Brooks Laich was, for years, the perfect Washingtonian. He arrived from out-of-town during his early 20s. He overachieved his way to community prominence and success in his chosen field. And he was entirely obsessed with his job.
Laich thought about work as soon as he woke up. He thought about it while at the office, and he thought about it when he went home. The job was going well, but there was something missing in his personal life, which he papered over by thinking even more about his career.
“Sometimes that can be a negative,” the Caps forward said this week. “You over-think things, over-analyze things. You’re too invested. Maybe it drains you.”
Work-life balance doesn’t come easy, not in this town and not for professional athletes. Laich, though, seems to have figured it out. His much-publicized courtship and recent engagement to actress and dancer Julianne Hough has landed the couple on red carpets, on entertainment shows and in glossy magazines. But burrow past the paparazzi and People magazine stories, and you find a 32-year old hockey vet who can’t stop talking about peace and happiness.
“Life has never been better for me,” Laich said, as he prepared for his 11th training camp with the Capitals. “I’ve found a new measure of happiness that I had never experienced in my life. Hockey was always very dominant, a very dominant side of my life, a big portion of my life. But then there was still an emptiness when I was away from the game.
“And I always had good family and good friends and got happiness there, from being among good people,” he went on. “But as far as the personal relationship, I had never found happiness until the day I met Julianne. And the day I met her was the day, I knew.”
(Yes, this is still the sports section. But that’s a great quote. Turned my heart into melted pudding.)
They met two years ago through local actor (and Caps fan) Teddy Sears. Their introduction, Laich said, was “the calmest moment in my life.” Time seemed to slow down, and Laich said he immediately felt happiness and ease. By last season, the “Dancing With the Stars” judge was spending part of her time in Washington and going to games at Verizon Center. Laich spent much of his offseason in California.
As they started spending more time in public and discussing their relationship, the entertainment-industry headlines increased. Laich proposed in August, and so now you can read a timeline of ” their whirlwind romance” in US Weekly, an interview about their wedding plans on Entertainment Tonight’s Web site, and reports about their recent engagement party in People and EOnline and Brides.com and yeah, you get the idea.
Laich was already a public figure, the longest-tenured pro athlete in D.C. and among the Caps’ most-quoted players. But that was like the ECHL compared to life in the “Dancing With the Stars” universe. Laich and Hough regularly encounter paparazzi when walking their dogs in the evening. They’ve seen photographers blowing past red lights while they’re driving. They spied one hidden underneath a parked car while returning from the beach this summer.
Hough is used to it. Laich — who was raised in Wawota, Saskatchewan; population 560 — isn’t.
“I don’t think you can ever understand what it is until you go through it,” he said. “We’re not trying to seek any headlines; we’re trying to enjoy our time together…. I understand that’s maybe part of the world that she lives in, but to me it still doesn’t seem acceptable.”
In fact, Laich still hasn’t seen any television reports about his relationship or engagement. He said he’s proud of Hough’s professional accomplishments, but is indifferent to her fame. When friends tell him they’ve seen his photos in magazines or Web sites, his reply is “Why are you reading that stuff?”
“I’ve never read that stuff, ever, or watched that stuff, ever,” he said. “It just didn’t personally interest me. And now that I might be involved in it a little bit, it doesn’t change my stance at all. My life consists of my fiancee and our dogs, and that’s where my concern is.”
Well, and hockey, of course. After playing nearly every game from 2005 to 2012, Laich’s career hit a bumpy patch. He was limited by a nagging groin injury for two seasons; playing just 60 games over two years. That problem was gone by last season — “I didn’t put one ice bag on my groin last year, not a single one,” Laich said — but he missed time with a shoulder injury, and recorded just 20 points in 66 games.
General Manager Brian MacLellan said after the season that the Caps “need more out of him to be a successful team,” and Laich agreed. For the first time this offseason, the forward set individual offensive goals for himself, benchmarks he’s eyeing even amid his penalty-killing and defensive-zone assignments. (No, he won’t be sharing those goals.)
“I expect more of myself,” he said. “I want to get back to producing, get the offensive part of my game kickstarted again.”
Laich said his sense of peace away from the rink can only help. Even as he introduces Hough to the world of professional sports, he’s been immersing himself in her profession. He’s attended events like last week’s Creative Arts Emmy Awards, and is now a dancing evangelist, describing it as “an amazing art” and “such a beautiful art.” His own dancing background is limited — “I always did the poor man’s two-step,” he joked — but he’s asked Hough to show him basic jive steps and the quickstep.
“Actually quite often, we’ll just dance in the kitchen while we’re making supper,” he said. “We’ll just put on music and stop making supper for a couple minutes, and just dance in the kitchen, just share some time together.”
Laich is still obsessed with hockey, to be sure. He still plans on being in the game for the rest of his life, still says things like “I owe the game so much.” He loved his offseason workouts, and is happy to be back in Arlington, on the ice with a team seeking to finally advance past the Eastern Conference semis. But when he leaves the ice this season, the job might not come home with him.
“There’s a feeling that when I leave the rink, I can leave the game at the rink, knowing that I got my work in,” Laich said. “I can go home and I can enjoy peace and happiness away from the game, and come back in excited the next day and every day, really appreciative of the fact that I get to play hockey. It’s really brought a new balance to my life that I’ve never had before. Certainly having her in my life is only going to make me a better hockey player, because it complete me as a person. It makes my life more whole.”