There is nothing more frustrating or humiliating in all of professional sports than being a healthy scratch. Getting healthy-scratched is like having the most important person in your life tell you that you suck, kick you in the balls, and then laugh at you as they walk away. Unfortunately, throughout my career I was all too familiar with this feeling.
The first time I ever got healthy scratched was in college. I was fresh out of junior and extremely green. I thought I knew it all and was stubborn and resistant to changing my game. I heeded bad advice from the wrong know-it-alls growing up who told me all I needed to do was focus on getting points and I was a mile behind the pack when I made the jump to the next level.
In college, we used to find out who was playing each night during or after the morning skate. Usually one of the coaches would pull you aside during the skate and say: “You’re not going tonight, kid. Keep your head up and keep working hard. You might be in tomorrow night.” Sometimes the coaches might wait until after the skate, while you were getting undressed, and call you into their office to deliver the punch to the stomach. On even more painful occasions, the coaches would tell you to take the warmup that night because one of the regulars was hurt and might not be able to go. They would tell you to prepare as if you were playing while they waited to see if Johnny Banged-Up could go. The worst part was that you knew there was about a one percent chance that Johnny wouldn’t be able to go, but you sat around all day with hope in your heart that you’d be in the lineup that night. It made you feel even more insignificant when you saw the injured player dragging a leg around while you sat in the stands, fit as a fiddle. Basically, the coaches were saying that you were so bad that they’d rather have half a player playing in the game than you.
Leading up to the weekend games, there were always tell-tale signs that you weren’t going to be playing in the upcoming game. Let’s play a little game I like to call “You’re Not Going Tonight.” Below are the top five signs leading up to a game to tell you that you won’t be dressing, in no particular order:
- If you are practicing all week on a two- man line with mismatched jersey colors…You’re not going tonight!
- If you are a center and you’re practicing on a line with two defensemen as your wingers…You’re not going tonight!
- If you are a defenceman and the coach pulls you aside at practice to ask you to take a few rips up on the wing because they might want to use you up front this weekend…You’re not going tonight!
- If you show up for practice and your gear has been moved out of your stall and onto a spare chair in the laundry room, to accommodate a recently acquired player…You’re not going tonight!
- If you walk into the dressing room and see your name on white board beside the third-string goalie…You’re not going tonight!
After it is decided that you are going to be a healthy scratch, the real embarrassment begins. After you find out, there is the call home to your parents to tell them that you won’t be playing, so don’t bother watching the game on the Internet. Then you head home, where your roommates, who are always in the lineup, are going through their relaxed, well-practiced routine of having a pre-game nap. You are still angry and dejected about not playing, so you try to find ways to not disrupt the routines of others while killing the next four hours.
When it is time to head to the rink for the game you won’t be playing in, you prepare yourself for the public humiliation you are about to endure. Firstly, you will spend the next two and a half hours leading up to puck drop working out with the other healthy scratches and staying out of the way of the regulars who are preparing for the game. After that, you might get an assignment from one of the coaches to keep track of neutral-zone turnovers or to keep a special watch on one of your teammates, because he plays the game the right way while you suck.
Once the game starts, you make your way up into the crowd and awkwardly field questions from fans and season ticket holders. You get stuff like: “Jamie? Why aren’t you out there playing tonight?”
In the beginning, I was honest and said: “Well, it’s just a numbers game and I am one of the odd men out tonight.” Or I’d say: “We’ve got eight defensemen for six spots and I just need to work hard and hopefully get a chance to be in tomorrow night.” After one of these responses, the fan would look at you like your parents just died in a fiery crash and rub your back.
Once I became a vet of the healthy-scratch game, I started to take obscure routes up to the press box, walking through rink boiler rooms with hidden ladders and hallways, or I’d just spend the game in the weight room riding the bike and watching the game on TV. I would completely avoid all contact with fans, to spare myself the embarrassment. If we were on the road and I had to sit in the stands, I would walk around with a fake limp or pretend I had one type of injury or another. If a fan intercepted me on the road, asking why I wasn’t playing, I’d say something like: “I tweaked my knee in the game last week and Coach just wants to rest me until it’s completely healed.” This way they think you’re not in because you’re hurt instead of just being really bad at hockey.
Once you get into the rhythm of being a healthy scratch, you get paranoid about every little thing. When you do get a chance to play and you play well, you are still constantly looking over your shoulder. Every part of your day becomes stressful, especially when you have a paycheque or a scholarship on the line.
