The Hierarchy of Pro Hockey

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There is a certain mental picture that pops up when people think of professional athletes. Most people immediately think of fancy cars and flashy jewelry draped upon an egotistical jerk, flocked by bodacious bimbos. At least that’s what I pictured when I made it my dream to become one.

In reality, being a professional athlete can mean a variety of things. At the top of the sports world, there is the superstar athlete who signs the multimillion-dollar deal and hangs out with Jay-Z and Rhianna. This type of professional athlete represents a tiny portion of the professional athlete population. These guys are royalty. But like any monarchy, the riches tend to remain locked securely in the palace while the peons fight for scraps at the foothills.

Below the kings of sport are divisions of subordinates who make up the rest of the professional sports kingdom. There are athletes who play two to 10 years at the major levels and make a good living at it. Then there are the guys who get a couple of cups of coffee at the prime-time level, playing stints in different cities spread across a few years. Below that, there are the minor leaguers who actually make up the largest portion of professional athletes in the world. These are the guys who, despite popular assumptions about the general finances of professional athletes, make barely enough money to take care of themselves, much less a family.

In hockey, like all professional sports, the annual salary structure is extremely top heavy. The NHL minimum salary is $500,000 with players making an average annual salary of $2.4 million. Top paid talents rake in upwards of $10 million per year.

In the past five years, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) has begun to rival the NHL, competing for players and from a max-salary standpoint offer compensation that is congruent with NHL standards. Buoyed by the fact that KHL contracts are tax-free, the monetary allure has been enough to see star NHL players flee for multi-year pacts overseas. Most notably, Jaromir Jagr, who in 2008 was reeled in by a rumored three-year, $21-million deal to play for Omsk Avangard. The tax-free deal would have been the equivalent of signing a three-year, $33-million contract, which at the time was the richest contract in the world.

Dropping down a level on the global hockey scale, financially speaking, is European Elite hockey. In top European leagues, such as the SM Liga (Finland), SEL (Sweden), DEL (Germany), and the Swiss A League, top players fetch anywhere between $60,000 and $500,000 per season. These leagues are riddled with former NHL players who are either at the end of their careers or are unable to secure full-time NHL positions. Financially speaking, it makes sense for a player in his late 20s or early 30s who has fewer than 100 NHL games under his belt to spend the last few years in Europe, collecting a nice, fat paycheque.

At the American Hockey League (AHL) level, the top affiliate league to the NHL, players rake in anywhere between $39,000 and $300,000 annually. The odd exception is when a player at the NHL level, with a big contract, is put through waivers in order to be sent down, thus shielding his gargantuan salary from the cap. This is evident when you see a player like Mike Komisarek making $5 million to play in the AHL. Most AHL players are signed to two-way NHL deals where they make “NHL money” when they are called up and “AHL money” when they are sent down. These are salaries that are prorated according to the amounts agreed upon at each level.

Once you drop below the AHL level, the salary amounts begin to free-fall at mach-10 rates. At the ECHL level, which is equivalent to baseball’s Double-A, annual salaries range from $10,640 to $28,000 for the season. The only difference at this level is that your housing is covered by the team and doesn’t come out of your salary. At higher levels, it is up to the player to locate accommodation and pay rent. The Double-A level is where contracts aren’t guaranteed beyond a two-week severance package. This means that as long as a player is active, he can be released by the team without fear of having to honor the length of the contract. ECHL deals are signed on a year-to- year basis.

Dropping down even further to the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL), players earn between $4,200 and $14,000 per year, with most players receiving weekly paycheques in the $200 to $250 range.

You might look at the salaries in the ECHL and SPHL and ask yourself why would these people put their bodies on the line for such a small amount of money and no guarantees? The simple answer is that if you are being paid to play, then technically the dream is still alive and well. There are enough stories of long-shot glory out there to fill a library. Joel Ward spent four years at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) in the CIS, often thought to be a graveyard of hockey dreams, before making the arduous climb up the ranks to make millions at the NHL level.

