A buddy of mine, Chris, played in the ECHL several years back and I used to always hound him about what it was like to get paid to play hockey. Although he had a pretty cool lifestyle for a while, more often than not he will tell tales of bruised ribs, missing teeth and broken collar bones. Of course, I’ve never skated a mile in his Bauer’s, so I don’t really know what it’s like to be paid peanuts to get hit every night, and as he always says, “hockey is a young man’s game.”
In order to have a better understanding of what life was like in the minors, I asked him to open up about some of the financial decisions he faced as a player on the fringe.
As most people already know, salaries in the minors were all over the place. You have “bonus babies” like Hugh Jessiman, who Chris used to play against, who were on two-way NHL contracts. This meant that at the NHL level, a player would be making at least near the NHL minimum (around $400k per year), but in the minors they’d be making around $60-$70K, which isn’t a bad gig for a kid right out of college. More importantly, a player’s salary is guaranteed.
A lot of other players were on two-way contracts with the AHL. These guys would be making around $30-40k at the AHL level, but down in “the Coast” (ECHL), they were making around $15-20k per season.
Chris said he personally made around $15k per season in the ECHL, which of course was not guaranteed. He did receive free housing, gas money and food vouchers, but not having a guaranteed contract meant it could have all gone away on the drop of a dime. Luckily though, he did negotiate a “lifeline” of money towards school if he ever got injured. Overall, it didn’t sound like too bad a gig if you ask me. When I was 22 I was interning in the city for $25 a week and slinging pizzas on the side…hey I wasn’t always The Suit.
Anyway, after a couple of years in the Coast he said it was time to figure out if he was going to continue to play hockey for scraps or go out and get a real job. As he explained it, most guys knew if they didn’t move up to the AHL within their first two seasons, they probably never would. Even the few that did, it was still very rare for someone to make it to the NHL from the Coast (side note: Daniel Girardi did, respect!).
Once Chris came to terms with his NHL aspirations, he started looking at options across the pond. Most kids in his situation received offers to go to European teams after a couple of seasons in the ECHL. The good thing about teams in Europe was that a lot of countries didn’t tax their athletes.
The top circuit of course is the Kontinental Hockey League, but the only North Americans playing in Russia are former NHLers, not AHL/ECHL guys. The same applies for the Elitserien (the Swedish Elite League) and the Czech Extraliga. While those leagues can produce some of the best players in the world, they generally only have a few roster spots per team dedicated to non-domestic players.
Most of his offers came from Switzerland’s National League A or Germany’s Deutschland Eishockey League (the DEL). They had good salaries, free housing, free cars, free hockey equipment, free airline tickets and the culture was fairly compatible. These leagues also didn’t have the usual small cap on the amount of foreigners per team, so clubs weren’t forced to find the best domestic players available. As a result, both leagues consisted of a good amount of North Americans.
Specifically, his best offer was to play in Germany for around $30,000 in Euros, untaxed. This at the time translated to around $45,000 in US dollars, which equaled a little more than $75,000 per year before taxes; far better than playing in the ECHL. The crowds in Germany were also significantly bigger than the Coast, so in a sense it was almost like getting a slice of the dream. After half a season abroad he got injured and had to come back to the States to join the “real world” like everyone else.
I’ll ask him every now and then if he still misses life as a pro hockey player, especially after a hard day’s work in Corporate America. He’ll say that he doesn’t, that it’s hard to miss having to turn the heat down at night to save money, or to have to ice pointless bruises that don’t connect the dots to the NHL. He’ll say those things, but I know he still wishes to be part of the game.
I’ll see him sometimes at the rink and he’ll just be flying down the ice taking wrist shots I could only dream of executing. When no one’s looking, he’ll go through the motions and act like he scored a GWG, but there are no paychecks, autograph seekers or puck bunnies waiting for him after the game. Still, I’ll watch him and I know that the passion is still alive in him whether he wants to admit it or not. But as we’ve already learned, hockey is a young man’s game.