By Doug Ward
Lindstrom, Minn., population 4,442, is the kind of idyllic small town that seems to exist only in movies on The Hallmark Channel, while favorite son Blake Lizotte has had the kind of career that typically happens only in Disney’s inspirational sports films.
If anyone ever does make a movie about the 5-foot-7, 172-pound Lizotte, it should be required viewing for every undersized kid, in every undersized town, who skates on an undersized back pond.
His story begins with two appearances for Chisago Lakes High School in Minnesota’s fabled high-school hockey tournament, includes unexpected twists and turns and culminates with an NHL home in Los Angeles.
“Every kid in Minnesota plays on their back ponds, dreaming of being able to play in (the state high-school) tournament,” Lizotte said. “It’s a pretty big deal. I was fortunate to be able to play in it and it’s still one of my favorite hockey memories.”
At 22, Lizotte already has plenty of memories to draw on. From high-school hockey to the college game to the NHL, Lizotte has realized a hat trick of hockey goals. And like every underdog story, there has been heartache, heartbreak, hard work and hard choices along the way. That serves to make Lizotte the unlikely hero you can’t help but root for.
When Lizotte was 14, his father, who suffered from epilepsy, died unexpectedly in his sleep at age 45. That left Lizotte’s mother, Lisa, to finish raising Blake and his two brothers on her own.
“My mom is one of the strongest people I know,” Lizotte said. “I thank her so much just for everything she has done for me. That had to be hard on her. Obviously, I have had a dream to play in the NHL for a while, and I felt my mom had to let me go chase my dream. She had to sacrifice a lot, so I will forever thank her for everything she has done for me.”
Leaving the familiarity and support of Lindstrom, which was settled by Swedish immigrants in the 1850s and bills itself as ‘America’s Little Sweden,’ at 16 to play with the NAHL Minot Minotauros was a crossroads.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make,” Lizotte said. “Leaving friends and family and high-school hockey. It was a decision I needed to make to get to where I’m at today.”
After a year at Minot, Lizotte spent two seasons with USHL Fargo before the road to the NHL took an unplanned detour through St. Cloud State. Yes, playing college hockey and making two NCAA tournament appearances was a lifelong dream, but Lizotte never imagined it would happen at St. Cloud State. When Lizotte took his visit to the school, it was only to rule it out as an option. Lizotte, in fact, wondered if the visit was a waste of everyone’s time.
“I don’t even want to go here,” Lizotte recalled telling his brother during the 70-mile drive to St. Cloud. “I was so negative, and I get there and the coaching staff was unbelievable. It felt like home. After 20 minutes, my mindset flipped. I’ll forever love that place.”
In Lizotte’s first season at St. Cloud, the Huskies went 25-9-6. They followed it up with a 30-6-3 mark a year later to give Lizotte a combined 55-15-9 record.
“I feel like I was the luckiest player ever,” Lizotte said. “I played on two college teams that, I don’t think, were ranked outside the top five in the nation.”
Lizotte does a lot of things most people never get to do. Because he was undrafted, he was a free agent with the chance to determine his own NHL destiny and, after his sophomore season, there was interest from a half-dozen teams. He wrestled with returning to St. Cloud for his junior year but believed his best opportunity was in Los Angeles, where the rebuilding Kings were attracted to his energy and work habits.
After appearing in one NHL game last spring, Lizotte played his way onto Los Angeles’ opening-night roster without even a stint in the AHL. As the Kings’ second-line center between Austin Wagner and Adrian Kempe, Lizotte used his speed to create offense, but, mostly, he played a game that is as pure and simple as his Minnesota small-town roots: spirited and hardworking.
Kings coach Todd McLellan calls Lizotte a “pest” and an “Energizer Bunny,” while Lizotte calls himself a “waterbug.” You get the idea. The embodiment of the Kings’ shift from heavy team to one that values speed and skill over size, Lizotte has a high motor and plays both ends of the ice with equal fervor.
“Forecheck, turn pucks over, create chances,” Lizotte said.
It’s the kind of hardworking game that plays everywhere from Lindstrom to L.A.