KEARNEY — Joel L’Esperance pauses when he’s asked about playing for the Tri-City Storm.
He has to think for a second. It’s been over five years since L’Esperance skated on the Viaero Center ice and a lot has changed for the Brighton, Mich., native since then.
The Storm traded him to Sioux City about midway through his second full season with the team. He played four years of college hockey at Michigan Tech before a successful tryout with the American Hockey League’s Texas Stars led to him signing his first professional contract with the NHL’s Dallas Stars prior to the 2018-19 season.
L’Esperance, 23, thrived with Texas and even received a taste of the NHL, skating in 18 games with Dallas last season. He had his best statistical season since his final year in the USHL when he split time with the Storm and Sioux City.
“Obviously, it’s a dream come true,” said L’Esperance in a phone interview. “I grew up playing hockey, and the dream was to play in the NHL. To get that chance this year and see what it’s like was pretty cool.”
After playing in two contests with the Storm in 2011-12, L’Esperance suited up for 49 games the following year. L’Esperance, a forward, showed glimpses of his potential but struggled with his consistency, totaling 10 goals and nine assists in first full USHL season.
He returned the following year with a better grasp of the USHL. He enhanced his production, scoring 21 goals and adding 13 assists in 35 games. But with the Storm out of playoff contention, they traded him about midway through the season to Sioux City, where he posted six goals and eight assists in 25 games.
Playing in the USHL eased his transition to Division I college hockey at Michigan Tech, he said. At Michigan Tech, he played in at least 29 games each year and registered double-digit goals scored in each of his final three seasons. He finished his college career with 46 goals and 52 assists in four seasons from 2014 to 2018.
L’Esperance wasn’t selected in the NHL draft as an 18-year-old but received a chance to play pro hockey immediately after his senior season concluded at Michigan Tech. Scott White, Dallas’ assistant general manager, offered him a tryout contract for the remaining portion of Texas’ season in 2017-18.
White is a Michigan Tech alumnus, and L’Esperance’s prior connection with the front office executive played a factor in his decision to accept the opportunity, L’Esperance said.
L’Esperance played in 31 games between the regular season and playoffs with Texas, and his performance earned him an entry-level contract from Dallas shortly after the season concluded.
L’Esperance started last season with Texas and hoped he would receive a chance to play in the NHL. He didn’t expect it to happen at first, he admits, but after starting the season strong and showing traits of being a high-end scorer, it was only a matter of time.
On Feb. 14, White called L’Esperance to inform him that Dallas was calling him up for its game against Carolina. L’Esperance appeared in 18 games with Dallas, tallying two goals.
In 54 games with Texas, he posted 30 goals and 15 assists. He showed an impressive feel with the puck in the offensive zone with most of his goals coming from within 15 feet of the net.
L’Esperance credits his success last season for his brief appearance with Texas in 2017-18.
“Playing those games helped prepare me,” L’Esperance said. “I learned how the game was played. It’s a little bit different of a style from college. I think the reason I had so much success early last year was because I still had that playoff mentality from coming off that first year.”
L’Esperance will enter next season on the final year of his contract. He’s focused on improving his skating this offseason. He’s dedicating time to strengthening his lower body in hopes of enhancing his power and quickness on the ice.
He hopes his offseason work will aid him in his quest to earn a spot on Dallas’ roster next season.
“I just have to come in with the mentality that I want to take one of those roster spots,” he said. “If it doesn’t happen, I can’t get too upset. I have to go down to the AHL and do what I did last year and prove that I can be up there.”