Dan LaCosta has been one of the most prominent hockey player to come out of Labrador. Over the past decade, LaCosta, born and raised in Labrador City, has played hockey at some of the finest levels, including a short stint in the NHL. The goaltender is currently playing in his second season for the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds, arguably the best university hockey program in all of Canada.
Hockey fans throughout Labrador have followed his career closely, since his days with the Owen Sound Attack of the OHL. But a curtain may be closing on that career. LaCosta, who is 26,years old, plans for this season to be his last.
Because of his pro career, LaCosta was given just two years of eligibility to play Atlantic University Sport hockey. He was on and off in his first year with UNB, battling nagging injuries and adjusting to a new team in a new league.
“I don’t think I played bad or anything, but I don’t think I played as well as I could of. I think they had higher expectations of me coming in. I just couldn’t get into a rhythm,” says LaCosta.
“I think it was a big transition year for him…just to realize the caliber of the hockey and to get himself back into a hockey mode,” says Reds head coach Gardiner McDougall. “He’s getting that love of the game back. And there’s been some growth there, he’s had to go through some adversary along the way, both in pro and with injuries here last year.”
LaCosta may have had trouble finding his rhythm last season, but it’s a different story so far this year. He has won all eight games he’s played in, recording a .916 save percentage and a 2.00 goals against average.
“He’s been outstanding for us this year,” says McDougall. “The biggest thing has been getting the confidence back that he’s had in the past. He’s worked very hard in practice; he’s got great habits. He’s in a real good spot, and he’s getting better each week.”
Many were surprised by LaCosta’s sudden decision to give up on pro hockey and turn to the academic world. For many, it’s hard to imagine letting go of such a dream and such a lifestyle. But LaCosta was growing tired of the minor pro life, and desperately needed more stability.
“I just got engaged that summer, and I made that commitment to my finance. We wanted to do something that made us both happy,” says LaCosta. “I just wasn’t enjoying the lifestyle anymore. I didn’t like the uncertainty of the whole pro hockey thing... all I really knew was hockey at that point. If I was playing really well things were great, but if I wasn’t playing well…that was the only real thing I had to base my identity on. My whole life was hockey I had nothing else going for me.”
His last season with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL was tumultuous. He played in less than 30 games and wasn’t able to play up to his own standards.
“It wasn’t a good season. I never really could stay healthy the whole year but whenever I did get opportunities to play, I didn’t play up to my capabilities. It was a frustrating year on and off the ice,” says LaCosta. “It was a tough way to finish my American hockey league career.”
It was a tough decision to leave pro hockey, but it has worked out in Dan’s favour. He’s discovering sides of himself he never knew before and has found new life outside of hockey.
“It was a tough adjustment at the start…I’ve always measured my success as a person by my success on the ice. I’ve realized you can be happy and you can be a successful person without playing hockey and without playing in the NHL. I’m interested in a lot more things than I would have realized if I kept playing hockey (professionally).”
At first, LaCosta struggled to adjust to the academic world. After spending ten years focusing on nothing but hockey, he didn’t know what was required of him in the classroom. But last year, LaCosta was named an Academic all Canadian, an award given to university athletes who have a GPA of 3.5 or higher.
“We were really proud,” says Dan’s father Harry LaCosta. “When you couple athletic achievement with academic achievement…I think people underestimate the dedication it takes to make that happen.”
In order for Dan LaCosta to develop his hockey talents, he had to leave the town of Labrador City at a young age. It was a hard decision for his mother and father, but it’s something that had to be done to fulfill his hockey ambitions.
“I’m not sure if I’m over it yet,” said Harry LaCosta on the impact of being separated from his son. “But I’m very happy with the fact he has no regrets for the approach he took with hockey…he tells me he wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
Dan was 16 when he first entered the OHL for the 2002-2003 season. He played 28 games that rookie year, setting him up for a successful stint in major junior hockey.
In 2004, after his second Major Junior season, the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted LaCosta. He was secretly hoping the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team he’s cheered for since childhood, would pick him. But he was happy to be drafted 93rd overall, just the same.
“It was a good feeling, but it was more relief. You’re sitting around waiting all day. It’s a weight off your shoulders when it finally happens. My family was down (for the draft). It was a big day for them. They made a lot of sacrifices.”
His last season of his Major junior career was by far his best. During the 2005-2006 season, Dan LaCosta posted a 36-17 record, with a 2.55 GAA and a .0915 SV%. During that year, LaCosta was given the honour of representing the OHL in the Super Series against the Russian Select team. The game was televised across the country, and LaCosta rose to the challenge. He stopped 25 of 27 shots, en route to a 5-2 win.
“I wasn’t nervous. I don’t treat any game differently…it’s my job to stop enough pucks for my team to win. I didn’t think too much about who I was playing against,” says LaCosta. “It was a cool experience, but I never thought it was a big deal. It was just a game, it wasn’t like I was going off to war.”
Dan may not have been nervous, but it was a different story for friends and family watching back in Labrador City.
“For me, I was extremely nervous,” says Dan’s father Harry LaCosta. “Any time I watch him play, whether it’s at the rink or on T.V, I get very nervous. I’m more relaxed with it now, but for 10 years it was very stressful.”
LaCosta began his minor pro career during the 2006-2007 season and it lasted until 2010. During that time, he played mostly for the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. But it was the four games he played for the Columbus Blue Jackets in the NHL that Labrador fans remember most fondly.
In his first two games, LaCosta came off the bench in relief of another goalie. But he got the chance to start in his third NHL match. He played superbly, stopping 28 of 30 shots in a 3-2 overtime win against the San Jose Sharks. But LaCosta saved his best performance for his fourth and last NHL game, just three days later. In that game against the Colorado Avalanche, LaCosta stopped all 31 shots he faced to earn the shutout.
“I just couldn’t believe that I watched that game with my kid playing in it,” says Harry LaCosta. “He always told me he was going to play in the NHL and he certainly did what he told me he was going to do.”
“It was pretty surreal, everything happened so fast... one minute I was in the American Hockey League…the next minute I was called up during the playoff race,” says Dan.
After the shut out win, LaCosta had an NHL record of 2-0-0 with a .953 SV% and a 1.42 GAA. With such stellar numbers, many figured he would be back in the NHL at some point. But it was simply not to be.
“I kind of knew it was only temporary, I was called up on emergency basis...no matter how good or bad I was playing, I was going to get sent back down,” says LaCosta. “I was really hoping they’d give me another chance later on... I kind of proved for a short period of time that I could play some good games there.”
LaCosta ended his brief NHL career in style. He now hopes to end the hockey chapter of his life in similar fashion, by winning a national championship with the Reds.
I just have a different mind set this year, I’m just trying to stay positive and have fun,” says LaCosta. “Most likely this will be my last year. I don’t plan on playing any pro or senior hockey or anything like that after this year. I want to make it a memorable year and a positive year and just kind of go out on a good note.”