The off-season surrounding minor professional sports – and hockey more specifically – is a lot like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. The considerable difference being that you can always find another piece or box of chocolate if you’re unhappy with your first selection. When it comes to professional hockey organizations however, and the staff, players and fans who provide their infrastructure, you can’t just reach in and pick another one.
Yesterday was an extremely challenging day in the history of the Central Hockey League and via the trickle-down effect, all of minor pro hockey. Amidst rumors all over the internet about folding, merging and everything else that has been spitballed over the past few months, there were obviously a couple of teams who saw that the end was near, at least for now, and no doubt exhausted all options prior to yesterday’s announcements that the Denver Cutthroats and Arizona Sun Dogs were ceasing operations for the 2014-2015 season.
It’s bad news, without a doubt. No league ever wants to lose member franchises and no fans ever want to lose their local team. Unfortunately it’s a clear and present danger at this level and Denver/Arizona will not be the last teams to close up shop. We saw the Mississippi Surge do it this summer in the SPHL not long after the Bloomington Thunder left the league as well. We saw the San Francisco Bulls turn the lights off mid-season last year in the ECHL and everyone is aware of the St Charles Chill starting the landslide for the CHL this summer by folding after one season of play.
The unfortunate timing of this also heaps challenges upon the CHL who, no matter how much forewarning they had, will be reeling to recover with under 2 months to go before their regular season kicks off. Things like scheduling, travel, regulations, etc will dominate the next while for league officials as they try to salvage some positivity out of the rest of August and September leading up to camp.
As it always does, this is going to have a ripple effect over the rest of the minor hockey world. Along with the 40 or so fewer jobs it has left the CHL to offer players – similar to a company laying off 40 employees – those players who were already under contract to Arizona and Denver will now fan out and start looking for employment elsewhere. We experienced the exact same thing in the SPHL this summer when Bloomington and Mississippi’s players were declared free agents. Less teams mean less jobs but the number of players looking for those jobs never goes down, it only goes up, creating a very competitive market for agents, players, coaches and anyone else involved in the business.
If you’re a player who has just graduated from college or you’re an overage JR player who is no longer eligible at that level, I have some advice for ya’ and I hope you find this blog online and take a second to read it; don’t panic fellas.
This is certainly a setback and having six teams fold and only one team added (Indianapolis/ECHL) no doubt makes things a little unclear for your hockey career, ESPECIALLY if you don’t have a resume built up yet as a rookie. But the important thing to remember right now is that just like the overall landscape and business outlook of minor pro hockey is turbulent, so are the day to day workings, performance and health of the teams that makeup these leagues. Just because you don’t have a camp to attend, doesn’t mean there won’t be an opportunity for you at some point over the next few months. It’s inevitable; hockey teams need hockey players.
My advice to you guys looking for jobs right now is this; keep it simple. This is a pretty overwhelming time for coaching staffs as well with all the unsigned players everywhere, so make it easy for them to identify you and determine what your value level or potential may be. E-mail is usually the easiest way to contact a coach right now and if even if you are able to get in touch with a phone call, most guys are probably going to need some information from you via email anyways. Basic facts and details about your resume trump long emails that give your own opinion about your individual game. Tell us where you played last year, tell us briefly what you bring to the table, include some video if possible, give us a few references in the hockey world we can reach out to if we’re interested and let your resume and contacts do the rest of the talking. I completely understand that not every player has a resume that is going to pique the interest of a coach, but it’s another reality right now of the hockey world. Internet scouting and word of mouth is the primary form of recruiting now simply because A level teams and even some AA level teams don’t have the budget for much else.
If you don’t have a great resume? It’s perfectly understandable to have some down years, some injuries or maybe even a situation with a certain team that didn’t allow you to develop like you believe you should have. Coaches like hearing from other coaches in that case. Personally, I love hearing the opinions of other coaches about players. Nobody knows what it’s like on the ice, in the room or the ease of working with someone like a coach, so have some of your old ones reach out for you or include a letter from them in your email. Small little tip here as well….. if you have a coach who you didn’t get along with and won’t have good things to say about you, DON’T INCLUDE THEM!
Bottom line right now is this guys; every camp is getting close to being full. When you contact a coach, he is going to do one thing first and foremost, every single time. He is going to check out your resume or look you up on www.hockeydb.com or www.eliteprospects.com to get a first impression based on STATS ALONE. If your bio tweaks something in their mind and they want more information they are going to look at who you played for, who you played with and then they will begin making some calls.
If things are still moving forward after the resume checks out, the references have lots of good things to say and the type of player you are fits into what these teams are looking for, you’re going to be offered a tryout. Don’t ask for a contract and a guarantee! We can’t give you either. Feel free to ask questions and get details on roster availability and what kind of opportunity you’re being offered, that shows that you’re a mature guy who is realistic and knowledgeable about how things work. I really like talking to prospects on the phone and I like it even more when they are informed. I spoke to a player last week who I offered a camp spot to and he said, “I’m a high energy guy who forechecks hard and is pretty responsible on the defensive side of the puck. I play the wing most of the time but I am comfortable in the middle and I take pride in my penalty killing. Do you have a need for someone like that or should I try to find a team that does?” I love that. Maybe I don’t have a need for that style of player or maybe I do, but what matters is that I know this player is legit and taking his career seriously. Any coach who tells you as a rookie in August that you’re going to be on his team 100% come October isn’t being truthful.
So now you’re exasperated and can’t get a straight answer, commitment or even a reply from some places. It’s frustrating for sure, I know it is. As a 5 ft 5 rookie coming out of the OJHL with marginal stats in 2003 I got rejected by every single team in the ECHL and the CHL – including the Ice Bears I might add - and had to settle for a free agent showcase before earning a look in Alabama of the WHA2 (which, fittingly to this blog has now folded.) My advice to you right now is just to keep playing. If you can’t find a main training camp invite, maybe you need to swallow your pride and look into some free agent opportunities. There are camps all over the United States hosted by lots of different teams and although it’s a longshot to come out of those camps and sign contracts, it’s not by any stretch of the imagination, impossible. (See: Lucas Schramm, Knoxville Ice Bears 2013. Attended my FA camp last year, which was his 3rd FA camp of the summer and caught some eyes. Enough to sign a contract and play the entire season with us before a shoulder injury ended his year prematurely.) Making yourself visible, getting on the ice in front of pro hockey staffs and getting face to face to establish a relationship with them is crucial for you. Trust me, it’s a lot easier in December if I’m looking for a player to come in and fill some holes if I have seen you play and know exactly what you bring rather than staring at a resume and trying to decide where you fit in mid-season.
Finding a job as a rookie or even a returning player in professional hockey is an absolute gongshow for lack of a better term right now. No one will argue that and everyone understands the disheartening feeling of not knowing where you are going to play……… but professional hockey is a lifestyle and an experience worth the energy and emotion you’ll put into overcoming these challenges and I think if you ask around to anyone who has done it themselves, they’ll tell you the same thing.
See you around the rink.