Off-seasons for a minor leaguer are bitter sweet. Part of you is happy for it to be over because you just spent the last 8 months destroying your body, putting it through the ringer and unless you won it all, you are probably bummed out and disappointed about the result of your season. I used to lose 15 lbs every season. I would go into camp at 200 or 205 and come out of it looking like a wet rat at 185. The other part of you is sad because you know what lies ahead of you. For the past 8 months, you have been able to play a sport that you love right down to your core, and the best part is, you were getting paid to do it. While all your friends have been grinding away at a desk or in a crawl space on a job site for 8 hours a day, you’ve been working on your one-timers and one-on-ones for an hour a day in the morning and then working on your short game with 12 Bud Light in the back of your golf cart in the afternoons. As much as you are burnt out from the 72-game season plus playoffs and thousands of miles travelled going from town to town, you don’t really have much to complain about.
It doesn’t take long for the disappointment and exhaustion of the season to wear off. Maybe a couple of weeks go by and then you’re back on the phone with your agent trying to find a place to play for next season. Another year in the Coast, try and get a call-up to the American league? Maybe go and make some extra dough under the table in the CHL? Or maybe it’s time to head over to Europe and make some real money and see the world? You quickly forget about the aches and pains and mental anguish of underachieving in the playoffs and that pure love for hockey takes hold of you and makes you yearn for the turn of the new season. Well, all of what I just said and of course the less glamorous, inevitable prospect of going back to your old job of tending bar and living in your grandmother’s basement for the summer.
The sadness that comes along with being a minor leaguer is that you can’t cruise on what you raked in during the season. Making between $600-850 a week isn’t enough to justify going unemployed during the summer. In the summers I used to return to Kingston, Ontario and sling pints for weddings and regulars at a couple of bars in town. Bartending was appropriate because it kept me on the healthy side of the countertop during peak hours. The flexibility of the job allowed me to train during the days, work at nights and then take a few weeks off here and there if I wanted to go work a hockey school down in Lake Placid or up in Ottawa.
The flip side to having a schedule where you might be here one week and gone the next was that I couldn’t really find a place to rent for such a short period of time while keeping a sporadic schedule. Luckily, my Nana lived in Kingston and just happened to have some room for me to shack up and come and go as I pleased. From my perspective it was a pretty sweet deal. I lived rent free, had a flexible job and was able to train during the day. From an outsider’s perspective it was pretty embarrassing. Here’s a 26-year-old professional hockey player, living in his grandmother’s basement, having to work two jobs. Aren’t pro hockey players supposed to make good money? Grow up Peter Pan!
Living with Nana was a treat! I just spent the last season living with two other guys in a house where it was always a struggle to see who was going the grab groceries, take out the garbage or pick up all the empty beer cans. Nana had cleaning ladies that came by so everything was always clean. When I’d head to work, Nana would insist on doing my laundry. In return, I just had to help out with a few errands here and there. One of my duties was to take dear old Nana grocery shopping. In her early nineties, Nana had a lot of hop in her step but she still needed someone to drive her around and lug the load.
It was priceless when we’d hit up Loblaws for a grocery run. Nana was completely old school. She would sit down at the kitchen table before we left and write down everything she needed on a notepad as things popped into her head. Once in the grocery store, we’d scoot around starting at the top of the list and cumbersomely work our way down. The problem with this method was that Nana’s brain didn’t work in the way that the grocery store was laid out. She would write down, “Milk – Cucumbers – Cheese – Tomatoes – Butter – Apples…” She insisted on following the order of the list so we would be going from one end of the store to the other and back again until all the items were crossed off. After about 1.5 kms and 7 items I would say, “Come on Nana, let me see the list and I’ll go run and grab a bunch of things and meet you in the spice aisle.” She would promptly swat my hand away and say, “Don’t you worry about my list! I’ve got things under control.” Oh Mylanta!
So after hiking around Loblaws for nearly three hours, covered in a solid coat of sweat, we would pull into the checkout line. The usual routine would ensue:
Nana: Hi Bernice! How are things?
Bernice: Oh hello Irene! Things are going well.
Nana: How did it go at the doctors the other day? Did he sort out that foot problem?
Bernice: Well he said that I might have to go see a pedophilist or paediatricianist or whatever they call them to give it a look-see. Who is this you have with you today?
Nana: Oh Bernice aren’t I just the luckiest. This is my grandson Jamie. Isn’t he just a handsome hunk of a lad.
Bernice: Oh yes!
