Sample Chapter from “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?”
The hockey world is full of misconceptions. At every level, players, coaches, and parents have misconceptions about what to expect at the current level and the next. Most people underestimate the jump from one level to the next and it can leave a lot of people unprepared and out of sorts. As a coach, I have made it my job to prepare my players for the massive jump to the next level as to make it a smoother transition. However talented a player is at one level, that jump to the next is always an eye opener.
One question I often get is what is the difference between a great junior “A” player and a great pro? The best answer I can give them is, it’s the mental aspect of the game and a lot about what is deep within a player. Sure you can look at a player’s skill set and say, this player has what it takes to be a successful pro, but it doesn’t always work out that way. From my own experience, it isn’t always the most talented player that achieves the most success.
One of the biggest differences between a good pro and a great NHLer is the way the NHL player thinks the game two-steps ahead of the next guy and how he is able to take control of a game when the chips are down. You hear legendary stories of players like Toronto Maple Leaf great Bobby Baun, who broke his ankle early on in game six of the Stanley Cup finals against the Detroit Red Wings, only to return in overtime to notch the winner. You hear a story like that and you think, “Wow! What an amazing feat of courage to be able to play through pain and achieve greatness.” I bet if you spoke to Bobby Baun he wouldn’t have looked at it that way at all. He probably would have just said that he wanted to play and wanted to do whatever it took to stay in the game.
The difference between being decent and great comes from within. Even elite players like Lemieux, Gretzky and Yzerman had an insatiable hunger for the game. Hockey wasn’t just a game for them, it was something that was alive and had a heartbeat. It was part of their body, their mind, their soul. It would have been easy for legends like Lemieux, Gretzky and Yzerman to hang up the blades and retire on an island somewhere sipping pina coladas, but they chose to stay involved in the game and to share the same emotions, struggles, elation, albeit from behind the bench and in the owner’s box, as the players on the ice. This is why great players are great.
There is a lot of talk in hockey about “heart”. To me, “heart” is that aforementioned “insatiable hunger”. When you look down an NHL roster, you will see a cast of heroes in all shapes and sizes, each with a specific role. One may be a scorer, one may be a grinder, one may be a penalty kill specialist, and one may be a protector. Each one of these roles is as important as the next. One of the biggest misconceptions is that if you aren’t a top scorer, then you aren’t as valuable to a team. This couldn’t be more absurd or incorrect.
I used to be one of the stupid ones who thought that I needed to be on the score sheet to be a factor in a game. In junior I felt I was a great player because I had a lot of points. The fact was that I was a “riverboat gambler” defenseman who took way too many chances and didn’t respect the defensive side of the game. When I began to learn how to fine tune my game, be reliable in my own end, block shots, finish checks, then I began to reach my potential. The only problem for me was that I didn’t get the big picture until my window had closed. It was only after I began to “get it” that I started playing against the other team’s top lines and in return this meant I was playing 25 minutes a night, more than I ever did as a run-and-gun defenseman.
Now as a coach and with a greater understanding of how important each role is on a hockey team, my biggest challenge is trying to teach my players that being a reliable 3rd line, penalty killing center and making $1.5 million a year for 15 years isn’t such a bad gig. I often use the career path of a friend of mine who has enjoyed a phenomenal NHL career as a reliable checking center, Jay McClement. Jay never set any scoring records at any stop in his career including junior. He learned early on that paying attention to the finer points of the game such as defense, face-offs, blocking shots and penalty killing would be his ticket to the show.
Jay has established himself as one of the most reliable checking centers in the NHL today and is known as a face-off specialist. His reliable style has opened doors for him at the international level as well, winning medals while representing Canada at the World Junior level and World Championships. It usually hits home the most with my players when they see the car he’s driving.
One of the biggest misconceptions I see at the higher levels in hockey falls at the minor pro level. Most people hear the stories of great phenoms like Crosby, Thornton, Kane, and Stamkos going from Major Junior right to the NHL. People hear these stories and perceive that there are two levels of high end hockey, major junior and the NHL.
When I used to play in the “AA” leagues in minor pro and come home and bartend in the summers people used to ask where I played. When I would say, “I played in Texas or Georgia,” they would usually have a comment about the oddity of hockey in the Southern US and then ask if I was hoping to someday make the Kingston Frontenacs (our local OHL club). I had to carefully explain to them that the OHL was a lower level than minor pro and that I was playing in a professional league that was a feeder or farm system to NHL teams. People were just so used to stories of fast-tracks to stardom that most people are unaware that there are several layers to professional hockey and most NHL players have to cut their teeth for a couple years in these leagues before making the jump.
