By Mike Vernace
So you want to be an NHL player? Great choice. I always did.
To be honest, I don’t think that feeling ever goes away.
But… so do approximately half a million other kids in Canada. With only 660 jobs up for grabs each season in the NHL – 22 spots on 30 teams – those are tough odds. If you then add in the rest of the entire world’s hockey-playing population, you really start to see how difficult it is to make it.
I saw it quoted recently that 7,400 people have ever played in an NHL game. If we take the number of kids in the GTHL alone (40,000 roughly), that would only represent around 18% of the kids currently playing in the GTHL this season. Let alone all the Toronto kids that have ever laced up the skates with the same goal.
Somehow, I made it – for 22 games anyway. And I’m extremely grateful for that opportunity.
I learned that you don’t have to worry about those numbers and the long odds. I didn’t. My only focus in minor hockey was to be the best player I could be and to help our team win games. There weren’t all of the tools around back then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I was still in minor hockey, that exist today. The landscape of the game has changed dramatically.
I was a defenseman, but I loved to score, and get assists. Winning, though, felt like everything at the time. [easy-tweet tweet=”The best part of minor hockey is the genuine love of the game that every player has.” user=”shiftdhockey” hashtags=”jointherush”] Every game was its own NHL experience. Or at least it was when we played. For many of us, that was enough. Enough to motivate us to finish our homework so we could get to practice. Enough to help us go to a game while battling the flu.
That’s the spirit of hockey that I missed once it became more serious. But, it comes back if you give it enough time to.
For every player that only aspires to play hockey for the love of it, there are those that really want to make it. They will do whatever they need to do to give themselves their best chance to make it. Or their parents will. People talk about the politics of minor hockey, and how there are some who go to extreme lengths to help their kids make it. That’s the way the landscape has evolved, and parents are just trying to do what they think is right.
For sure there are those who get carried away. We all know those parents. But for the most part, hockey parents sacrifice so much to help their son or daughter have a chance to make it. If that means spending more than $10,000 in one season on hockey-related things, then that’s what they feel they need to do. But the kids, the players, are the ones who ultimately decide. Not the parents. It’s up to every individual to make that choice to either be committed to doing what they need to do or to just enjoy the pleasure of playing a great sport. Being in between is where kids and parents get disconnected. But to make it further than minor hockey, you need to have great determination, and good guidance. This is almost always paired with a very good mentor who can help them along the way. If I look back at my minor hockey days, there are two of us still playing from my Bantam AAA team. We both had people who helped guide us in the right direction.
That guidance for me came from my dad. He was, and still is, quiet and reserved. But make no mistake, he was always listening. He always told me it was better for me to play more to develop, than to rush through to get to AAA and just be another player, even with multiple offers to move up year after year. And so, I played AA for the Toronto Aeros and Humberview Huskies until my Bantam year, when I moved up to AAA with the Mississauga Reps. Having done this, I think a few things worked to my advantage: I developed and played a lot, I dominated, I played with my best friends, I learned the sacrifice it took to win and what it was like to lose, and mostly I learned how to deal with the pressure of being the go-to guy at a young age. When I moved up, the transition was smooth. I became the go-to guy and I was already used to that feeling. It allowed me to play my best more consistently. It also allowed me to get noticed by the scouts in my only year of AAA before the OHL draft. Which, I know, was what my dad had in mind for a long time. That guidance my dad provided me with is the foundation for who I am as a hockey player. I am able to work my way through stressful times because I’ve been through them already. Playing AA, even though I was dominant, you’re never quite sure how you’ll be when or if you get a chance to move up. You never know how you are going to make it, but you just believe anyways. Thankfully, my dad had that plan. I just needed to do the work.
Then comes the first real test. And it may be the biggest of them all. How bad do you want it? Will you sacrifice Friday and Saturday night social events in the prime high school years to dedicate yourself to the process? This is a difficult decision to make when you are 15-18 years old. And the competition between each other gets intense. Just seeing your peers have some success while you sit back and don’t have that opportunity, especially as a teenager, it ignites a fire within you. Or, it quickly blows out the candle.
