Photo: Peter Holgersson
Success can be defined in a million different ways. It’s something we all desire, but there is no one way to measure it. To me, it’s all a feeling of satisfaction in what you are doing. Plain and simple. Are you happy doing what you are doing? If yes, welcome to success.
Shortly after Ian asked me to put together a few words on my move overseas, I stumbled upon an article written by former New Jersey Devils forward and long time AHLer Brad Mills. The article is called “The Bubble,” and it really got me thinking about the various directions we all end up taking to get to our final destinations as hockey players. I call it “the other side.”
Although I hate to think about the R-word, retirement is always just an eye injury away. The threat of being forced into the real world is at the tip of an opponent’s errant stick. In the article, Mills talks about his life on the proverbial NHL “bubble” where players take up residence when they are on the cusp of making it to the NHL full- time, or being a career minor leaguer. The term “yo-yo” is often used for players who spend year after year going up, then coming down, then going up, then coming down…get it? It’s often viewed as a negative thing, the bubble, but I happily lived there for the majority of my first 6-7 years as a pro. To me the bubble was a privileged place where somebody in a front office somewhere thought I was good enough to play in the NHL. And better yet, they felt that way frequently enough to call be back again and again and again. Sure, there were some tough days when I got sent down, and as a competitor you always want more, but I truly believed every time that I would go back up to the NHL one day. That made all my send downs a little easier. Looking back on those days now, do my mere 55 games played make my NHL career a failure?
(Side story: my last year with Hershey/Washington I played only 9 NHL games but was sent down four times. NHL opening day, my birthday, Christmas Eve, and two days before the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh. You can’t make this stuff up.)
My minor league career was kind of charmed. Maybe things were different for other guys. I have been fortunate to play (with the odd exception) in cities I liked, in beautiful arenas, in front of great crowds, for teams with winning records. If you are being sent from an NHL paradise to a last place American league team, things may have been a little more upsetting, but with the situations I found myself in, through the sadness I was excited to go back to a group of guys I liked with a much bigger roll on the team waiting for me. Life could have been a whole lot worse, let me tell you.
But, after eight years of working and striving to achieve hockey supremacy, it became time for me to look in a new direction: Europe. Although I had only been there once for a short stay (see my previous post), I had long been a fan of European hockey and had a fairly good grasp on what was ahead of me well before I ever signed a contract. As a kid I loved researching players online, and seeing as some of my favorite players were European I was intrigued to learn more about these goofy club names that I would see on hockeydb.com. Learning that there was another world of hockey available to me outside of the NHL coverage I would see on TSN was great fun! TPS Turku, MODO Hockey, SC Bern, Moscow Dynamo. To a 14-year-old hockey nut, those were teams I wanted to know more about.
As I got older and turned pro, I was seeing teammates come from overseas to join us, and players leave from the AHL/NHL to play abroad, which brought me even closer to the European hockey scene. I was now able to see who fit in where, what kinds of players were producing and playing well in various countries, thus allowing me to draw conclusions on where I might fit in if I were to ever cross the pond. Each country/league here in Europe has a unique way of playing the game, and some players can have great numbers in one league only to struggle in another. I found that strange until I saw it firsthand. A certain player’s style and that of the chosen league don’t always mesh. That’s part of what makes coming overseas a hard decision for a lot of guys. Will I fit in? What if I cant play the way I know how? If I get released what am I going to do? Scary questions when deciding if you are going to leave your comfort zone.
In the AHL I knew exactly what to expect every night. Some nights felt like deja vu. But it was the fear of the unknown that pushed me through the door of that plane headed for Linköping. I was ready for the unknown. I was ready to feel uncomfortable. I was ready for something, Anything new. I’ll repeat myself: I loved my time in the AHL, which is why I stuck around for so long. The hockey and the people were great to me everywhere I went, but I was growing tired of the same hotels and the same arenas in the same cities with the same routines. There was another world out there; I just had to choose to explore it.
One of the best people I have ever met in hockey, Brian Willsie, told me something along the lines of this: Don’t go to Europe until you are completely ready. Don’t go for money, or because you had a bad season, or for any other reason except the fact that you are ready to leave the NHL behind. If you do, you will live with the what if’s that will keep you up at night. When the moment hits and you are ready, the experience will be ten times more exciting and you can look back on your career with no regrets.