Meanwhile, I’m squirming because there is a line behind us that is wrapping around the store and poor old Nana is fumbling around her gargantuan purse looking for the bank card my dad activated for her since Loblaws no longer takes personal checks. Corporate bastards! Now the concept of a debit card to my Nana is like putting Abraham Lincoln in a Ferrari Testarossa. Finally Nana pulls out her debit card and begins tapping upwards of 13 digits on the keypad. This is swiftly followed by an error buzzer. I say, “Nana what’s going on? Don’t you know your PIN number?” Nana, “Ya I just put it in and it came up wrong. The machine must be broken.” Me, “Well you just punched in like 20 numbers. Those PINs are only supposed to be 4 – 8 digits.” Nana, “Well it’s MELBA.” Melba was the name of my Nana’s deceased dog. Thanks for letting everyone in the store know what your PIN number is. Add another stop to the errand list to change Nana’s PIN on the way home. So I say, “Nana, that word is only 5 digits long. Why do you put in so many digits?” Nana, “Well, ‘M’ is the 13th letter in the alphabet, so I put in ‘13’ and then ‘E’ is the 5th letter so I enter ‘05’…” My headache starts to intensify, “Oooooookay, how about I just put it in and I’ll explain it to you in the car, away from the angry mob grumbling behind us looking for a rafter to string us up by.”
All-in-all, living with Nana was great. It was entertaining and fun to hear all the stories about how much of a bonehead my dad was growing up or what it was like growing up when life was more about working to put food on the table. We’re talking about a woman who lived through two world wars and the great depression. It also helped to keep me on the straight and narrow during the off-season where it was always easy to get into trouble. It wasn’t like I could stumble through the door at 3:30 am on a Friday night slobbering all over some floozy I picked up at the after-hours pizza joint. It gave me a nice balance and allowed me to focus on what was important to get ready for next season.
One of the bars that I worked in the off-season was a little hole-in-the-wall, tucked in the backside of Kingston’s Portsmouth Olympic Harbour called, The Snack Bar. The Snack Bar was located beside the Kingston Penitentiary, home of Canada’s most notorious criminals including Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson and Mohammad Shafia. The bar was a regular haunt for several active and retired pen guards as well as a slew of neighbourhood yokels.
I used to dread these shifts for two main reasons. One was that I didn’t want to sit and listen to stories from the retired guards about people hanging themselves in their cells or stabbing other inmates to death in the lunch line. Take your PTSD down to the mental health clinic boys. The second reason was that everyone would find out I played hockey and either tell me their story of how they got screwed over and should have played in the NHL or would spew pure ignorance about the game of hockey as if it were gospel.
I would get remarks like, “I heard you play hockey down in like Georgia or Texas or something. What do you want to do? Are you thinking that maybe you can work your way up and play for the Frontenacs some day?” Here I was playing in the ECHL, a professional hockey league with NHL affiliations, and this guy is asking me if I want to try and work my way up to playing for a team in the OHL, a junior hockey league. Some people have no clue, but won’t admit that maybe they don’t know much about the game of hockey.
Other times I would get comments like, “They should cut the NHL back down to six teams. Every team has maybe two or three good players but the rest of them are bums.” Here he is saying that 85 percent of NHL hockey players are awful, meanwhile I’m scratching and clawing from two leagues below the NHL, trying to find my way. If these multimillionaire NHL players are brutal, what does that make me? Maybe I should just go out back and shoot myself.
My favourites were the guys who would come in and tell me about how they played a thousand games in the NHL. It didn’t take a quick scan through hockeydb.com to figure out they were completely full of shit. The fact that they were 5’4 and weighed 115 lbs between smokes was enough to make you roll your eyes. One guy said he played in the OHL for the Toronto Marlies where he was on a line with Brian “Spinner” Spencer. He said him and Spinner used to pile in 4 goals a game apiece. Funny, because Brian Spencer was from out west and never played for the Marlies or any team in the OHL.
I never did call any of their bluffs because I figured if they had to make up grandiose stories about imaginary glory days, maybe it was best to let them pretend it was true. Most of these guys had obviously seen some rough times and probably didn’t have the best of luck over the years. Who knows, maybe someday I might be one of those guys, cranking on Nevada tickets, drinking stale Molson Export.
By the end of the summer, as the days leading up to training camp grew nearer, you would get a telling feeling in the pit of your stomach. You were itching to get the season started and thinking about all the fun you knew you were going to have. The start of every new season was like a fresh start. A clean slate to try and prove you belonged and deserved to get promoted. The muscle was back on, the injuries were healed. You felt you were faster and stronger than you have ever been going into camp. You were ready to make this the season that everything all came together. This year was going to be different. This year, you were going to make it.