Growing up on quiet, tree-lined Joyce Street in Chelmsford, Mass., approximately 30 miles northwest of downtown Boston, Keith Aucoin and his younger brother, Phil, had the space and the desire to play all kinds of sports.
What they liked best was hockey and baseball. But not necessarily in that order — and not necessarily separate from each other.
Keith being three years older than Phil, he tended to get to choose which positions they would play. So when the Aucoins dragged their hockey net into the middle of Joyce Street, Keith would get to shoot the pucks while Phil would have to try to stop them. Being the goalie meant wearing the family baseball gear.
“I’d put on the catcher’s shin guards and the chest protector, but there was no helmet,” Phil said. “My mom has a picture of me with two black eyes and a swollen lip after playing with Keith and his friends. They were 8. I was 5.”
As much as Keith enjoyed using the hockey net (and his brother) as target practice, he enjoyed baseball even more during his formative years. He batted second (always the guy setting the table for others) and started at shortstop for Chelmsford High School’s strong baseball program. To be more precise, he started at shortstop until an impressive freshman named Adam McCusker joined the team and pushed Aucoin to third.
“That’s when I knew it was time to move into hockey,” Keith said with a smile. “I was better at baseball than hockey growing up, but as I got older I got better at hockey.”
While McCusker developed into a four-year star at Div. II UMass Lowell, Aucoin developed into far more than anyone expected with a spectacular hockey career that has been chock-full of championships and goals and assists.
In 1997, he directed Chelmsford High School to Massachusetts’ Super Eight hockey tournament for the first time in its history. Despite being one of the state’s leading scorers, no Div. I hockey team wanted to take a chance on a player listed generously as 5-foot-9.
So Aucoin chose Norwich University, a private military college in Vermont that his high school coach, Jack Fletcher, attended. All he did there was set scoring records (posting 116 goals and 124 assists in 116 games) and lead Norwich to a national Div. III title while earning all-America honors twice. But, again, his size and his circumstances kept him from catching the right evaluators’ eyes.
“No scout’s going to watch Div. III hockey,” Keith said. “So I was kind of behind the 8-ball there.”
He caught a small break in 2001 when the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters, located a few miles from his home, signed him to a low-money, two-way deal and sent him to the United Hockey League. But he did get a 30-game shot with the Monsters and put up 6 goals and 10 assists, which landed him a spot in 2002 with the AHL’s Providence Bruins and triggered his run as one of the greatest scorers in league history. Through March 28, Aucoin ranked fifth on the AHL’s all-time list with 608 assists and seventh with 852 points.
“I’ve always been a guy that passes first,” Keith said. “I should probably shoot more, but I don’t. Coaches tell me that every year, but that’s the way I was brought up by my parents — to pass the puck. It’s something that stuck with me. That’s just the way I am.”
And Aucoin hasn’t racked up all those assists and goals in a vacuum. He captured two AHL championships with the Hershey Bears (2009 and 2010) — winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2010 — and claimed a Stanley Cup ring as part of the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2006 NHL title. He keeps all of his rings and trophies with his parents, Danny and Dianne, at the house on Joyce Street.
“They’re the ones who worked hard to get me to the rinks growing up,” Keith said. “There’s no way to repay them, but it’s nice to let them have them and show them off to whoever they want. Plus, it’s safer with them.”
If Keith wants to, he can visit his hardware during the offseason when he and his wife, Maureen, and their 2-year-old son, Brayden, return to their home in Chelmsford. His parents and his brother, Phil, are nearby as well, as are Keith’s beloved Boston Red Sox. He’s rarely seen around the Wolves practice rink without his Red Sox cap.
“I’m not that intense of a fan, though my wife would probably say different,” Keith said. “Once we get Brayden to bed, we’ll watch a lot of the game.”
“The Red Sox are Keith’s No. 1 love,” Maureen said. “He watches pretty much every game to relax. He just loves it.”
“He honestly is the biggest Red Sox fan that I know,” Phil said. “When we’re out playing softball, he’s always checking his phone for the score.”
That’s right, softball. You wouldn’t think such a decorated hockey player would put that much effort into an offseason sport. For each of the last 12 summers, Keith and Phil and their father have played on a pair of competitive softball teams known as The Bustonians. Phil, who recently retired after eight seasons as a professional hockey player and became a salesman for John Deere, manages both teams. Every year, he selects Keith with his first-round draft pick.
“We sit around all year and wait for softball to start up,” said Phil, who says the slow-pitch team traveled to Disney in 2006 and finished seventh at nationals. “Keith goes out every night and definitely wants to win. When I send out the batting averages, he’s the first who wants to read them.”
Keith, ever the table-setter as the leadoff man and shortstop, batted a team-high .770 last summer for their slow-pitch team and .480 for their fast-pitch team. Phil, who bats second and plays center field, hit .710 and .462, respectively. Danny, 57, plays first base and hits fifth and posted averages of .590 and .330.
The team plays several nights per week. Sometimes they’ll have a game in one league at 6 p.m. and a game in the other league at another park at 8 p.m.
“Keith and Phil will be on the phone all the time talking strategy and how they should use this batting order against this team and that order against that team,” Maureen said with a laugh. “I’m a hockey wife during the winter and a softball wife in the summer.”
When Phil watches Keith play shortstop from his vantage point in center field, he sees the older brother who was so good at baseball in his youth.
“He has really good hands,” Phil said. “The plays some players can’t make, he makes them. If he had stuck with baseball, he would’ve played college baseball. He goes out every night and definitely wants to win.”