Beyond that, it is difficult sometimes to listen to parents who believe that because their son scored 50 goals on his minor peewee team he is destined for the NHL. They put so much pressure on their kids to perform and push them to the brink with 365 days of hockey practice, games, training, and camps that by the time the kid can make up his own mind, he loses interest and desire in the game altogether.
I used to work hockey schools where parents would pay their kids each day to stay in the school because they were complaining about not wanting to play hockey. I used to cringe when I would see a parent scold their 11 year-old kid for not scoring or producing on a minor hockey team. If kids don’t have a strong passion for hockey, then you can’t drive it into them with bribes and verbal reprimand. Walter Gretzky didn’t have to push Wayne onto the ice as a kid. He had to drag him off it when it was time to go to bed.
Just because you grow up in Canada and all your friends play hockey, it doesn’t mean that every kid should play hockey. Everyone has one or more talents. It is important to discover whatever these talents may be and to pursue the avenue that best suits you. You can’t teach desire or knack. You either love something with all of your heart or you don’t. Kids need to be able to chart their own journeys in life.
It isn’t always the regular coffee shop folk who don’t understand the levels of the game, a lot of players have misconceptions as well. A lot of players coming out of junior and college underestimate the level of hockey in the ECHL and CHL. Players tend to think, “I scored a bunch in junior or college so I should just breeze through this level and get to the AHL in no time.” The fact is that over 400 ECHL alumni have gone on to compete in the elite circuit. It’s no joke league and the caliber of talent is strong. It took only three short seasons for Alex Burrows to move up from the Columbia Inferno of the ECHL to star on Daniel and Henrik Sedin’s wing on Vancouver’s top line, one of the NHL’s best.
Michael Ryder and Mark Streit endured some adjustments in Tallahassee before making significant impacts with Montreal. Great goaltenders like Jaroslav Halak, Olaf Kolzig, Patrick Lalime, and Manny Legace honed their trade in hidden towns across the Southern US belt like Hampton Roads, Long Beach, and Richmond. The ECHL is no pushover league and has proved to be a great springboard for players who may need a bit more seasoning to reach their potential.
In my first camp in the ECHL in 2007 I remember I arrived at camp as a free agent with no NHL or AHL contract in my pocket. I arrived at the start of October, a few days before the AHL sent its first wave of players down. I can remember when the AHL players began to trickle down. Some had contracts with our parent club Anaheim and some didn’t, but they all immediately came in with the same attitude and arrogance. They felt that they were only down in “The Coast” (ECHL) on a quick stint and would be called up to their rightful place in the AHL and soon the NHL. They all came with the attitude that they didn’t need to get to know anyone else on the team but the guys they were sent down with.
I remember the first on-ice session in camp, we took a bus in our full gear from our main rink over to the practice facility and I can remember sitting up at the front of the bus with the rest of the non-contract players including the veteran returnees and former AHL players who were on the downside of their careers. They had already been through the process and laughed at how the young contracted players were carrying themselves. These jerks were sitting at the back of the bus with three seats separating themselves from us lowly peons.
It took about three to four weeks for the contracted players to realize that they may not be getting “the call” anytime soon and they may as well get used to being in the ECHL. I can distinctly remember our head coach Bob Ferguson telling the boys about his pro experience after he signed a two-way contract with the New York Islanders. He said he was sent down to the ECHL and was told he would get a call soon to be called up to the American League. He then said he was still waiting for that call 35 years later. That’s when the attitudes began to change and we began to click as a team.
The system was harsh and worked something like this. Each year varied of course, but from each draft year if there were seven rounds (modern day), maybe three or four of the players drafted by any given team would receive entry contracts (typically three-year, two-way or three-way deals) with the team. The timing of these offers would vary also, depending on when the NHL team would want to get a player into its system.
High-end talents like Crosby, Lemieux or Stamkos would be signed right away and begin their careers while other players may play another year or two in junior before signing. Once these players were signed, these select few players would have up to three years to prove their worth in a team’s system. Once those three years were up, teams would either resign players, or elect to let them go depending on how they had progressed. Of the three or four players from each draft that would receive an entry deal, maybe one might make an NHL career out of it.
This also meant that each year there would be three or four new signees from previous drafts in the system to go along with newly acquired players via trades, free agency, and college and junior free agent signings. With the trickle down effect, this meant the landscape of a minor league team would change drastically each season within the system of an NHL franchise.