[easy-tweet tweet=”Will you sacrifice Friday & Saturday night socials to dedicate yourself to the process?” user=”shiftdhockey” hashtags=”jointherush”]
For me, that summer was pivotal. I had to make a good impression at training camp and earn a spot in junior A that following August, so I knew I had to make the choice: Am I in, or in the way? Was I willing to sacrifice for the opportunity to make it to the NHL? So, one night at about 2am, I put my headphones in, turned on my iPod and I pushed shuffle. I took the time to see where my thoughts and feelings would lead me. I’ll never forget when that one song came on. “Somewhere I Belong” – by Linkin Park. I felt the rush of adrenaline course through my body like it never had before. My thoughts became crystal clear, and my focus was total: I wanted it. I was in. I did what felt like 1000 push-ups and started to give myself some motivational self-talk. The wheels were in motion and I was driving the bus. The next night, I began what became a nightly ritual with my brother. We would wait until the evening, and then we would run. It began with one lap around the block. Then 2. Before we knew it, we were lining up at the end of the street for multiple sets of the 100m. We wouldn’t get tired. Each sprint would just unlock more adrenalin. We did this every night. It just felt like this was something I should be doing.
The next phase was the very important Major Junior versus NCAA decision. It is something that can influence your career. I decided to play junior hockey after receiving a couple of offers and speaking to a few schools because I believed it was the better choice for me, at the time. The coach in Brampton, Stan Butler, is very good about being honest and upfront with players and parents regarding their chances to play on the team. If he believed it was better for the player to not play any games because he was unsure if they would stick around, he would advise the families. Because of this, I began my 17-year-old season playing with their affiliate team. There, I could develop as a player, but could also pursue NCAA options. That season, I received some offers and spoke to a few schools, but I picked up an injury in November that sidelined me until February. When I was ready to come back, Brampton called and said they’d like me to practice with their team. I agreed, and two weeks later I made my debut. I still agree with my choice today. I had the chance to play for a good coach in Brampton, and I could live at home while doing so. In my eyes, it was an easy choice. My number one goal was the make it to the NHL. But for many players now, the choice is not so clear. There are many more questions than answers. For example, the rules surrounding eligibility, which make it even more complicated. But, getting a University education is an invaluable thing to have. Having to make that decision at that age can be a daunting task. Asking for help and having a good mentor is almost a must at this time. This is where my new agent came into the picture. Anton, Paul and his staff with AKT Sports (now M5 Sports) helped me navigate my way, and were crucial to the whole process. Without them, who knows if I would get the opportunity to play pro.
And even if you’re not considering one route or the other, you still need to be informed about the decision that you make. For my brother, who went the NCAA route, he may have a different opinion on it. Sure you can play in the pros a lot sooner if you go to junior, but you might also be done hockey sooner, too. And maybe you can have an extra four years to develop at school, but what if the coach that recruits you gets released and you are playing for someone new? The answer is only to make your choice and make the best of it. The work you put into each scenario will allow you to make it or not. There is a right choice. And it’s whatever you decide. The only bad choice is not making a choice. Luckily for me, there’s always someone watching, and I ended up getting drafted by San Jose in the 7th round in June of 2004.
Ever wonder what it’s like to be told you’re not good enough? I’m sure we all know that feeling. Ever wonder what it’s like to hear that you’re great? Probably a few less hands up, but still most everyone has had that. But I bet there will be much less response if I asked if anyone has felt both of these emotions in the span of one week. Maybe even a few days. One minute you’re attending an NHL training camp, with the possibility of making the team. Four days later, after fitness testing, conditioning, practices, scrimmages, meals, interviews, meetings, etc., you learn that you’ve been sent down. “Really? I just got here.” That’s most likely what is being thought. Or the ever popular “I don’t think they are right about sending me back.” Truthfully, the player is not always wrong for thinking that. Sometimes GMs need to make tough decisions, and you are one of them. But hey, at least you got the per diem.
Quick story: My second training camp in 2005, I was 19 years old, I played in the rookie tournament and then the first four days of regular camp. It was my first real NHL camp because the year before was the lockout. I was among the first cuts at camp. I was surprised only because I didn’t know how it all worked. But I left my meeting with Doug Wilson, San Jose’s GM, by telling him I’d be back next year looking for a spot. Bold for a 7th round, 19 year old, with one year of OHL experience. That season, I finished 2nd in defenseman scoring, and was a third team all-star in the OHL. The next year, I was traded to Colorado and signed my first contract, 3-year entry level. I know that I wouldn’t have made the team that season, but it allowed me to realize the power of positive thinking. And how to act in accordance with your thoughts. But most importantly, it gave me confidence. It has been my mindset ever since.
