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Locked in Chicago

Corey Locke has won two Calder Cups, earned Most Valuable Player honors at the junior and pro levels and received an actual gold medal for winning the German Elite League. But all those accomplishments became a blur as soon as he embarked on the most challenging and rewarding adventure of all.

1314-Breakaway-Issue3-Dec-Cover-thumb“I’m married now, and my wife, Chantal, and I have a 15-month-old daughter, Kendersyn. Away from the rink, that’s my life,” Locke said. “It is life changing having a kid. You don’t know what you did with your time before you had them. But it’s wonderful. I wouldn’t change any day for it. It’s amazing.”

Amazing could describe a few of the stops along the way for the 29-year-old Locke. A highly recruited junior prospect out of Newmarket, Ontario, Locke chose to forgo college to put up big numbers with the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s (132 goals and 312 points in three seasons). His career in Canada’s capital gave the Montreal Canadiens the confidence to draft him 113th overall in the National Hockey League’s 2003 entry draft. He started his pro career in 2004 with a two-way contract that sent him to the American Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs. That move not only brought Locke closer to his family, but paved the way for him to start building his own.

“Chantal and I actually met because of hockey. When I played with the Hamilton Bulldogs, she worked for the team,” Locke said. “I enjoyed playing in Hamilton because I was so close to home. Ottawa was about five hours away (from Newmarket) and Hamilton was just 90 minutes away from my parents. Hamilton is a great organization. Michael Andlauer is the owner and ran everything first class and really took care of the players.”

The Bulldogs were mediocre during Locke’s first two seasons, but in 2006 the club – and Locke – exploded, powering their way to the first (and only) Calder Cup Hamilton has won. Locke contributed 10 goals and 22 points during the playoff run, but learning what it takes to win as a professional, especially having known defeat in the past, was the bigger takeaway.

“I was fortunate to win a Calder Cup with them. They’re a strong organization with a lot of good people working for them,” he said. “It was definitely eye-opening though, seeing what it took to win. I came close to winning a championship with the 67’s but we lost in the Finals to the Kitchener Rangers. You get that far and to lose, that really stings. You kick yourself and wonder if there was something more you could have done or if you hadn’t have missed a chance somewhere along the line, would things have been different?”

Locke remained in Hamilton for one more season following the Cup victory, and still holds team records for most career goals (85), assists (144), and points (229). He was called up by the Canadiens for one game late in 2008 and fully expected to return to the organization the following year. Montreal had another plan in mind though, trading him to the Minnesota Wild in the offseason for defenseman Shawn Belle.

Right off the bat, Locke was in the hunt for another Cup, but the relationship with Minnesota ended up being much more short lived than he anticipated.

“After the Bulldogs traded me. I ended up played a year in Minnesota’s organization for the (AHL’s) Houston Aeros, and we went all the way to the Conference Finals, but we lost,” Locke said. “I thought I would be re-signed because of the year we had and July 1 came and it didn’t happen so I went to free agency.”

The New York Rangers ended up scooping Locke up and signing him to a two-way deal. That season he put up 31 goals and 85 points with the Connecticut Wolf Pack and appeared in three games with the Rangers, but it was another short stint and the center was on the move again; this time hooking up with the Ottawa Senators organization.

“I had a good year with Connecticut, but then I ended up signing a two-year deal with the Ottawa Senators and playing in Binghamton,” Locke said. “I had a couple options coming out that year, but the connection to Ottawa and the potential to play there again made me think it was the right choice.”

It was a decision that ended up paying more dividends than Locke dared to predict. The Binghamton Senators went on the second Calder Cup run of his career during the 2010-11 season, with Locke tallying 21 goals and 86 points in the regular season and earning AHL MVP honors. While he had experienced the honor before in juniors, being recognized as a pro, and on the heels of another championship, was something different entirely.

“It was a bigger deal than the junior awards,” Locke said. “Winning the Canadian Hockey League player of the year was pretty cool, and I was runner-up the next year to Sidney Crosby and Cam Ward. At the pro level though, it’s quite an honor. I played with great linemates. We had a good team, and coach Kurt Kleinendorst put me in a good situation. It just worked out and I had a good year.”

Another difference the second time around with the Calder Cup? Having already seen one championship go by in the blink of an eye, Locke’s memory of the win is a little more intact.

“Getting the second Cup with Binghamton, I think I remember more of it,” he said. “You don’t really get to enjoy your run toward a championship most of the time, which is honestly kind of disappointing. You’re really just trying to focus on the next game. When I’ve gone through it, the motto is to just ‘enjoy the game.’ When you’re younger, you think it’s cool that you won, but it didn’t seem like as much of a grind as the second one. You’re really fortunate to win a second one. The fans (in Binghamton) were great and it was very exciting to win.”

