In the end, Maxime Lacroix just wanted to play hockey again.
Sitting in the stands at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa., watching his Hershey Bears teammates play night after night wasn't Lacroix's idea of a good time.
When Lacroix signed a two-year deal last season with Hershey -- one of the elite franchises in the American Hockey League -- he knew there were no guarantees. He knew it wouldn't be easy to crack the Bears' talent-laden lineup.
"When you sign with Hershey, you know how much talent they've got," said Lacroix, who has played 76 games for the Bears over the last two seasons. "I knew I would have to work hard and play well to get a regular shift."
But when he was a healthy scratch for six straight games at the end of December, Lacroix was ready for a change of scenery, even if that change meant coming down to the ECHL and playing for the South Carolina Stingrays.
"I hadn't played in a couple of weeks, and I wasn't getting much ice time even when I was in the lineup," Lacroix said. "I don't like sitting on the bench and I don't like sitting in the stands. I want to be on the ice, playing, because I love to play."
He went to the Bears' coaching staff and asked about getting more ice time.
"My only option was coming down to South Carolina, but I was happy to come down here," said Lacroix, who helped the Stingrays win a Kelly
Cup title in 2009. "I was excited about coming back."
Maybe the only person more excited about Lacroix's return to South Carolina was Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery.
"The guy is just an incredible professional," Carbery said. "I knew when he came down he wasn't going to pout about playing in (this league). And he's one guy who could be a little frustrating with the way things have gone for him in the (AHL). He's proven he can be a dominant player in this league, and he's done enough up in the (AHL) to prove he belongs up there.
"But you could never tell that by his demeanor. He has the same attitude he had when he was a rookie in 2009 helping this organization win a Kelly Cup."
Lacroix, who also won a Kelly Cup title with Cincinnati in 2010, said returning to the Stingrays is like coming back home again.
"I love it here," he said. "Would I like to be playing in the American League? Of course. But that hasn't worked out for me so far this season. This is where I started my pro career. I know the town, I know the fans and there are still a lot of guys I know in the locker room. I'm having fun playing again."
Lacroix started the season in South Carolina, played two games, and was called up to Hershey. He spent 19 games with the Bears, recording just two points.
"I was playing on the fourth line, so I was getting about five minutes of ice time each game," Lacroix said.
He was reassigned to South Carolina on New Year's Eve and has been with the Stingrays for the last 11 games.
After losing their first two games with Lacroix back in the lineup, the Stingrays have reeled off nine straight wins and sit atop the ECHL's South Division standings. Lacroix has three goals and nine assists since his return.
"I don't think it's a coincidence we're 9-2 since Max came back," Carbery said. "He's probably the most complete hockey player in the league. He can play in every situation and you want him on the ice as much as possible."
Which is just fine with Lacroix.
"I'm happy again," he said. "I love coming to the rink and having a big role on the team. This is fun. It's why I play the game."
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