The life of a minor league hockey player is not easy, but it is also not without its rewards. Almost every minor league player will tell you they are being paid to follow their passion – to play professional hockey. For many years now I have been intrigued by NHL hockey, both on the ice and off the ice as a business. Not one content to watch just one team I follow the entire league, focusing on coaching techniques, management styles, team dynamics, North American vs. European style of play, and even NHL politics. Last season was a completely new experience for me when I followed an AHL team for the first time. A full season of AHL hockey, and what a wonderful experience it was. I quickly met the fans, talked local hockey, caught up with the history of hockey in Oklahoma, AHL rules and regulations, and focused on the team – the Oklahoma City Barons.

In addition to all of those things, I interviewed a group of hockey players last season and before I was even half-way finished with the small group of interviews I gained an entirely new appreciation for the minor league hockey player. The AHL is the development league for the NHL therefore it is here that the majority of the NHL prospects are trained, developed and taught how to improve and gain the necessary skills required at the higher level.  In addition to the very young prospects, older players – oftentimes AHLers for life – fill out an AHL roster, and alongside that group are a smaller group of the older veterans. NHL veterans who have spent years in the leagues but still have many good years ahead of them provide the much-needed leadership and also a “father-figure” for such a young AHL team. Also hidden in plain sight among this group are the NHL exiles, buried in the minor leagues until a team can unload a player for various and assorted reasons. (Read the Wall Street Journal’s Where the NHL Stashes Its Mistakes, from February 25, 2011.)

For the most part, the minor leaguer is young, sometimes almost incredibly young. The majority of their lives have been focused on playing hockey and now on the verge of adulthood they face a completely new level of challenges. Most often drafted by an NHL team, a young prospect is shuttled through the remainder of their Junior years and generally moved up into the minor leagues for their first years as a professional hockey player. On rare occasions they are catapulted straight up into the big leagues – however that of course is reserved for only the very best and promising of the prospects – think Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and most probably Nail Yakupov.

The first professional season for a young player is a jumbled combination of extraordinary highs and almost unbearable lows: exhilaration, fear, loneliness, frustration, happiness, anxiety, self-doubt and sheer determination. Their first professional goal – a milestone in a hopefully very long list of significant lifetime achievements – is heralded with great fanfare among the players. The fraternity realizes what that benchmark involves and how many years of hard work it takes to get there.

It is the everyday things that are sometimes the most difficult. Living in a new city, or – if they come straight from Europe – a foreign country, facing the simple things like grocery shopping for the first time is a challenge. Or paying bills, or even cooking a meal. For the foreign hockey players language is sometimes a huge issue – are they understanding correctly and are they being understood? Are the cultural differences creating arbitrary problems and friction? These young men are professional athletes and some have not even reached the age to drink alcohol legally.

They miss their parents, their girlfriends and their best friends. And they need that familiar comforting support close at hand. The long distances from family can be difficult to bear and the lack of support from close friends and family can be hard on a young guy, particularly on a tough night after a poorly played game. Over the course of the season, teammates begin to fill that much-needed gap, and it becomes easier as they bond as teammates.

Outsiders think it such a glamorous lifestyle, but realistically it is a great deal of very hard work. Every one of these young men has spent years of their lives to make it to this stage. The long hours of workouts, training and practice. The aches and pains from injuries; the bruises and even broken bones and lost teeth. All of that combined with the league’s constant travel schedule – the perpetual packing and unpacking of bags. And even the surprise late night phone calls, hopeful to hear they will be called up to the big leagues, but they can be disappointed as well, to be told they are to be sent down to a lower league where the cycle begins all over once again.

Fans can be a blessing and a curse at times for players. Cheering the players on during good times, but also deriding them as well, heckling and mocking. It is all part of the game of hockey, but not a very pretty part at all. Most fans are genuinely good-hearted; others are just plain bat-shit crazy. And then, there are the puck bunnies. Groupies who stalk the players. Seriously. [That is probably the topic of an entire article at some point – my personal experiences with puck bunnies.]

As February trade deadline looms and teams prepare for their push to the playoffs, minor leaguers can and will be traded. They are packed up and sent to other teams with very little notice. Sometimes the trades are expected; other times it leaves the player and their team reeling with shock. It is all a part of the business of hockey, but it still affects how a team plays, how they feel on the ice, how they face each day. Will they be traded? The uncertainly is always lingering. It is a business and players know they have to face these issues, but that doesn’t mean they are not affected by it.

Following the trade deadline, the AHL teams whittle down a Clear Day Roster list of 22 players who are eligible to play in the final months of the regular season and playoffs. First time players in the AHL – and particularly those players straight from Europe – are not always aware of these deadlines and issues.  If your name appears on the list you will play the remainder of the season into the playoffs as long as you are healthy. If your name is not on the list, you sit, waiting for the opportunity to fill a space left by an injured or called-up player, but only if three or more on the team are out. The Black Aces – as the group not included on the Clear Day List are commonly called – watch their teammates play from high in the arena rafters with mixed feelings. Eager to return to the roster, but also frustrated at their situation. It is all part of the minor leagues. If the player is well-focused he will look upon these moments as opportunities to grow stronger mentally, as challenges to make the necessary improvements and return next season even stronger. Better prepared physically and mentally.

At the end of the season, the players scatter to the four winds, not knowing for certain who exactly will return or where they will end up next season if they are only on a one-year contract. Off-season means vacation, visiting friends and family, and then back to work, training, working out, improving, talking to their agents, and hopefully signing with a team to begin another hockey season all over once again. They are at the mercy of teams. Waiting. Held hostage to the system. And for some, in the darker moments, they wonder whether it is time to move on. Time to think about another profession. Think about gaining more control over their lives. But in the end, they hope it all works out for another season of hockey. All of this, to follow their heart’s desire. To follow their passion – to play hockey in the big leagues.

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Read the following installments of this series:

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