Having achieved a number of his professional goals by the end of the 2011 season, including notching his first NHL point during a one-game assignment in Ottawa, Locke and his wife made the decision to head overseas. Getting on with TPS Turka of the Turkish Hockey League and then the Berlin Polar Bears of the German Elite League, Locke found winning it all is just as sweet, as well as less stressful, across the pond.

“I had spent eight years in North America. The lockout was coming at the time and I got a good offer (in Europe),” Locke said. “I had just gotten married and had a kid and I thought maybe it was a good time to go over. I’m glad I did it; it was a great experience. We won a championship in Germany, and winning one is always great, but it’s a lot different over there. It’s not like here where you play four series. We won in only 13 games. It’s different, but it’s all the same feeling. You’re preparing the same. It’s just not the same grind that it is here.”

The hardware also proved to be a departure from what Locke was expecting.

“I got a ring when we won, and I got an actual gold medal,” he said. “It’s huge. I don’t actually have part of it yet. A friend of mine is bringing the ring back with him soon.”

Locke couldn’t grab it himself because, after just one season away, he and Chantal were ready to come home. So when he heard Chicago Wolves general manager Wendell Young was interested, Locke jumped at the chance to get back to the league where he’d enjoyed so much success.

“I was ready to be back, for career and family reasons. I bounced around a lot before, whether from getting traded or transferred, and even though I’m glad I went to Europe, I’m glad to be here,” he said. “I’m familiar with this league so it was the smart move to come back. And Chantal wanted to be in North America. It was better for Kendersyn to be here for now. When I started talking to Chicago I felt very lucky. I’ve been in this league for a long time and you know Chicago is the best and it’s a first-class organization and they treat you so well.”

“Corey was high on the (offseason) wish list,” Young said. “He brings skill, and he brings points. When you look at guys and go through their careers and see that they are consistently scoring points, you know those are the guys you want to have on your side. It’s rare you have a guy who, through his whole career in juniors and college, doesn’t score and then all of a sudden they get to the pros and they’re scoring. If you’re a consistent scorer at every level, that’s when you know the guy is going to bring it out there on the ice for you.”

Locke also brings to mind another big-time scorer in the Wolves anals – Darren Haydar. Both smaller players who enjoyed prolific success in the AHL without finding a foothold in the NHL, Locke sees the similarities, but doesn’t let the knocks on his game become too distracting.

“Darren and I, our stories are similar. Small guys that were never the greatest skaters or fastest skaters but did well at this level,” he said. “We’ve won awards and championships, but it just hasn’t happened (at the next level). It’s out of your control. In both of our careers we’ve done what we’ve been asked to and what’s expected of us. If I’m going to be playing in the AHL, this is the spot to be. I’m very happy.”

Beyond just bringing him back closer to home, joining the Wolves meant being reunited with a familiar face from Locke’s junior days – he and Wolves right wing Mark Mancari shared the ice in Ottawa from 2001-04 to great returns. When Mancari heard his former teammate was jumping on board with the Wolves, it was music to his ears.

“I had signed first with the Wolves. I signed with St. Louis right on July 4, but I had an inkling about Corey,” Mancari said. “You kind of know the hockey world, and you hear things, so I thought there was a good chance. When it happened, I thought it was good for him and good for the organization to have him in this system. And it has been really good for me to have a chance to play with him again. We’ve kept in touch as best we can and it’s good to be back at it here.”

So as the Wolves settle into the season, Locke and his young family are settling into a new home. Just like on the ice, Locke feels fortunate to have a good teammate in his corner, and looks forward to a few more new milestones on the horizon.

“Chantal does a lot of the work with Kendersyn. I’m very lucky to have her,” he said. “She takes a lot of those late-night shifts and a lot of the time she’s by herself. So when I’m home from road trips and I’m in town, I try to do as much as possible. I do the morning shifts. We have a good relationship and we work well off each other. That helps so much. Kendersyn is just on the move, so I’m always trying to keep up. She wants to be moving and doesn’t want to sit still for too long and wants to be doing something at all time. It’ll be interesting to see if she likes the snow, which I’m sure she will, because we’ll be out in our backyard in the winter.”

“My daughter was born in Burlington, Ontario but she has been in six countries. We’re going to show her her passport one day because she’ll never believe she has been to all these places with us. I cherish this time I get with them. It’s important.”