When 2019 began, Joe Cox was playing for the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. In his final game of 2019, on New Year’s Eve, Cox was on the top line for the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket against the Belleville Senators. In that game, he picked up two assists in a 4-3 shootout win.
Cox’s road to the AHL was not straightforward. After graduating from Michigan State University in 2016-17, he played five games with the Everblades. In his first full season with Florida he finished fifth in team scoring. One of the players ahead of him was Michael McCarron’s brother John. In 2018-19, Cox was having an even better season with Florida.
At the end of February, he was called by his head coach. Brad Ralph, the coach and director of hockey operations for the Everblades, told Cox to expect a call from Laval Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard later in the day.
At the time, Cox was second in ECHL scoring, but had never played at the AHL level.
Bouchard said that they heard he was a good player from fellow Rocket players and people who knew him. Cox ended up playing nine games with the Rocket last season, scoring two goals and adding two assists.
“Joe is a guy we loved since he started with us,” Bouchard said. “We didn’t really know him but right away I was surprised he was playing in the ECHL as long as he was. Even more so because he was picking up points. He was second in the league in scoring. There are guys who play in the ECHL who put up points who can’t do it in the AHL and there are guys who can play in the AHL and Joe is one of those. He’s one of those guys who put their nose to the grindstone. No one is going to do them any favours.”
He showed enough to earn an AHL contract with the Rocket over the summer. But with the added depth Laval was getting with players on NHL contracts, there was no guarantee that would mean there would be a spot for him in Laval.
“They gave me a really good opportunity to come in and play,” Cox said. “Coming into this year, coach told me we’re going to have a really good team this year and you have an opportunity to make the team but you have to make the most of it. I just came in and worked my hardest every day.”
Cox played a pre-season game and earned a spot in the opening night lineup.
“You couldn’t cut him after a game like that,” Bouchard said. “He forces you to play him.”
After playing opening night, Cox was a healthy scratch in the next two games. He returned to the lineup in the team’s fourth game and had an assist. In the fifth, he scored a goal. He’s played every game since.
Cox found a home on a line with Lukas Vejdemo and Alexandre Alain, the team’s only line that had stayed together through injuries and recalls until Vejdemo got called up to the NHL.
“I love Joe Cox,” Bouchard said. “He’s a hockey player. He’s been solid, he’s been consistent every game.”
“He’s got a good attitude,” Bouchard continued. “He works hard. His work ethic is off the chart.”
Work ethic is an attribute cited often when it comes to Cox. Whether it is from his teammates after blocking several shots in the final minute and being named the team’s player of the game after wins (which earned him an old-school Rocket-branded rugby helmet) or from Tom Anastos, his coach when he was recruited to and eventually captain at Michigan State, or from Bouchard.
“Every team, I don’t care what sport, I don’t care what level, you need players on your team like Joe Cox,” said Anastos. “He’s totally committed to the team’s success. He’ll do whatever is necessary, he’ll take on whatever role. I can’t think of a better type of asset to a coach. He’ll give you everything he has. From a coach’s perspective, every coach is looking to have a player like him on their team.”
Anastos watched Cox from when he was playing in the USHL for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, and while he may not have top-end scoring skills, he impacted the Spartans as soon as he entered the Michigan State program.
“He had a work ethic that raised the bar for everybody around him,” Anastos said. “It doesn’t matter if it was a senior on the team or a fellow freshman when he arrived. He set a very high standard.”
Cox has worked his way up the Rocket lineup, from the fourth line to playing a couple of games on the team’s top line with Jake Evans and Charles Hudon.
“He’s a guy you can rely on,” Evans said while calling Cox one of the hardest-working players in the room.
What makes Cox’s rise up the Rocket ranks even more remarkable is that he is on an AHL contract, so while the first job for Bouchard is to develop the prospects on NHL contracts, Cox has made himself impossible to ignore.
After the game on New Year’s Eve, the roster situation changed — as it is known to do in the AHL. Riley Barber was sent back to the Rocket from the NHL, and Dale Weise was recalled. Barber took Cox’s spot next to Hudon and Evans, but Cox slotted into Weise’s spot next to McCarron and Yannick Veilleux.
It was yet another example of how small the hockey world is. Aside from Cox playing with McCarron’s brother, John, in Florida, he also grew up near McCarron and they played against each other growing up.
“Ever since he’s been here, he’s been a great personality to have in the locker room,” said Michael McCarron. “He works his butt off and he gets rewarded for doing the right things. He’s not flashy, but he plays the right way. You want to play with a guy like that.”
McCarron knew Cox’s name when he joined the Rocket because he pays close attention to his brother’s career. So when he joined the team, he asked his brother for a scouting report. John offered a positive assessment.
While three goals and six assists in 35 games don’t necessarily point to someone who belongs in a top six, Cox is one of Bouchard’s most trusted forwards. He kills penalties, and when the team is holding a lead in the final minute of a game, Cox is often called upon to help hold it.
He responds to those assignments the same way — with tireless effort and fearlessness. Cox is among the top shot blockers on the team.
“It’s a good feeling for sure,” Cox said about the vote of confidence and increased playing time. “With it comes a little bit more responsibility, which I’m ready to take on, and it’s been fun playing as much as I am.”
“Coach [Bouchard] told me that I was going to have to be a specific type of player, that I was just going to have to be simple and hard-working, and I took that to heart and started playing that way,” he said.
Anastos, Cox’s college coach, has a connection to the Montreal Canadiens organization as well: he was chosen by the team in the sixth round of the 1981 Draft. In 1985-86, after graduating from Michigan State, he played with the Sherbrooke Canadiens, their AHL affiliate for one season.
“I was in the Montreal system and Bob Gainey was the captain of the Canadiens at the time,” Anastos said. “[Cox] to me is a Bob Gainey type player. He has a high level of hockey intelligence and is a very bright guy away from the rink.”
In the AHL, the working conditions are not always ideal. From long bus rides to three games in three nights, it is a grind and sometimes you aren’t at the ideal level to perform. The way to success is through your attitude.
“Like everyone he’ll have some games when he’s not at his best, but it won’t be because of lack of effort or lack of commitment,” Anastos said. “He’s all-in.”
The path that Cox has taken from AHL tryout to contractee to lineup mainstay was reached through hard work, but it was born from opportunity. It is not unique to players in the league, nor is it unique to the Rocket. Right now, Laval is relying on three players playing regularly on tryout contracts (with five in total on the roster). This past weekend, all three — Evan McEneny, Yannick Veilleux, and Ralph Cuddemi — scored goals.
Bouchard gave them an opportunity, and they only have to look across the locker room to Cox to see how far they can take it.
When Veilleux, who has four goals in six games with the Rocket, was deciding whether to come to Laval, he had a conversation with Bouchard.
“He told me, ‘I’m black and white. I’m not going to lie. You’re not going to be the quarterback of our power play, but if you get me 100% every night, you’ll get ice time,’” Veilleux said. “Joël has been giving me more ice time than I’m used to at this level.”
“I am always a coach who respects the players, but I also respect the process,” Bouchard said. “The salary, the name on the back, it affects a little, but it needs to follow you to the ice.”
“I’m not necessarily a prospect of Montreal,” Cox admits, “but I came in here and he gave me a shot to play, and I’ve just tried to make the most of it.”