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Les is more – the story of the efficient defenseman Les Lancaster

Vesa Suonsyrjä , translation : Siru Takala

In this interview, American defenseman Les Lancaster recounts how he grew up from a young Detroit Red Wings fan to the number one defenseman and the golden helmet wearing scoring leader of Ilves Tampere. 

The efficient defenseman Les Lancaster, born in February 1995, grew up in Ypsilanti, a small city in the state of Michigan. The American reveals that he is a big fan of the Detroit Red Wings. 

– Ypsilanti is about half an hour drive away from Detroit. My grandmother was a huge fan of the Red Wings, and when I was a little boy, Detroit won the Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008. It would have been hard not to fall in love with the team, and so I grew up to be a big fan of theirs, says Lancaster smiling. 

Lancaster started playing hockey unusually late, and alongside it he played golf, which is still a beloved hobby of his. 

– I began playing when I was seven or eight years old. The older boys who lived on the same street played street hockey, and those games got me interested in hockey. I also played baseball when I was a kid, and a little later I started getting really into golf. 

– Originally, I was going to try for a scholarship through golf, but in the end, I think I could say fortunately for everyone, I chose hockey. Here in Ilves I talk about golf the most with Panu Mieho. We share tips and talk about the game. I’m inclined to say that I’m the best golfer on this team, but I’ll let it be for now, chuckles Lancaster. 

Injuries led to the role of forward 

Les Lancaster played both as a center and a winger in the first 18 years of his life. Getting used to the role of the defenseman took its time, but the change worked out in the long run. Lancaster believes that his background as a forward influences his current playing style. 

– I played mainly as a center but occasionally as a winger, too. When I was playing for the Victory Honda team in a junior league in the Detroit area, several of our team’s defensemen got injured, and the coach asked me if I could try playing as defenseman. 

– I was a little doubtful, but I said yes. The first couple of games went well, and then in the middle of the season I transferred 800 kilometers away to Springfield Jr. Blues of the NAHL, one of the biggest junior leagues in the US, after playing only a few months as a defenseman. The team took me in specifically as a defenseman. 

During the two seasons with Springfield, Lancaster played 76 games and scored 39 points, a great total for a defenseman. In the NAHL, players are 21 years old at the maximum, similarly to the rules of Finland’s U20 league. 

– Those one and a half seasons that I spent there as a 19–20-year-old were great, and I learned a lot. Playing there was the next step in my career. When I went there, I had just started playing as a defenseman and had a lot to learn. 

– The league was great, our coaches were too, I liked Springfield as a city a lot, and we had a capable team, compliments Lancaster, who was selected to the All-stars lineup of the All-North division during the latter season. 

Interesting work options await the profilic defender in the future 

While playing in the NAHL, Les Lancaster did not believe he could play hockey professionally and was planning his future through his studies. In the end, the two paths were merged when Lancaster was accepted into Mercyhurst University whose hockey team played in the NCAA. 

– I did not really think about having hockey as my profession, rather I was thinking about the next step in my life. In the end, I made the right choice, and I was able to play competitive hockey in the NCAA for the next four years while simultaneously studying for my degree in an interesting field. 

– I did my bachelor’s degree in criminal law. In my final season in the NCAA, I changed universities when I was studying for my master’s, and I had international security, national security in the US, and domestic politics as my majors. 

NCAA was a good experience for Lancaster hockey-wise as well. The defenseman stepped up his game to a new level, and he made several good friends during that time. Lancaster was chosen as the rookie of the year in his first season and as the best defenseman in the next season. Lancaster played for four seasons and in 148 games overall in the NCAA, recording 92 points. 

– I improved noticeably when I was playing in Mercyhurst, and in a way I became the player that I am today. We formed a close 12-person group ever since my rookie year, and we still keep in touch. That group also includes my best friend, and I think about those times as one of the best times of my life. 

– When I moved to the University of Denver during my last season, the change felt huge as I had to leave everything familiar behind. Denver faces the country’s best university teams. The season probably wasn’t the best hockey I’ve played, but I gained a lot of experience. I’ll possibly return there someday to finish my degree, but I’ll do that after my career is over, wonders Lancaster about his future and praises one of the best universities in the US. 

Picture : University of Denver

From Minnesota Wild’s training camp to becoming a professional hockey player 

The years played well in the NCAA opened the door for a possibility to play professionally. The defenseman participated in NHL training camps before the 2019–2020 season. 