Now, to make it to pro is a lot different than having a lengthy career in pro. I feel as if it’s a different mentality. Growing up, I really had envisioned myself playing in the NHL, and I truly felt as if it were already a foregone conclusion that I would one day play there. What they don’t tell you is that, not only do you have to be the best in the world to make it there, but you had to do it consistently, day after day, year after year, to stick around. And that was if you were one of the lucky ones to even get that opportunity. I know plenty of players that I have either played with or against that I know for sure could play in the top league in the world, but haven’t yet, or won’t. It’s simply because their opportunity has not come yet. And for many, the opportunity might not at the NHL level. Maybe their opportunity is in the AHL where they can lead the team to a Calder Cup victory. Maybe their opportunity is overseas in Europe. Maybe it’s in coaching. Who knows. The point I’m trying to make is that our perspective is what creates our opportunity. Someone once told me that an attitude of gratitude brings opportunity. And if any situation is something you can learn from, then opportunity is everywhere.
If I had seen this sooner, would my mentality have changed? Probably not. I always wanted to be the best. But my perspective surely would have. For instance, my first seven years of pro were spent in North America. I was so focussed on making it, that the thought of going to Europe was frightening because I thought it meant the end of a dream. What I failed to see was the unbelievable life experiences it has given me. And not only is it not the end of a dream, but it really is the discovery of something else, which I’m truly grateful for. This is what I mean when I refer to mentality. If we choose to be hockey players – everything is an option. If we choose to be NHL players, then we must find our niche and outperform or out-work everyone else. And the special ingredient for sustainability? Perseverance.
Many times in my own personal career, the contracts I’ve been lucky enough to sign were for two main reasons: I warranted it with my play, and secondly I worked harder for just a bit longer than the next guy who may have just missed out on it. I believe that truthfully. And to be able to do that, your support system needs to be very strong. Luckily for me, I believe I have an A++ support system. Sometimes, even when I couldn’t believe in myself, they willed me to do so. I cannot thank them enough. All of them. If you need to find the most important thing on a list of what it takes to have a long pro career, this is at the top.
[easy-tweet tweet=”Sometimes, even when I couldn’t believe in myself, they willed me to do so” user=”shiftdhockey” hashtags=”familysupport”]
You’ll notice that much of what I have to say isn’t about the actual experience of playing in the NHL. While I don’t have a ton of that experience, I do have the taste of it. Small cup of coffee I’d say. The point I’m trying to make is that for me, what started out as a dream, became a goal, became reality, and then a memory. But the journey has been what I’ve loved most. I really enjoyed the chase. I loved being in that underdog role. Maybe this mentality can be attributed to why I didn’t stick longer. I was never the one who thought I was the best. I always believed I could be, but it was subconsciously unattainable. It’s what allowed me to stay motivated. Possibly what kept me from sticking longer. But that’s a matter of opinion. My opinion is that I’m happy with how it’s been. And I’m happy to continue to try and be the best. No matter what league.
I’ve played on many teams, in many leagues, and in many countries, and the most important thing to me is that I’ve had fun in pursuit of my goal. The joy of playing hockey remains as it did when I was a kid growing up in the hockey hotbed of Toronto. Having just finished my 11th season of professional hockey, I look back at my time along the way and think that it was both easier and harder to make it to the pros because I am from Toronto. The people I’ve met along the way have certainly had influence. But, having the opportunity to play against the best competition night after night as a kid is something I am grateful for because it allowed me to develop. My goal is to never stop developing. Thankfully, I can still do that. I really could not have imagined what hockey has brought me in terms of life experience and happiness. My wife and I are going to have some great stories to tell our kids someday. Until then, we’ll continue adding Starbucks mugs from around the world to our collection.
[easy-tweet tweet=”If we choose to be NHL players, then we must find our niche and outperform or out-work everyone else. And the special ingredient for sustainability? Perseverance.” user=”shiftdhockey” hashtags=”#jointherush”]