LINDSTROM, Minn. — Blake Lizotte had friends, his mom and his brother out visiting him in California when the NHL season came to an abrupt halt.
The Los Angeles Kings were four games into a nine-game homestand when the NHL suspended the season on March 12.
"My mom (Lisa) is a teacher and had some time off on spring break and made the trek out and some family friends came out for about 10 days and it was an awesome time," Lizotte said. "It was super cool. Any time you get familiar in Los Angeles, it's cool, especially to have them at games. They've been supporters of me all the way through from when I could barely tie my own skates until now in L.A.
"They were able to see three games, but the fourth one got cancelled because of the coronavirus."
Lizotte is from Lindstrom, Minn., a town of about 4,500 in east central Minnesota, about 50 minutes from the Wisconsin border. The 22-year-old former St. Cloud State All-American hockey player has been struggling to wrap his head around the pandemic.
"It's kind of strange and I don't know if anyone has seen something like this," said Lizotte, who has been living in an apartment in Manhattan Beach, Calif., about 20 miles from Los Angeles. "It just happened so quickly. We heard about coronavirus a little bit in the news, mainly over in Europe. We thought that maybe there was a chance at some point where we were going to have to pause or play with no fans.
"In about a 4-5 day span, all of a sudden we were shut down as a league as well. It all happened super fast. As far as society in California, I got out of there right before everything shut down. I'm kind of interested to know how everything is out there right now as well."
Lizotte said he has been back in Lindstrom since March 20 and that he is working out in his basement, trying to stay in shape if the season resumes.
65 games as a rookie
Lizotte has played in 65 games in his rookie season for the Kings and has 17 assists, 23 points, 20 penalty minutes and is a minus-4. The center has won 50.2% of his faceoffs, played on the power play, the penalty kill and is averaging 20 shifts and 14 minutes per game.
Among the 188 rookies who have played this season, he leads with two short-handed goals, is eighth in assists, tied for 12th in power-play goals (3) and is 14th in points.
"At the beginning of the year, if you had told me that I'd play 40 games in the NHL, I'd have been ecstatic, regardless of production or playing time," said Lizotte, who played junior hockey for the NAHL's Minot Minotauros and USHL's Fargo Force. "I've been fortunate to play (almost) every game so far. I don't think the year could have gone much better for me personally. Obviously, we're not where we want to be in the standings.
"But on a personal level, I couldn't be much happier with the year I've had."
The fact that he has stayed in the NHL all season may be a surprise because of his size. Lizotte is listed at 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds. The average height for an NHL player this season is 6-foot-1 and the average weight is 199.3 pounds.
Former St. Cloud State player Brooks Bertsch is in his second season as a scout for the Los Angeles Kings and is primarily in charge of unsigned college free agents. After Lizotte earned All-America status as a sophomore, Bertsch helped the Kings win the battle to sign the undrafted forward.
"I think Blake's exceeded expectations," Bertsch said. "From Day 1 in development camp in June, into rookie camp and into training camp and the regular season, I think everyone has been amazed at what he was able to do at such a quick pace, right out of the gate.
"Even though he's not going to be a point producer in the National Hockey League, he did find a way to contribute offensively a little bit as a secondary type guy," Bertsch said. "He's made a name for himself and the thing with the NHL is that it does not roll over. He's going to have to do it year to year."
Stayed at center
Bertsch said that it became clear early in the season that Lizotte gained the trust of Todd McLellan, who is in his first season as Kings head coach and 12th as a head coach in the NHL.
"This is a big growth season for a lot of the Kings because we're transitioning through a rebuild," he said. "We have some veteran players who are showing the younger players what it takes to play as a regular. You can tell with Blake getting some second (unit) power play time, some penalty kill time, last minute of games, he's been taking faceoffs — that's always a reflection upon the coach's trust in the player."
Bertsch said that he has also been a bit surprised that Lizotte has been able to play center throughout his rookie season.
"There's not many guys who play center in the league at his size," Bertsch said. "He's found a way to be pretty effective at it and he wasn't a defensive liability.
"Some young players who play center in juniors or college and they get to the National Hockey League and, it's hard. It's a hard league to play center in. Oftentimes, they move them over to wing until they mature."
Lizotte is not entirely surprised that he has been able to stay at center all season.
"I've always kind of prided myself on being a 200-foot player and the reason for that switch (to wing) for younger guys is because of the defensive zone responsibilities," he said. "You have more responsibilities at center. Most guys move to wing to have a lighter defensive load. I think I've transitioned fairly well and they've kept me there because I'm responsible in the 'D' zone."
While it has been a memorable season of firsts for Lizotte in the pros, one of the highlights for him was his first NHL game against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 26, at Xcel Energy Center. He had more than 300 friends and family members in attendance. Alternate captain Jeff Carter decided to make it more special by having Lizotte skate the first lap of warmups alone.
"I wasn't planning on that at all and we were out in the hallway before we go out and Jeff Carter said, 'Give the people what they want,' took my helmet off and gave me a hot solo lap and it's something I'll remember forever," he said.
The Wild won the game, 5-1, but the night had many memorable moments. Lizotte scored a goal for Chisago Lakes High School in the Class A state tournament as a sophomore at Xcel in 2014.
"That's a spot you dream about playing your whole life, being a hockey fan and I've gone to many games there since I was 2," he said. "You go to games each year and look up to those guys and to be able to play in that building at the NHL level is something I've always dreamed of.
"It couldn't have been any more special with all my friends and family there from back home. The outpouring of support was absolutely incredible. I can't thank them enough."