– As the new season was about to start, I was a little uncertain about it, because the latest season in the NCAA had been difficult for me. I believe that due to the difficult season, I missed on some good opportunities, but things usually have a way of settling, and so I signed with the Allen Americans of the ECHL. 

– Minnesota Wild invited me to a rookie tournament in Michigan, where eight NHL teams participated during the preseason. The games went well, and Wild invited me to their training camp, where I was for about a week. Then they sent me to the AHL, where everything went well, too, but when Minnesota started sending their players there, it was time for me to return to the Allen Americans, recounts Lancaster the beginnings of his professional career, flattered by Minnesota Wild’s invitation. 

The first year of Lancaster’s career turned out to be a peculiar one, as he ended up playing in four teams because he was called up to play in the AHL three times. This happened in spite of the fact that the season was shortened due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The season with its changes and long bus trips was mentally difficult, but educational. 

– I got to play in the Allen Americans for only a little over a month when Iowa Wild called me up to play AHL games with them. I spent two months there, and it was a great experience as I was for the first time in the AHL, where there are many experienced players, and I was only in my first year of playing professionally. I played there a relatively short time (5 games), but the experienced players taught me a lot. 

–Before Christmas they sent me back to Allen, where I played a few games before San Antonio Rampage called me up to their lineup, where I played for a week and scored my first AHL point. Then I returned to Allen for a few games before I was called up again to the AHL, this time by Stockton Heat. There I played for a month before the season was suspended due to the pandemic, recaps Lancaster (5+22=27 points in his first 34 ECHL games) his eventful season. 

Picture : Stockton Heat

Les is more – Lancaster dominated the previous season in the ECHL 

Last season Les Lancaster played a full season in the ECHL, scoring 26 goals and 64 points in 72 games. He scored the most goals and points of the league’s defensemen, was his team’s most productive player, was chosen defenseman of the year, and naturally was selected into the league’s all-star lineup. 

– We had to prepare for the latest season unusually long because of the pandemic, and nobody really knew what was going to happen. In the end, I decided to return to the Allen Americans, whose head coach and general manager Steve Martin and I had respectful discussions, and so I came to the conclusion that he’ll allow me to play my way, and I was promised a large role as the number one defenseman. 

– I did not change anything about my practicing in the long preseason, and I determinedly practiced the same way as always, and when the season eventually begun, I had more self-confidence than ever. I had decided to take the next step as a player and be one of the league’s best defensemen. 

Even though Les ended up as the top scoring defenseman, the season did not start with him enjoying the flashes of cameras but with having just a “moderate” number of points to his name. 

– The season did not start that great scoring-wise, because I had only nine points after the first twenty games or so. Then I scored a couple of goals one weekend, and it all kind of clicked. I scored goals and assists pretty much every day, and I am especially excited about the number of goals, because I’ve never in my career scored at a pace like that. 

– In the end, it all depends on self-confidence. The season shaped up to be amazingly good. It is hard to even describe the season since I had not been able to do anything like that before. I had always known I could do something like it, but I really elevated my game to that level, and my hard work produced tangible results in the form of scoring. 

Picture : Allan Americans

Goodbye America, Hello Finland, Tampere and Ilves 

After a perfect season in the ECHL, Les Lancaster thought that the league might not have much to offer him anymore and, together with his agent, begun pondering about alternatives for the next season. There were possibilities in North America, but it was Ilves who secured this productive defenseman. 

– I’m relatively small (180 cm/84 kg), but my greatest strength is skating. European hockey and the extra space in the bigger rink fit my playing style well. I also wanted a change and a new challenge. 

– In a way all this is against my character because I like continuity and I am very family-oriented. The change was huge not only on the ice but also in my social life. However, I accepted everything, because I knew that Liiga was one of the best leagues in the world. 

– In the end, everyone’s main goal is to play in the NHL, and I knew that if I ever want to get there, I will have to challenge myself properly. When I had really great discussions with Ilves’ Sports Director Timo Koskela, I decided to seize the opportunity. Now I feel that it was a great decision to come to play in Ilves, Lancaster recalls of the reasons why he came to Ilves. 

The distance from Lancaster’s hometown of Ypsilanti to Tampere is 6,775 kilometers, and the European leagues’ games are not covered or televised in the US. You can look up information on the Internet, but Lancaster basically jumped into the great unknown. However, Lancaster believes he has found an amazing place to live and play in only in a few months. 

– I did not know basically anything about European teams. Based on international tournaments I knew what your national team’s playing style is like, but the clubs were completely unfamiliar to me. My time here has been eye-opening, and I love this club, the people in the organization, and the club’s traditions. People like Lasse Laukkanen and Janne Jansson are some of the most awesome people I’ve ever met. 

