When the Stanley Cup Final ends, professional hockey players turn their attention to a different game: planning for next season. For those fighting for a better roster spot and a few more dollars, figuring out how to get a foothold on the ladder’s next rung is a new battle unto itself.
The difference between “playing hockey” and “working hockey” is that there’s no rulebook for the business side. If you’re a first-round draft pick agents are lined up to help you make decisions. If you’re an undrafted free agent or minor league pro, you have your cellphone, a network of contacts and the magic of Google to help you find your way.
So, where do you start? Do you go “get” an agent (and if you do, how)? Do you need one? What’s the best route to the big leagues for me? Should I just wait for phone calls? Should I be on some sort of phone list? Which leagues in Europe are best? The list goes on and on.
My father having an NHL career didn’t mean I had the answers as some assumed - hell, he went from the WHL to the NHL in a single leap at age 20 in 1974. Things are different now.
And, things were different for me. It was February of 2007, and I was the leading scorer on a not-great Div. 1 NCAA team (Alaska-Anchorage) in a great conference (WCHA). My senior season was coming to a close and I was starting to think about the world beyond.
I turned to an uncle and mentor who was a one-time sports editor – part of the prestigious “Stan Fischler intern” club – who knew a few people who could help me out.
After talking with one of his friends who worked as a player agent, he put together a great explanatory email that helped me sort through my options.
Below is that email, which I happened across by chance the other day. I thought it might help inform those who want a peek behind the curtain for an average player entering the pro hockey world for the first time.
Everything in bold is what my uncle wrote, and I’ve added my commentary below. Hopefully you learn something now, as I did then.
(Note: “Tim” refers to the player agent, who I eventually worked with during my pro career.)
Question 1: Is getting to the NHL your focus?
The easy answer is “yes.” Why wouldn’t it be? But give this one some thought to ensure it is the real/right answer. If pursuing the NHL is your only ambition, then you probably want to look at minor-league pro rather than Europe right now. According to Tim, Europe has some advantages – better pay, better living conditions, excellent life experience – over minor-league pro, but players who cross the pond tend to fall off the NHL radar. If the NHL is the singular focus, stay in North America and try Europe in a couple of years. If the NHL is not a realistic goal but playing a few years of pro hockey at any level is, Europe is a more attractive option.
The NHL was never really something I thought about, honestly. I just sort of played and let the chips fall where they may. But I found I was pretty good in midget, then pretty good in junior, then pretty good in college, and part of me thought it was worth seeing if maybe I just wouldn’t “pretty good” my way up the ranks until I was an NHL millionaire. I had to at least try, you know?
Question 2: How do you feel about leaving school at the end of hockey season?
This one isn’t as easy as it looks either. I know you’re thinking that you’re ready to go at any time. Tim looks at it like this: if it’s an NHL offer, it’s a no-brainer. If it’s an AHL offer, you need to consider it pretty seriously. If it’s an ECHL offer, you might want to finish the degree and plan for next season. The million-dollar question is whether jumping to the ECHL is really a stepping stone to something bigger or just a place to hang out and play hockey for a few years.
I absolutely did not – DID NOT – want to play in the ECHL after college. I thought that would label me ECHL-level instead of AHL-ready, which is where I was aiming to start. I didn’t get an AHL call, but Davis Payne (who just won a Cup as an assistant coach with the Kings) was head coach of the local ECHL team in Alaska and was borderline relentless. He basically offered to let me be like Mario Lemieux when his back was bad - just play home games, don’t travel for road games when it interfered with my studies, practice when my schedule allowed....
In the end, he sold me on “trying” pro just to get a feel for the different style of game before summer, so I’d know what to expect come next season. I was in the lineup with them through the Conference Final, which I don’t regret. It WAS different hockey, and I’m grateful for everything I learned from Payne.
So how do you figure out what to do? Examine your options, be honest with yourself and take your best shot.
Here are a few other random thoughts from our conversation – some good, some so-so:
• Basically, your track record in the WCHA makes it clear that you can perform in the ECHL. Based on the performance of former teammates/opponents playing in the ECHL, it’s clear that you can have success at that level. The upside is that you don’t have to feel compelled to jump at the first end-of-season offer. You know you can make a difference there, so if you need some time to solicit other offers you can do that.
This was bang on. I didn’t light it up out of the gate, but there was no doubt that after some transition I would be fine. I scored one point in my first 20 ECHL games, then 30 in my next 30 en route to making the All-Star Game during the 2007-08 season.
• In Tim’s view, it’s two big steps from the ECHL to the NHL – and not very many players are going to take those two steps. Being 24-years-old doesn’t help your case. Given another 2-3 years to develop, you’re looking at 26-27 before a shot at the NHL, which sadly, is getting a little long in the tooth. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but in the cold, hard world, a 20-year-old prospect has an edge.
Also bang on. It was always a long shot, but knowing my college teammate Jay Beagle has an NHL career makes me think it was worth the try. Not a knock on Jay, just saying it wasn’t impossible. He didn’t crack 40 NHL games in a year until 25-26, which is impressive - in the developmental leagues, vying for ice against a younger teammate can be like playing against a stacked deck.
• At this time of year, pro teams will be sniffing around for college kids. If they’re heading into the playoffs and want to add a body or two to their roster (or if they just want to plan for next season), this is the time they can raid college rosters. According to Tim, the first contact will likely be with (UAA coach Dave) Shyiak to get a feel for your potential and whether you’d jump from school. You might want to start bringing him coffee and a muffin to practice.
Shyiak was my coach at UAA for the final two years of my college career. As far as I know, he did nothing but help me out - though I do remember constantly thirsting for more information. He and I had one conversation where he vaguely noted that “he’d had a few calls”. That’s like telling a kid in middle school that the hot girl said something about liking him. As a player, you are desperate for those details – anything that can help you figure out your next steps.
