So You Want To Be A Pro?
Posted by Dean Holden at November 1st, 2015
by Kevin Hartzell, 29 October 2015
I have been fortunate in my career. I have coached many great young people, many of whom have gone on to play professional hockey. While I have spent only one year as a coach at the pro level, my experience in the industry as a whole and the relationships with many of my former players have shaped my views of the industry.
Now make no mistake, if you make it to the NHL, the money is great and you are pampered as far as the experience goes. As much as the players are pampered, much is expected of them in return for their performance. It is big money with big expectations. There is nothing easy about it … but all of us would take the money that comes with it!
Fact is, however, that most players spend most of the professional time in the various “minor” leagues or in Europe. Most never make it to the NHL. There are a lot of funny things that go on in the minor leagues … enough funny things that you could make a number of interesting movies from the various experiences from various players, except the best movie has already been made – “Slap Shot.” The movie is a lot closer to the reality of minor pro hockey than it is to fiction.
The money at minor pro level is not great, certainly not when compared to the money paid to those achieving excellence in American industry and corporate life. Salaries range basically from $30,000 in the ECHL to $70,000 in the AHL. A call-up to the NHL will increase a basic salary tenfold. But the money for most is not the goal; the NHL is the goal. Playing the sport they love and getting paid for it, is the goal. But it is the life of a circus performer. Prepare, perform, recover and then on to the next town to do it again.
My son Eric was lucky. After an excellent college career, he signed a very nice free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was paid nicely. Funny thing, however, the three teams that were in his final group of possible teams to sign with all fired their GMs within a year of Eric’s signing, including Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh’s case, they fired their goalie coach as well. Things change fast in pro sports, which is one of the real problems with pro hockey. Because things change so rapidly, too many in the industry are looking only for today’s results with a lack of longer-term strategic thinking. That goes from GM to coaches.
My many ex-players see this lack of strategic thinking often. But it is the way of life in pro hockey. Players learn quickly to not concern themselves with such issues. Their job is simply prepare, perform, recover and be on the bus or the plane on time to get to the next town.
And while this is the way of things, many young professionals have a hard time adjusting to a system where most feel uncared about individually. That said, I have told many of my former players, using my football field goal kicker analogy, “If you make the kicks on Sunday, you’ll get more chances. If you start missing the kicks, the team is going to find a new kicker. It’s that simple and not personal, so get used to it!” And for the most part, life is no different in corporate America. Do your job well and keep your job. It’s a pretty simple formula.
The AHL is the top minor league and while the players are generally better than the players in the ECHL, it is more complicated than that. For example, there are many good forwards in the ECHL, but many of these players are simply projected not to be future NHLers, so without that investment made by an NHL team, these solid hockey players are relegated to the second minor league. Some players in the AHL are comparatively not even as good, but they have an NHL team that has made an investment – in the form of a draft pick or salary – and that player is going to get the extra chance.
Still, these concepts are hard for young players. A player may have a great game, a great week or more, only to find themselves a healthy scratch as the player with the investment was sent down to the minor league team and play that player’s very role. Sometimes you do your job well but the guy with the contract/investment is going to get the playing opportunity.
All this said, players generally end up where they should be. It is mostly not a glamorous life. It is hard but it does teach some really good life lessons. Prepare. Do your best. Analyze and learn from your performance and do it all over again. Don’t get too high or too low, just do your job well night after night. Maybe a great opportunity will arise, and maybe it won’t. But your only chance is being in the game and doing your job well.
Kevin Hartzell is the director of player development for the NA3HL’s Twin City Steel. A St. Paul native and forward for the University of Minnesota from 1978-82, Hartzell coached in the USHL from 1983-89 with the St. Paul Vulcans and from 2005-12 with the Sioux Falls Stampede. He was the head coach of Lillehammer in Norway’s GET-Ligaen from 2012-14. His columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey since the late 1980s. His new book “Leading From the Ice” is now available at amazon.com.