In the minors you will see all types of players at each level. In the ECHL (AA level) I roomed with a former first-round pick, Riku Helenius (TampaBay: 2005, 15th overall), who was a highly touted Finnish goalie in the TampaBay organization. I also played against other first-rounders like Kenndal McArdle (Florida: 2005: 20th overall), Sasha Pokulok (Washington: 2005, 14th overall) and Brad Brown (Montreal: 1994, 18th overall). I was on a team once that saw a former second-round pick get released in training camp. Being drafted by an NHL team definitely helped open a few doors to players, but once you were in the system you had to earn your keep and keep progressing. Once you stopped progressing, there was always someone else who was younger, faster, and more talented coming up and the NHL club brass have very short memories.
One of the most noticeable differences between junior or college and pro is the number of transactions you will see throughout a season. If you look at a minor pro team roster at the end of the season you will need at least two pages just to fit it on and you will see more “Xs” than on a tic-tac-toe game. The “X” means that player no longer remains with the team. It’s tough at the minor pro level to build team chemistry because you really don’t know if you or the guy next to you will be there the next day.
I remember once when I was playing minor pro, a veteran team mate of mine once said that, “He doesn’t bother getting to know guys too well because pro hockey is a revolving door and you never know what can happen day-to-day.” I remember thinking that he was a jerk for saying that but then I began to realize that he was somewhat right. Pro hockey is a “revolving door” and over the course of a year I have seen a player play on five different teams in three different leagues on two different continents.
Sometimes in minor pro, success can be a double-edged sword. It’s great when you’re winning, but that usually means the “Big Hand” is about to come and pick away at your key components. One year in Augusta, we had the best record in the ECHL at the beginning of December and then the AHL came knocking. Our top three scorers and our number one goaltender were summoned for duty at the next level and we lost the wind in our sails. The next ten games I think we went 1 – 7 – 2 (win-loss-tie).
The hardest day as a pro for me came at the trade deadline in 2008. I was sitting by the pool having a beer with my best friend on the team, Eric Lundberg, and his phone rang. He noticed that it was Fergie (our coach) and said, “Imagine I got dealt.” Fergie loved Eric and brought him back that season because he was his favorite defenseman. There was no way he would deal him. Sadly, Lundy was dealt to Columbia for a couple of forwards and I would have to trudge on without my partner in crime.
At that point I began to realize why my veteran team-mate had told me earlier that he doesn’t try and get to know guys too well. Hockey is a business and if you mix business with pleasure too much you’re just going to get heartache. During my first year in Augusta I went through six roommates. By the end of the season we had only seven players left from the opening night roster. In minor pro you are always looking over your shoulder and your suitcases are never really fully unpacked.
Another thing that can happen to a team at the minor pro level is that players begin to develop a “Dog-Eat-Dog” mentality. It doesn’t always happen but sometimes you get teams that have a lot of cliques or rifts. When I played in Augusta, after some training camp egos were sorted out, we had a very close-knit group of guys and we always hung out together. When I went to play in Amarillo we were a vastly divided team. Maybe that’s why we had one of the worst records in the CHL that season.
When I arrived in Amarillo, I came about two months into the season and it was clear that this wasn’t going to be the closest-knit team I had ever played on. There was a huge rift developing between the older veteran players and the rookies and younger players. The main reason, I believe, the rift existed was due to the fact that the older vets who had families were living in one apartment complex in Amarillo, and the rest of the younger players were living 20 minutes away in Canyon, Texas on the West Texas A & M University campus.
Having a team spread out living-wise creates a separation with regards to getting together in the off time to go golfing, go for a beer or just hang out. Tension also began to build because early in the season a couple of “seasoned veterans” were shipped out in favor of younger bodies and ultimately cheaper contracts. The vets could feel the crunch on with a cheap owner and knew that any of their days could be numbered no matter how many points they might have.
At the minor pro level, all the teams have a salary cap and also a restriction on the amount of “Veteran Players” they can carry. To be deemed a “Veteran” you had to have played in over 250 professional games. Each team could only carry four veterans maximum. This rule was in place to promote the development of younger talent and to keep the salaries from ballooning. Sometimes it was better to keep your salary as a player at somewhere in the middle of the pack. This took a lot of pressure off of you to produce and also usually saved you when it came time to chop back to stay under the cap.
When I was picked up by Amarillo I had just come from Augusta where our team folded due to ownership problems and finances in a slumping economy. That season saw six teams at the AA level cease operations which would continue the next season causing the CHL and IHL to eventually merge. The same effect was spreading across the European leagues at the same time and the competition for jobs in hockey was intense. All the players who had jobs were fighting tooth and nail to keep them while the unemployed players were champing at the bit.
Anytime jobs are scarce and the economy is down, tension is high. Minor pro hockey was no exception to the downward spiral of finances. Players knew the value of a job and were willing to do anything to keep it. This type of high-strung situation didn’t create the best breeding ground for camaraderie.