• At the end of the season, some players will get PTOs (professional try-out contracts) so teams can take a look at them for a month. For some players, it’s a good thing. It’s a chance to show that they can hold their own at the minor-league level, securing an opportunity for the following season. It’s also a chance for the player to see what it’s like to play at that level. There’s a big jump in size/strength and sometimes that month helps players get a sense of “oh man, I better hit the weight room…” over the summer. At 6-1, 190, you’re still a flyweight and will need more beef to survive the minor leagues.
Contrary to popular opinion, college hockey is extremely physical. There’s probably more hitting than pro hockey. In line with popular opinion, you’re hitting/being hit by 21-year-olds, not 29-year-olds. When people ask what weaknesses I had as a player that left me short of the big time, I immediately go to strength. I just wasn’t winning puck battles in corners versus men, like, ever. It’s tough to have a chance to showcase your offensive abilities (which I believe were good enough) when you’re always chasing the play the wrong way.
• This is also the time of year that European teams are planning their rosters for next season. If you decide Europe is an option for next season, someone should start making inquiries in the very near future to secure an opportunity. Even if it’s not a definite decision to go to Europe, it’s a good time to get the process started. Contracts signed at this time of year are commonly negotiated with an escape clause that allows the player to remain in North America if the right offer comes up.
Before I got too far into this process, the New York Islanders invited me to rookie camp and I decided to stick with North America for a year or two, as I felt going to Europe immediately would take me off the radar on this side of the pond. I excelled at that camp, was invited to main camp, and eventually signed a two-way ECHL-AHL deal. I spent a good couple months in the American League (though the “games played” column doesn’t show that - I was healthy scratched as much as I played), so I’m okay with the choice I made there.
• Status of an agent: I was careful in talking with Tim because I’m not entirely clear on NCAA regulations related to talking with player agents. The last thing you want is to create a mess for yourself or UAA. But Tim said the key words are “family advisor,” in that it is acceptable to have someone providing guidance while you are a student-athlete. But no contracts can be signed or money change hands.
This is pretty common, the whole “family advisor” thing. They’re still agents, but they don’t get paid until they sign a contract. In my case, Tim was a family friend and said he wouldn’t take money until I made that big NHL money. (Tim never saw a dime, but he can certainly take my gratitude and respect to the bank, right?!? … Tim? … You still there Tim?)
Still, it seems like a good idea to start working with an advocate who can start making some calls. These guys know the organizations, the people involved and status of their rosters. Hockey is an old-school, relationship business and it helps to have a friend who knows a friend who can call in a favor from a friend. It doesn’t get you to the NHL, but it gets a door open to get a look.
There’s no doubt my name helped me get that look in Long Island. I think that I played as well as I did at main camp surprised people. Certainly, I moved myself from “generous invite” to someone they took seriously, which was all I could ask for. The foot was in the door.
Some more flat details...
• Show Me The Money…
Without testing the market or knowing a lot about your history, Tim explained the European/AHL/ECHL salary structure this way:
• Standard entry-level contract in the ECHL pays about $400/week. Some will move up to a higher pay bracket. It’s grunt-level pay for guys chasing the dream.
I didn’t find this, thanks to that quality camp with the Islanders. I made $650 a week as a rookie (which was good) with my bills paid for (rent included), meals were often provided and we received “per diem” on the road. I wasn’t getting rich, but I could afford my car payments. (Keep in mind though, “per week” ends when the season does, so you have to save for summer or get a job.)
• Entry-level players in Europe often start at about $20K Euros – roughly $30K Canadian. It doesn’t sound big, but the actual contract value is much greater. The $20K is based on net after taxes are paid. They also pay for your car, accommodations, et al. Technically the salary should be reported and taxed in Canada, but most players ignore that so it leaves them with $30K (or more) in their jeans after taxes and living expenses. To do that in North America, you probably need $120K or better a year.
I eventually had a contract set up in Europe before I shattered my face and couldn’t take them up on it, but it was nice. $750 Euro (like, $1100 Canadian dollars) a week, all my bills paid for, rent, a car to use, etc.
Biggest difference: ECHL is a grind. You’ll play a lot of three-games in three-nights, bussing from city to city. In Europe, it’s a 44-game season and you’ll spend most nights in your own bed. Playing in the ECHL, however, gives you a better shot at moving up to the AHL, where you probably start with a salary of about $50K.
I love, love, love the “grind,” because I hate, hate, hate practice. In college, you wait so damn long to play games that when they don’t go well, it ruins you. You stew on them for what feels like an eternity. A bad pro game and you can redeem yourself the next day. I played hockey to play hockey, not pretend play. (I feel this way about the driving range, incidentally.)
One of the upsides of staying in North America is that it does create some other options. A lot of guys end up meeting/marrying their sweetheart. As athletes, they meet plenty of local business people eager to open a door to a non-hockey career. I’m sure you’ve seen this happen with plenty of guys who went to play hockey in (fill in hillbilly town here) who ended up settling down and getting in to something else.
When I left hockey, I needed a break. My whole life was car to a bus to a plane to another building, and it makes a real relationship hard. You rarely, if ever, get back-to-back days off, and I envied these things people called “weekends.” I always thought I’d return to the game in some capacity and, in a way, I have. Writing lets me stay in touch with the game and have a little greater clarity on my future.
So for the next young guy heading blindly into the big world (and small community) of pro hockey, this one’s for you. If you aren’t pursued then you have to do some pursuing. There’s no telling where your journey will take you – I’m still not sure where mine is taking me. And that’s part of the fun.