– It is so amazing being here this season when fans have returned to the arenas, and I get to participate in the final games of this traditional hockey arena and experience the new arena among the first. I wouldn’t want to be a part of any other organization in Finland, marvels Lancaster. 

The only thing Lancaster knew about Tampere was that it is one of Finland’s largest cities. Overall, he knew barely anything about Finland before moving here. 

– At first when I came here, life was one big expedition as I got to know the city. I have now settled down and I love this city. I don’t know the language, and sometimes I feel bad when I can’t understand anything. There’s a lot happening in the city, great places to eat in, and, despite the size of the city, Tampere has the feel of a small city, says Lancaster, who’s taken a deep liking to his new hometown. 

Anssi Takala, Ilves.com

With great teammates, it is easy to shine 

When we are talking about the start of this season, Lancaster highlights that the team’s journey is still just beginning. During the long season, the team needs to gain all kinds of experiences so that they are ready to fight to succeed in the moments that count. 

– So far, the first fifth of the season has offered a lot. The season begun on a good note, and then we lost a few matches, but that’s what it is about. No team can possibly ever win all sixty games. Now we just have to learn from these losses and continue forward stronger than before. 

– Amongst the team we’ve talked a lot about patience and how it is still early in the season. We’ve been close to winning in all of our losses except the awful away game against KalPa. Ilves is huge in this city, and of course we feel pressured if we can’t secure the wins, but at the same time we see how invaluable it is that a large group of people care about the team. 

Lancaster analyses his start to the season calmly. At the time of the interview, Lancaster has amassed 2+10=12 points in 11 games, he’s leading the league’s defensemen in scoring, and is wearing the top scorer’s golden helmet in Ilves. 

– I wanted to bring over into this season the same self-confidence I had last year. The last season was prolonged because we played until the conference finals, and four weeks later I flew to Finland. I tried to rest as much as I could before the new season started, but when I came here, I had to deal with the time difference. 

– It took time to get used to the new team, the bigger rink, and the playing style in the practice games. When the season begun, I started to find my game, and my self-confidence is good again. I could say that the way I’ve been playing at the start of the season has been pretty great. 

Lancaster likes his new teammates. As usual, he puts others before him and praises his defense partner, as well as says that it is easy to play on the powerplay unit because of the skilled teammates. The coaching staff also receives their share of the praise. 

– My defense partner “Jake” (Jarkko Parikka) is awesome and playing with him is really easy and fun. On the powerplay we ice “Konna” (Petri Kontiola), “Supi” (Eemeli Suomi), “Iksa” (Joni Ikonen) and a lot of other great alternatives. It is easy to succeed yourself when you’re playing with such skilled players. 

– The coaches let me play in my own way, and as I also recognize my weaknesses, those being in my defensive play and my size, it is important that they let me play my offensive game. They want me to be able to play at both ends of the ice, and I think we’ve been able to create a functional combination. The support they give me and the responsibility and trust they put on me have had a huge role, if we think about my successful start to the season. 

When asked about if we’re seeing the best of Les Lancaster at the moment, he stays silent for a while. 

– Everyone can always be a little better. Scoring-wise, I would like to perform at the same level the whole season, but the season is long, and at times there can be scoring droughts of several games. But the most important thing is that I can play at a good level the whole time and help the team win. 

– Personal victories are great and a reward for hard work, but in the end only the team winning is what matters. Ilves’ fans have waited for a long time, and it would be absolutely unbelievable to win the championship for the city. It is hard to imagine what it would mean for the fans of the team, but that is the dream we’re working towards. 

Anssi Takala, Ilves.com

“I have not seen such amazing fans anywhere in my career” 

Lancaster, who played in a university league and lower-level professional leagues after the junior leagues, is not used to large crowds of fans, and the man seems quite moved when he’s describing the feelings he has experienced because of Ilves’ fans. 

– I’ll start by saying that students used to cheer for us in home games in the NCAA, which was great, of course, but there was never anyone at the away games. Ilves’ fans are absolutely amazing, I can’t help that I’ve completely fallen in love with these people. It is hard to even describe the feeling when you skate onto the ice, everyone’s shouting, people are playing the drums and waving all those flags. 

– The amount of support in away games has made the biggest impression on me. It means a lot to me that people take the time and come to our games because this team matters so much to them. It gives us a huge energy boost, and the support is something quite amazing, says Lancaster, thus saying thank you to Ilves’ fan club Osasto 41 and all other fans of the team. 

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