When “For Love of the Game” Meets Money, Responsibility, & The Real World.
[This ran on Justin Bourne’s “Bourne’s Blog” on March 10/2011. Bourne’s pretty much killin’ it in the blogger/sportswriter world. You’re advised to visit his blog frequently and follow him on Twitter if you don’t want to get left behind!]
The three-quarter point of the NHL season gets a lot more interesting as the playoff push begins; teams like Detroit jockey for seeding, and teams like Toronto try to shut everyone up that has been riding them since the collapse of their season opening 6-game winning streak and early playoff aspirations. It’s also interesting because college and university teams’ have either had their own playoff hopes dashed by not qualifying or an early exit, and now suddenly have some notable talent available to these pro teams for booking, if they are on their radar.
On March 8, The Edmonton Oilers picked up Taylor Fedun from Princeton, and The Philadelphia Flyers signed Harry Zolnierczyk from Brown. On March 11, the Ottawa Senators signed Mark Borowiecki from Clarkson University, and Derek Grant from Michigan State. All four are slated to report to the respective teams’ AHL affiliates initially, but what will be interesting to see is if they can handle what they’re in for; when their cushy college hockey life of games on the weekends and no fear of trades and cuts meets the professional game of hockey in the heat of the playoff battle, travelling nearly everyday, and nightly fighting for the right to have their name scribbled on the scoresheet and to be let out the gate to play, ahead of guys who have been there all year prior. And right after they (assumably/hopefully) finished playing their hearts out for their alma mater.
When I signed my contract and flew to France to play pro in the fall of 2006, it wasn’t immediately after the school year, but the transition was the same – I was a decent college player jumping it up a notch in level of play, and I naively thought the transition would be seamless. I wasn’t as easy as I thought it was.
What I eventually stumbled upon understanding was the notion of the “business of sports”, and how that concept differs from the amateur game, and how it applies to the pro-level player. It essentially means that your primary purpose as a player is no longer to just love the game, play with passion, and to do anything for the team (though those things are still encouraged); it is now for you to simply make that team money, bottom line. The sideshow-attraction factor is heightened as an imported player arriving from a foreign country (and doubled if you’re from a nation like Canada that is expected to produce only Wayne Gretzky clones); your notoriety, reputation, talent, and ability sell tickets, attract sponsors and advertisers, and essentially keep the machine running and the arena ice cold. That is, as long as you live up to your billing. If you can’t, you’re now an expendible product of little value that an owner won’t think twice about cutting ties with (He’s a great guy, but… ). So dance, monkey, dance. Or they’ll find another monkey that will.
It’s a lot easier if you’re a player that’s getting a paycheque with 6 zeros after the first number and you’ve been sought after by teams since your tweens , but for the guys like myself who had to prove themselves at every turn and are only getting by at this stage, your rationale for playing the game starts to change. Suddenly, the sport you loved more than anything else your whole life becomes a job; something you’ve hated all your life and fought tooth and nail never to have to get a real one of. You see older players with families that are playing to put food on the table and a roof over their heads; often taking deals from richer teams in lower-level leagues because they can afford to pay them more. Suddenly, the notion of making it to the top in hockey becomes hazy as to what that even means anymore. Is it better to make it to the highest division, or to make more money? Do I love this game enough to be away from my family and friends, live in a shoebox apartment, work part time at an unrelated job to make ends meet if I need to, and get screwed out of things that were clearly agreed upon in my contract, or by my agent who’s supposed to be working for me? How long can I afford to carry on with this kind of lifestyle without earning that elusive million-dollar deal? When I shipped out, I had just got engaged, and had to make midnight phone-booth calls from my apartment block street corner every night. That got old pretty quick.
Suddenly the fear of being cut or traded that former college players could afford to forget about for up to 5 years in a row kicks back in, and the realization of what not being in the line-up one night, or even worse, being sent home altogether, will mean to your income and the continuation of your career in the game becomes pretty obvious. It’s easy to let comparative thoughts of how you’re being pimped, and having your passion exploited to make someone else money creep into your mind; but the less you allow that to happen the better, for the sake of your quality of play (aka your meal-ticket) and your own sanity. If Taylor or Harry were taking business at Brown or Princeton, I doubt that any of this subject matter was included in their curriculum. While my pro experience comes from the European version of the game, there’s plenty of similarity in the North American minor-pro leagues that compare, as I’m sure guys who paid their way to camp, and are making a few hundred bucks a week, while sharing an apartment with four guys, for a chance to “get in the system” will attest to.
Some guys like Calgary’s Curtis Glencross make the transition well; after being Justin Bourne’s teammate at UAA in 2003-04 in NCAA D1, he caught on in Anaheim’s system with Cinncinnati in the AHL for the remainder of that season, hacked it out, played his first NHL games by 2006-07 with Anaheim, and has now blossomed into the 75+ games/40+ points a season player you see in Calgary today. My college teammate Matt Bothwell, was a phenom in our league (ACAC) and has the most ridiculous hands (stickhandling skills, that is) I’ve ever seen, played a combined 17 games over 3 separate seasons in the ECHL, CHL, and SPHL and scored only 5 points; finally found his way in Sweden, playing 20+ games a year (that’s a full season over there), and scoring 40+ points a season twice. Some other guys I know who were awesome players weren’t fortunate enough to find that second chance and have sadly been relegated to the dream-busting local beer leagues after brief stints in the minors; which, if you knew them, how talented they are and what quality of people they are, is almost tragic.
So what’s the difference between all the aforementioned players and their scenarios, besides a fair amount of skill separation? I suggest that players like Glencross “get”, or at least figured out, what it means to be a pro, and everything that term encompasses (see: PK Subban’s ongoing lesson). The guys that make it are obviously talented and have worked hard to get where they are, but they’re also able to block out all the BS and distractions of being a pro, go out on the ice night after night, city after city, perform, and sell the product of themselves and hockey to the audience of fans, advertisers, sponsors, and anyone else that believes being entertained by hockey is worth paying money for. I don’t think every “good” player is capable of doing these things, though many are. I’m interested to see what fate is in store for Fedun, Zolnierczyk , and any others that make the college-to-pro jump this season. At least they have first-rate educations to fall back on if things don’t ultimately pan out.
[btw, here’s the preliminary contract terms for Taylor Fedun with the Oilers: http://bit.ly/gbTwOO ….. shy of $70,000 in the AHL and then $740,000 – $825,000 if he can prove he’s worth “show-dough”. The “is it worth it?” question gets a lot easier to answer yes to when that kind of money is an actual possibility]