On the ice, whether it’s a practice or a game, you start to grip the stick a little tighter and overthink every decision. With 28 players (on a typical NCAA roster) battling week in and week out for 20 spots, practices are just as intense and closely scrutinized as games. To put it into perspective, teams even video their practices and analyze certain drills to evaluate players throughout the week.
Below is a week’s worth of notes I kept during my freshman year at Clarkson University. To give some background to the situation, we had just played two games at home against Colorado College. I was scratched on Friday and played on Saturday.
Saturday, Nov. 26, 2003
I feel like I played pretty well tonight. I played a lot against Brett Sterling’s line and didn’t get scored on. I even got some power-play time in the third period and played a lot down the stretch. My legs felt good, and in the third, I drew a penalty on Mark Stuart, after which he called me a “plug”. Coming from an NHL first- rounder, I took it as a compliment.
Sunday, Nov. 27, 2003
Spent the day drinking big beers and eating wings at Eben’s Hearth with the boys. Sunday, Funday!
Monday, Nov. 28, 2003
We had a two-hour bagger today. Even though we took two of four points from a nationally ranked team, Coach put us through a first hour bag-skating circuit, followed by an hour of battle drills. I tried my best not to end up last in any of the bag skating drills and held my own in the battles, for the most part. During one battle, I dominated and completely owned my man. Coach wasn’t watching. The next battle, I got dangled. Coach was watching and I’m pretty sure I saw him shake his head in disgust. I’m totally fucked. I definitely won’t be playing on Friday.
Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2003
Another two-hour practice today with a major emphasis on our new defensive zone coverage, which equals a hidden bagger for us defencemen. They’ve got me paired up with Matt Nickerson today, which is an awesome sign, since he is one of our top defencemen. Or maybe they’re pairing me with him to balance out the strong and the weak. I messed up the defensive-zone rotation a couple of times and got reamed out by one of the coaches. I’ll probably be paired with the third-string goalie tomorrow.
Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2003
Two hours again today with a major emphasis on forechecks and special teams. On the way into the rink, I walked past Coach in the hallway and I smiled and said “Hi”. He grunted and nodded, never looking me in the eye. He hates me for sure. Today I was paired up with Ken Scuderi for practice. Scuds is another one of our top defencemen, so even though I wasn’t with Big Nicks today, I was still practicing with one of our top guys. I wasn’t practicing on the power play or penalty kill today and spent most of the second half of practice on the bench watching the special teams practice. I just realized that Clarkson had an undefeated season in the ’50s! Why haven’t I seen that banner before?
After practice, we had a half-hour video session. I was singled out from the Saturday game in three clips, all bad. I overhandled a puck on the first clip and missed my assignment in the defensive zone on the other two. It’s amazing how small you can feel when everyone is looking at you as if you just pushed a feeble old lady down a flight of stairs.
On my way out of the dressing room, Coach intercepted me and told me that I need to do a better job in my own end. He said he expects more from me and that I need to dial it up if I want to play every night. Does this mean that I will be playing Friday? It has to, right?
Thursday, Dec. 1, 2003
Just a one-hour, light practice today with special teams walkthroughs. I kept an eye on the coaching staff for most of the practice and they didn’t tip their hand as to if I would be in or not tomorrow night. Since we didn’t run any full-strength drills, I’m not sure who they have me paired with at this point. I suspect I won’t know if I’m in the lineup tomorrow until after the morning skate. The bus leaves for the University of Vermont tonight after practice.
Friday, Dec. 2, 2003
I found out today at the morning skate that I would be dressing tonight against Vermont. I was paired up with Matt Nickerson and was told to focus on tight gaps and containing guys down low. Overall, I played well and we won in overtime. Nobody from the coaching staff screamed at me during the game and Coach even smiled at me as I passed him in the hallway after the game. Or maybe he was smiling at Big Nicks, who was walking beside me. Either way, we usually don’t mess with the lineup when we win, so I might actually get to play again tomorrow night against Dartmouth!