Then there is Tim Thomas, who couldn’t get a sniff at the NHL level until he was 31 years old. Thomas spent a decade toiling in the minors and overseas before winning two Vezina Trophies and a Stanley Cup in a span of seven years in the NHL.

And lest we forget Dustin Penner, who played university club hockey at Minot State after he was cut three times from local junior teams. It was blind luck that landed Penner at the University of Maine after he was spotted by Black Bears assistant coach Grant Standbrook at a summer prospects tournament. Penner spent only one season at Maine before signing an NHL contract with the Anaheim Ducks in 2004.

At the conclusion of the 2012-13 season, more than 490 players who had played in the ECHL had gone on to play in the NHL. This long list includes players such as Thomas, Alex Burrows, Olaf Kolzig, Mark Streit, Michael Ryder, Andrew Brunette, Jonathan Quick, Jaroslav Halak, James Reimer, David Desharnais and Francois Beauchemin, among many other players who went on to long, productive NHL careers. So many bona fide NHL stars had to earn their stripes in minor leagues such as the ECHL before they were able to prove their worth at higher levels. Knowing that there is a chance however unlikely it might be keeps minor leaguers in uniform.

The other aspect that keeps players motivated at the minor league level is the minuscule difference in individual skill levels from one level to the next. To put it into perspective, take a look at the skills competition results from 2011 for the NHL and ECHL levels. At the 2011 NHL All-Star Skills Competition, Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders took home the fastest skater event with a time of 14.238 seconds, holding off Edmonton’s Taylor Hall, who clocked in at 14.715. At the 2011 ECHL All-Star skills competition, two levels below, Eric Lampe of the Elmira Jackels won the ECHL competition with a time of 14.445, edging Vyacheslav Trukhno of the Bakersfield Condors (14.712 seconds). In the same year, Zdeno Chara took home the NHL hardest shot competition with a new record of 105.9 mph, while Josh Godfrey won the hardest shot event at the ECHL level with a 102.7 mph blast.

The fact is, some players in the ECHL can shoot harder and skate faster than players at the NHL level. That reality keeps players striving because they know that sometimes it just takes a window of opportunity to open at the right time to change the course of a career. A hot streak at the right moment, in front of the right set of eyes, can be the difference between making $39,000 or $2 million.

Some players can have all the talent in the world, but don’t process the game well enough to succeed at higher levels. It’s the immeasurable and ever-important attribute called “hockey sense” that determines if you will make a good living in this game. Some players just don’t have it and never will. The other immensely important intangibles are heart and character. Some players will go through walls and play through anything to win. If you have that kind of determination and desire, skill becomes less of a major priority. For every Steven Stamkos, there are four Darren McCartys.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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10 thoughts on “The Hierarchy of Pro Hockey

  1. I watched my husband play in the minors for 10 years and this article is bang on. Additionally, knowing the right people to give you a chance helps too!

  2. Great article Jamie. I recently moved to Switzerland for work and I’m on my way right now to visit a buddy of mine (Bill Trew) who is still playing professionally in Germany at 42 years old. He’s played in the DEL, the first division, and now the second division. We played together in Crookston, MN at a junior college way back in 92-94. (Dustin Penner might have been cut from our team too!) I haven’t seen my buddy since, but have followed his career closely. He kept the dream alive and was actually short-listed for the German Olympic team in 2010. We’re heading to the home opener in Straubing (his former team) tomorrow and I’m super excited to check it out. Then next weekend is his home opener in Regensburg. Thanks for the read and I’ll check out your other stuff.

    When in doubt… Glass and Out!

    Cheers,
    Chad Brooking
    chadbrooking@gmail.com

  3. Great article brother! thanks for the insight, this is inspiring for guys like me who are looking for an opportunity!

  4. This is a great article. Thanks for writing and thanks for posting. Its very illuminating in terms of the salary differences in Pro hockey. Another article you might consider is a discussion about the various development leagues and the opportunity to move into pro from each of them. You eluded to Joel Ward playing in the CIS, for example. This is a tough climb out of Canadian university hockey to the NHL, but he showed it can be done! Cheers!

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