come.
“I’ve learned a lot down here in Houston,” Roche says. “The coaching staff is incredible. They want the best for you, they want to help you as much as they can to get you to the next level.
“Somewhere along the line, I’ll get my chance.”