TAMPA — The road through professional hockey sent J-P Cote on many an adventure.
From the early days in Quebec playing junior hockey, then to Hamilton in the American Hockey League, a brief stint in Montreal, back to Hamilton, off to Pennsylvania for a year, two years in Germany, back to Norfolk followed by a move to Syracuse.
Through it all, Cote, now 31, refused to let go of the thought that a return to the NHL would happen once again after last playing appearing with Montreal on Feb. 6, 2006. There were times, however, when an understanding that it may never happen again started to creep into the thought process.
“I would say I definitely started to have the philosophy that I was accepting my role as a veteran in the AHL,’’ Cote said. “And even prior to that, not having a contract during the summer while working out and seeing my friends go off to training camp. So my mindset was just, let’s go to the gym tomorrow and see what happens. I would get some calls, get into some training camps and end up going to the East Coast, and I always said let’s see where I am at the end of the year and make decisions whenever I have to make a decision.
“This was my mindset, take it one day at a time and make the best out of it.’’
On Thursday, Cote finally made it back to the NHL, one day after signing an NHL contract with the Lightning. When he suited up and took to the ice against Nashville, it marked 2,875 days since his previous NHL game with the Canadiens. And on his very first shift, Cote registered a hit – the trademark of his game – and picked up an assist on the opening goal of the game. Cote was on such a high, during an intermission interview when rinkside reporter Paul Kennedy presented Cote with the puck from his first career point, Cote promptly gave Kennedy a hug on the air.
“I was excited getting the call up, this all happened and it was all surreal, you think about it and talk about it, but for it to actually happen ... it’s just great,’’ Cote said.
His teammates were just as excited for him.
“I’m so happy for him because I know how much he’s worked for this,’’ Lightning defenseman Mark Barberio said. “He’s just a guy that you want to be around. He’s got that positive presence about him that really rubs off on everybody. I think for know J-P you become a better person.’’
The road back to the NHL had plenty of bumps and detours along the way for Cote and his wife, Valerie.
After five seasons in the Montreal organization playing almost exclusively with Hamilton and playing only eight games with the Canadiens during the 2005-06 season, Cote moved to the Pittsburgh farm system playing the full 2008-09 season with Wilkes/Barre-Scranton in the AHL. With the uncertainty of another contract from the Penguins, the next step was off to Germany where he played one season for Kassel and the next with Hamburg, an experience he will always remember.
“Me and my wife decided to go over for the experience, and that’s exactly what we did,’’ Cote said. “We traveled a lot, there were some breaks in the season, we lived the European way of living, a different style and definitely an experience. And I think it definitely contributed to where I am right, and helped me with my skills.’’
But with Valerie wanting to work in politics back home, the couple left Europe to return to North America, and that’s when Cote received the call from Tampa Bay assistant general manager Julien BriseBois to join the Lightning AHL team in Norfolk where he helped the Admirals capture the Calder Cup championship. Now in his third year with the Lightning organization, after being on an AHL only contract, Cote landed a two-year, two-way deal and found his way back to the big leagues.
“There are players (in the AHL) who have been to a bunch of training camps, they have been there and done that and they come back to the American League and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel is dimming for those guys,’’ said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, who coached Cote in Norfolk and Syracuse. “Then there are guys like J-P, where every day is like the first day of his rookie season, and he treats every day that there is potential for him to be called up, or make his team better or make his life better. It doesn’t pay off for everybody, but you give yourself a chance and he falls right into that. Now he’s got that second chance and so far he’s making the best of it.’’
But Cote knows that, now that he’s back in the NHL, he has to work even harder to stay.
“You have to keep things in perspective, this happened three or four days ago and it’s nice that family members still text me, and that’s awesome, but the emotion is behind me,’’ Cote said. “I can’t live on a bubble, I have to play hockey. The way I play hockey is simple, hard-working hockey and I have to focus on that. As great as (the story) is, seven years or whatever, blah, blah, blah, I’m just trying to find a way to stay here.’’