I had that moment. I remember it vividly. I was playing for Lehigh Valley and we were on the road in Manchester early in the season. I woke up in the hotel on game day and as I walked into the restaurant to have the same meal I had a thousand times before, I remember thinking “this is what Brian was talking about. I’m there. I’m ready.” The allure of maybe getting called up for three more games no longer outweighed the advantages of going overseas and grabbing a new life experience by the horns. It was an epiphany. I was completely sure I was ready for a change. Within an hour, I had my agent on the phone: “Spread the word…I’m looking to relocate.”
Playing overseas has a lot of upside. From a financial standpoint it usually works out in the player’s favor compared to the American League. Here, contracts are negotiated in net figures, so if a team feels you are worth $70,000 U.S dollars, you get $70,000 US dollars free and clear. On top of that you have a lot of living expenses covered for you. When you show up you are handed the keys to your apartment, the keys to your car, and in my case a cell phone plan that is all paid by the team. Back home, that’s at least a couple thousand dollars out of your pocket. So not only are you making a little more, but you are spending a lot less over the nine months you are away, and that can add up if you are smart about it.
From an athletic perspective it’s a new game here. First of all, we play only a 52 game schedule with no back-to-back games, making things easier on the body. The season is a long haul in North America, and when you are playing three games in three nights almost every weekend, you are simply unable to put forward your best effort every night. A lot of Sunday afternoon games are more about survival than playing your best. The human body needs rest to compete at the highest level, and we get that here. Playing two-three games a week creates a better on-ice product and healthier bodies. I’m hoping to play until I’m 40 now that I made the switch.
The game itself is also different. It’s a pure puck-control game, and it has been an interesting challenge for our coaching staff to teach me to take things slowly out there. AHL/NHL hockey is played on smaller rinks so everything happens faster, and there are times when chipping the puck off the glass is all you can do. Here, that would be a last resort. Our d-men are taught to hold it, hold it, hold it, turn back, make an extra pass take the forechecker on 1-on-1…anything to not lose possession.
I look at a d-man like Johnny Oduya (Caps draft pick in 2001), and I see a skilled two-way player with an incredible career who seems to get crushed every game. Why? Because he was taught to hold the puck and make a good play, not just a safe play. Sometimes that means drawing a forechecker in so close that you find out what his elbow pad tastes like. But that’s hockey in Sweden. I find it a more fun brand of hockey because it is strategic, skilled, and there are fewer guys trying to take your head off. Every North American team has a guy trying to be the next Zac Rinaldo. If you are head-hunting in Europe, you will get caught out of position and the puck will land in the back of your net. Skill trumps physical play here.
Since I made the move, people asked me how it feels to “give up on the NHL” and “give up on my dreams.” To both questions, I say it feels great.
I don’t see my first eight seasons as a failure. I lived my dream. I played with and against the greatest players of my generation. I lived those days the best way I knew how. I may not have played 1000 NHL games, but I can look back and be proud –like Brian Willsie said I would.
I am not sad to see the NHL in my rearview; I am thrilled about whats ahead of me. Since moving here I have played in four countries and traveled to even more on my off days. I am seeing the world meeting new people. It’s only been three months, but I’m living a life I couldn’t have dreamed as a kid.
I believe success is in the eye of the individual. When I think about my career as an old man, I won’t think about all the things I didn’t accomplish. I’ll remember the things this game gave me and the little triumphs that came with each step on my path. When I left home at sixteen, I didn’t come running back to my parents with my tail between my legs. I might not have been an NHL All-Star, but I tried hard and had a few “cups of coffee.” That is a small success.
Being here in Sweden is not a mark of failure. Hockey here is thrilling, and I’m enjoying it more than I have since I was 24. That’s another small success. By enjoying myself at every stop on my tour (12 cities/teams and counting since leaving home in 2002), I’m living a life I can be proud of. It has nothing to do with how many NHL games I played or how many dollars are in my bank account. It’s about enjoying the ride. Being a professional athlete is and has always been about the journey, not the destination, and perhaps it took a move like this for me to realize that it’s the little things that go into making a career. My body of work will be with me forever, and I will be able to say I succeeded because, one day, I’ll leave this game as a happy man.
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be a success.” — Albert Schweitzer
Until next time folks, adjö!
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