Playing in the minors is hard on the body and mind. Teams often play back-to-back nights while travelling hundreds of miles between games. The pay is low, the food is bad, and team priorities are geared towards thriftiness rather than comfort for the players. Playing in such conditions often breeds bad habits. Other bad habits picked up by minor leaguers are simply the result of acclimating to the culture of hockey.
Bad habits in the minors have a tendency to work like a string of dominos. One bad habit leads to another, which spawns another, and so forth. The first bad habit I will address, gambling, stems from an inner desire to win. As mentioned earlier, pro hockey players are competitive in everything they do. In order to get to that level, you have to have a desire to win and a healthy hatred of losing. Whether it’s cards, golf or bowling, money is always involved in one form of wager or another.
The problem with the amount of gambling that occurs between minor leaguers is that most players don’t make enough money to fund these wagers and still live within their means. Any money that is accumulated, per diem on road trips especially, is often used to ante in to card games and other mindless forms of betting.
When we’d receive our per diem for the day, and I was as guilty of this as the next guy, that money would go straight into a session of shnarples, poker, black jack or euchre. Once that cash was gone, the pleading and moaning would start from guys trying to talk their way back into the game. A cash-depleted player might say: “Let me back in the game, I’m good for it. Just mark me down for an IOU and I’ll give you the cash tomorrow.” The problem was, when it came time to collect, guys would deny owing anything or would delay the matter by ensuring, “I’ll have it for you next roadie.”
If you were bad at repaying debts, there was always a good dare to help clear the books. One time I swam five laps in a busy hotel pool, wearing a hoodie and jeans, to eliminate a $20 debt. Another time, we got one of the guys to drink a bottle of vinegar at a restaurant to clear up a $10 tab. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Another bad habit that stems from being poor and gambling away all the peanuts that come across your table is a poor diet. During home stretches, you eat sensibly and mind what you’re putting in your body. When you’re on the road, it’s often fast food stops after games, or filling up on the gift packs of granola bars and cookies that the booster club stocks on the bus for road trips.
Per diem at the Double-A level in 2007 amounted to $37 per day. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “$37 isn’t too bad. You should be able to eat healthy on $37 a day.” This is true. Today, years removed from my playing days, I could easily eat healthy for a day on $37. When I was 25 or 26 years old, burning thousands of calories a day and weighing 200 pounds, I ate like a great white shark. If we were stopping at Subway, it was two foot-longs, cookies and a drink. We’re talking about upwards of a $20 meal.
The odd time, you might get lucky and wind up at a hotel that had a grocery store close by. If that was the case, you could pop in and load up on produce and other items to put together a healthy meal. Most of the time, we’d be eating at a restaurant as a team. After you’d paid for an entrée, with taxes and tip in, you’d be walking away $25 poorer.
After spending a couple of days on the toilet after a road trip, you would make a promise to yourself that you were going to organize and pre-pack meals into a cooler next time and eat healthy. Before you knew it, you were back on the road for a week-long road trip, stuffing Quaker Oats fat bars and ginger snaps down your gullet.
By far the most disgusting habit you see at the minor league level, and I’m ashamed to say I partook in this, was chewing tobacco. With long stretches on a bus, at a rink or sitting in your hotel room, throwing in a dip became a socially acceptable way to help pass the time and relax the nerves. Wherever there are people dipping, there are Gatorade bottles or beer cans with the tops cut off being used as “spitters”.
The worst part about having guys around chewing was that there were always spitters lying around, many of them missing lids. Time after time, spitters were getting knocked over, oozing gooey filth over whatever was close by. The grossest thing I’ve ever seen, and this happened more times than I can recall, was when someone would accidentally drink from a beer can that was being used as a spitter. We’d be having a party and a guy would reach back to grab his beer and accidentally grab the spitter sitting next to it. You’d see some pretty wild faces on guys after they took a swig of someone else’s saliva and discarded tobacco juice.
Once you got hooked on chewing, you became a celebrated member of the tobacco-using family. I played with a guy who quickly went from chewing to smoking cigarettes. We were playing in Europe and dip was extremely difficult to come by. If you wanted to get your hands on some, you had to order it in from Sweden or Denmark. It was expensive and a major hassle to have imported. Since he was hooked on the stuff, and because everyone smoked in Europe, he decided to make the switch to cigarettes. Before long, he was sucking back a pack per day.
One of the habits that just went along with the hockey culture was swearing like a sailor when you were around the boys. We were all extremely guilty of it, but there were always a few that took it to legendary levels. One of my teammates, let’s call him “Marty” was in a league of his own when it came to this. He was like a walking tornado of F-bombs when he was at the rink. Every sentence he threw out had a minimum of four F-bombs in it. For example, he might be griping about someone on the other team in between periods: “Can you effing believe that effing number forty-effing-four for eff sakes? He effing sticks me and I effing give it right back and he effing goes whining to the effing ref. Like efffffff me, eh?”
Marty had a great career and ended up getting a coaching gig in the NCAA coaching women’s hockey after he hung up the blades. When we heard he accepted the position we all razzed him hard: “Marty! You can’t coach women’s hockey!”
“Eff me, bud, those girls swear more than me, eff,” he replied. He was probably right. We used to share a hallway with the women’s team when I played in college and you would have sworn Denis Leary was out there most days.
The last two bad habits, which are of the more serious variety, are drinking and painkillers. Frighteningly, these habits often go hand in hand. Drinking is something that is heavily engrained in hockey culture. Growing up, watching NHL games on TV, there was the “Molson Cup Three-Stars” at the conclusion of every game, and every other commercial was a beer commercial, linking Canada’s game with alcohol. It was subliminal conditioning and it was extremely effective.
My dad played in the “Beer Leagues,” as they were called, and I used to go to his games so I could run around the stands and collect wayward pucks. After the game, I’d sit in the musty dressing room with all the old boys as they slugged back a case of Labbatt’s 50. In every rink there is a prominent sign in every room that says “Alcohol Prohibited,” but everyone knows that any rink rat worth his salt isn’t going to hold a group of men’s leaguers accountable to that regulation.
Drinking beer and playing hockey is as much a match as movies and popcorn. In the beginning, it was something you did because it was fun, it was what people did at parties. If you were shy, it helped you hit on girls. As you rose higher in hockey, drinking became more than just a thing to do at parties. Booze was a cheap painkiller and it also helped you deal with issues that you wanted to keep hidden in the back of your mind. It was a stress reliever, painkiller, bad girlfriend-forgetter and mind eraser all wrapped up into one tall, frosty glass.
The problem with drinking was that it could only do so much for you. When you turned pro and the physicality and grind became more pressing on your body, booze wasn’t enough to satisfy all of your needs. All of a sudden, you were playing 30 to 40 more games per season, and the hits, punches and sticks to the face were coming with more force and frequency. You needed something stronger to help you get through the grind, and that’s when the wonderful white pills showed up to the party. Oxys, Percs, Vics and muscle relaxers became the new cure-all remedy. Can’t sleep? Pop two Vics. Back hurts? Here’s a few Percs. Knee’s still messed up? A few of these Oxys will sort you right out.
Playing hockey in the minors is a lot like selling your house, cleaning out your bank account and heading to the casino. You play your cards right and hit a big hand at the right time, you can achieve riches beyond your wildest dreams. If you hang around too long, letting all the bad habits consume you, you run the risk of losing everything.