Saturday, Dec. 3, 2003
Today is my birthday and I was told after the morning skate that I would play again tonight alongside Big Nicks. I was pumped to get a chance to go back-to-back nights. My confidence has been down lately, so I kept things simple and played a steady game. I played a bit on the penalty kill but no power-play time. Played against Lee Stempniak’s line quite a bit and didn’t get scored on, which is nice. We ended up beating Dartmouth, so the mood was good. If Coach keeps with his philosophy of not changing a winning lineup, I should be back in next Friday against Colgate. I’m pumped to play against Colgate because they snubbed me last year for a punk named J.R. Bria. I’ve got six buddies on Colgate and I want a chance to show their coaching staff what they missed out on. We left Dartmouth to head back to campus after the game and we’ll have tomorrow off.
Fast-forward one week…
I had a bad week of practice. The worse I played and the more the coaches gave me the disappointed, cold shoulder routine, the worse I got. Everything just spiraled out of control and my confidence went in the toilet. I ended up being a healthy scratch against Colgate. We lost and my old roommate from junior, Jon Smyth, lit us up for four goals. I didn’t play the next night against Cornell, either.
The funny thing about my freshman year was that when it was over, I felt I had a terrible season and needed to figure out if I was good enough to play at the Division 1 level. That was my mindset at the time.
Looking back on that year, it really doesn’t seem that bad. Our team lost in the conference final after upsetting nationally ranked Cornell in a dramatic three- game series. I won Conference Rookie of the Week once, was an honorable mention for the NCAA Rookie of the Month for the playoff month of March, and led our team in plus/minus for the season, while finishing with nine points in 27 games, as a freshman defenceman. Overall, that’s a pretty productive year. The problem was I was healthy-scratched 14 times that season. That’s just over a third of the games we played. I was never able to find any consistency or confidence, because I knew there was a 34 percent chance that I wouldn’t be playing in the next game.
When you turn pro and you’re a bubble guy, it’s an even more stressful situation to be in. In college, I knew I wasn’t getting cut. I may not be in the lineup every night, but my job was safe. In pro, your job is as safe as a snowman in Tahiti.
My first year of pro was an ego-booster. I played in Europe, where I got to be “the man” again. My second year of pro, I signed with the Augusta Lynx of the ECHL, which was a minor league affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks. Playing for an NHL affiliate has its perks, but if you are a bubble guy not on an NHL deal, you don’t have much say in whether you get shuffled out of the mix when guys get sent down. Even if you are lighting it up, if you aren’t on an NHL contract, you are the expendable one.
After I made the team in Augusta, I let out a big sigh of relief. A lot of good players who had better college and junior careers than I did were getting cut from ECHL teams, so my confidence was high. Since I came from a college background, I had a false sense of security about my job, at that point. That quickly changed when Portland began sending down NHL-contracted players such as Gerald Coleman (who had already played a few games in the NHL the season before), Ryan Dingle (three-year deal with Anaheim), Bobby Bolt (three-year deal with Anaheim), Matt Christie (entry-level deal with Anaheim), Adrian Veideman (entry-level deal with Anaheim), Geoff Peters (AHL legend) and Shane Hynes (entry-level deal with Anaheim). For every piece of meat that comes in, one goes out.
The hardest part of the process is that there are always rumors floating around about who is getting sent down and who will get the bullet. Since the ECHL is a Double-A professional league, changes at the NHL and AHL level affect ECHL rosters. The most stressful time as a pro for me came when Scott Neidermayer came out of retirement to rejoin the Ducks in 2007. Since Neidermayer was a defenceman, he would displace a defenceman at the NHL level who would be sent down to Portland to displace a defenseman at the AHL level. The AHL defenseman would then be sent down to boot someone out of a job at the ECHL level. Since I was our most inexperienced defenseman and not on an NHL deal, I was squarely in the crosshairs. The whole process took a couple days for the changes to filter down. Oddly, Portland elected to send down a forward instead of a defenseman and I dodged the bullet.
Since the budgets are significantly lower at the ECHL level, you see a crunch in payroll and, in turn, a reduction in the number of players kept on the active roster. Healthy scratches aren’t that common at this level, but, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Often a team will get creative and put a player on the three-or seven-day Injured Reserve (IR). For example, if the ECHL general manager gets a call from the big club saying it is sending a guy down from the AHL for a few games, the ECHL GM might put a player he doesn’t want to lose on the 7-day IR. This way, he retains the player’s rights while staying under the salary cap. The AHL player plays his four games and is recalled and the ECHL player is reinstated from the 7- day IR. This tricky juggling act happened all the time.