Picture walking into a meeting room full of finely tuned athletes who suddenly acknowledge your presence with a look that says: “I don’t know you, I don’t want to know you, and I hope you rot in hell.” It’s the start of training camp and it’s the first of many team meetings. There are 50 ambitious hockey players, speckled throughout the room, with varying resumes from spot duty in the NHL down to major junior and NCAA experience. 50 players signed contracts that are worth less than the cost of the paper they scribbled their post-game best autograph on and the harsh reality is that only 23 of the 50 players will actually break camp with the team.
For the next two weeks, players will keep their guards up and begin to form small cliques. The returning players will mesh together and reminisce about last season while secretly sizing up the new talent eagerly waiting to steal their spot. Small groups of other players will form based on connections and mutual friends. In the hockey world, everyone is connected in one way or another by two or three degrees of separation.
Throughout camp, coaches will give their best “Don’t leave anything to chance” speeches. They constantly remind players that only the best players will make the team, regardless of where they played in the past. It’s a warm and fuzzy thought, but in reality you know that the team has obligations to the above affiliate teams to employ and promote their investments. These “investments” may not even be players deserving of a spot, but if one thing remains constant in the world of professional hockey, it’s the fact that nobody likes to admit they made a mistake. Admitting scouting mistakes means heads are going to roll.
If you play well enough to make the team out of camp, you are reminded that there are still players filtering down from the NHL to the AHL and from the AHL to your team. These players don’t need to audition for the team. They will simply be bumping you out of your stall and your apartment without so much as a hint of remorse. It’s stark reality. It’s the cutthroat, bottom dollar nature of professional sports.
In addition to receiving reinforcements from the AHL, your hockey operations staff will also be scouring transaction lists in your league and other leagues, looking for upgrades. Coaches are always thinking about what is missing and what can be improved upon. In all reality, at any given time, that can and does amount to basically every position. With no long-term commitments at the double-A level, everyone is essentially replaceable.
If you are playing well enough to avoid the second wave of chops after breaking camp, you better not get too complacent because some players that began the season overseas are back and looking for work. These players have either been released, are homesick, or are not cut out for the European lifestyle. With this, the threat of replacement has just grown once again.
Beyond some of these factors that you haven’t a great deal of control over, there is the natural ebb and flow of a hockey season. Players get hurt, go through slumps, get promoted and get traded. Rosters, especially at the double-A level, begin to grow and transform. Players on hot streaks get called up. Players that fall into inevitable slumps at the wrong time get the tap on the shoulder from trainers.
A season in the minors is full of incredible highs, perilous lows and endless possibilities that far exceed what the mind can reasonably conceive. The double-A level in hockey is the “swing level”. Achieve some success and you can be called up to the AHL where you’re only one step away from the ultimate dream. Get stuck in a bad stretch and you might find yourself out of the game for good.