Charlie Taft is a skating testament to Chris LaCombe’s eye for hockey talent.
LaCombe, the Muskegon Lumberjacks’ scout in Minnesota, first pegged Taft when he was 12.
LaCombe was coaching Taft’s summer team, the ’91 Predators, and the student had a profound impact on his teacher.
“Greatness has always been in Charlie, and I saw it in him immediately,” LaCombe says.
At the time, Taft’s current linemate Isaac Kohls – then with the ’91 Lightning – was a much bigger blip on scouts’ radars. But LaCombe was able to identify, and was drawn to, Taft’s intangibles.
“He’s going to be in the NHL one day,” LaCombe says. “He has the personality. He’s soft-spoken but strong. He’s a natural-born leader. He’s not a boisterous type. A lot of guys who tell you how great they are? They’re usually wrong.”
Taft, an Edina, Minn., native, had a breakout game within a breakout season Friday, March 25, when he set a Jacks record with five points in a 5-0 victory over Cedar Rapids at the L.C. Walker Arena. He also set the franchise’s high-water mark with a +5 plus/minus rating. The 6-foot-1, 186-pound winger registered the Jacks’ third hat trick of the season and scored a highlight-reel short-handed goal, his third such tally of the season. His 16 goals rank fourth on the team.
Jacks head coach Kevin Patrick had personal knowledge of Taft long before the Jacks selected him in the fourth round – 51st overall – and calls him “one of the strongest skaters in the league.”
Strong skating is just one of a laundry list of attributes – tangible and intangible – that LaCombe looks for when scouting.
“I look for a passion for the game,” LaCombe says. “Do they have an edge to their game? Are they physical and working to get there? I’m also looking for a consistent player. Skills are very important, but you can’t overlook a player’s makeup.”
LaCombe, who’s been pegging players for the Jacks for two years, struck up a friendship with Jacks owner Josh Mervis while working for the Omaha Lancers. The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
LaCombe says he “pushed very hard” for the Jacks to draft Taft a year ago.
“Even though I knew of Charlie and was impressed with him, Chris had much more personal interaction with him, and we want our scouts to fight for the guys they believe in,” Patrick says. “Getting Charlie was a great pick for us.”
It’s that time of the year again; LaCombe is in town for the weekend, helping the Jacks’ brass build their big board for the upcoming Futures and Entry drafts.
“The board gets bigger and bigger every year,” says LaCombe, who thrives on the draft process. “This is definitely the most exciting time of the year for me,” LaCombe says. “The action in the war room is intense. You’re trying to build the best team possible. I’m only one opinion and, of course, ultimately coach makes the decision. But it’s exciting to be part of the process.”
The building process is a relentless one, and LaCombe and the Jacks’ Michigan scout Dan Lerg were involved in intense meetings with the Jacks’ brass during the recent Muskegon Winter Showcase. During said meetings, the Jacks’ scouts shared their targets and recommendations. Patrick’s metaphor of choice for the draft is a puzzle. And he knows it’s one that can’t be solved without the Jacks’ scouting staff.
“Chris is a key to the development of our program and our culture here,” Patrick says. “What his eye is on is going to be an important piece of the puzzle.”
A year ago, LaCombe not only pushed for the Jacks to draft Taft, but also affiliate players Josh Archibald, Ryan Bullock, Grant Besse and Nicolas Seeler, all of whom Patrick says are either on or ahead of their development schedule. In fact, Archibald might not even get the chance to wear the Jacks’ crest, as he might be bound for the University of Nebraska-Omaha this fall.
“That’s ultimately what our goal is to do here,” Patrick says. “It’s a good pick even if we never see him in Muskegon. It means we’re onto the right players.”
Trading punts for pucks
LaCombe is in his 24th season coaching bantam hockey in Minnesota. He grew up in the small town of Mora in central Minnesota. He followed in his brothers’ footsteps and played football at St. Thomas University.
“I think I should’ve probably played hockey looking back on it,” LaCombe says. “But my brothers had played football, and Mora was a big football town. It was mini-Friday Night Lights.”
Now LaCombe’s children are following the family tradition. His oldest daughter, Christina, is a freshman hockey player at Syracuse. His son, James, just completed his senior season with Minnesota prep powerhouse Eden Prairie High School. His 14-year-old daughter Stephanie also plays, as does his 10-year-old son Jack, who is in squirts. LaCombe’s wife, Sandy, is the daughter of a former Minnesota Golden Gophers goaltender.
“She’s a key player and has seen literally thousands of hockey games,” LaCombe says, laughing. “She’s been around the game for a very long time.”
LaCombe takes immense pride in being the Jacks’ eyes in Minnesota.
“In Minnesota, you play with everybody in your ZIP code,” LaCombe says. “It’s unlike anywhere else in the United States. You can’t play outside your school district. It develops a unique style of hockey. You play with your friends you grew up with basically, and it’s hard to get Minnesota players out of here. You’re asking them to leave their home and everybody they’ve been with all their life.
“If you get a kid from Minnesota, you’re getting a guy you know is loyal.”