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They’re on their way home now, returning from teams you’ve never seen play on television or likely even checked out in a set of standings.
Some of them may have grown up down the street from you, gone to the same schools or minor hockey programs.
All were still ‘living the dream,’ playing professional hockey even if it was deep in the minors in the ECHL, where the top players make about $1,000 a week and the minimum is $575, although accommodation is provided.
The other day, when the NHL was announcing the league was taking a ‘pause’ because of COVID-19, the big league players at least knew they’d be paid their entire season salaries, regardless.
The guys in the low minor leagues were all instantly out of work and headed home with no more pay cheques.
“Having called near 1,000 games in the ECHL, I have a tremendous affinity for all those guys,” said Jack Michaels, the Oilers announcer who spent 11 seasons in that league. Michaels became the broadcasting equivalent of Alex Burrows, Daniel Winnik, Jaroslav Halak and James Reimer and several goalies who made it to the NHL and have helped keep so many dreams alive.
“I think of them somewhat along the lines of those part-time arena staff members in all the NHL cities,” said Michaels.
And it’s not just the ECHL it’s the Southern Professional League below that and the Federal Prospects Hockey League below that.
“It’s tough for players in any of those leagues,” said Edmonton’s Olympic gold medal goaltender Shannon Szabados, who played three years in the SPHL. “The guys aren’t making millions of dollars and many of them have moved their lives and their wives and kids in some cases and that is their job. They rely on that income.
“It’s tough to see and I feel for them but obviously health and everyone’s safety is No. 1 so there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. It’s a helpless feeling.”
Three or four years ago, I took a road trip to visit Szabados playing pro for the Columbus Cottonmouths in the SPHL and found an inordinate number of Edmonton area players in the league. The SPHL is a level down from the ECHL, where players are lucky if they make $400 a week. They all said the same thing: It was pro hockey and they weren’t ready to give up the game yet.
“I’d guess there are about 100 or so from around here who have been playing in the ECHL, SPHL and FPHL,” said Szabados.
Added Michaels: “I think most of them continue to play because they are fighting off real life.
“They’re obviously not playing for the money, but at the same time it’s significant money to them. They’re losing the last month of their regular season and that’s up to $5,000 in some cases. But in the playoffs, you continue to get paid by the week plus there is playoff pool money that is significant.”
Michaels said during the time he was calling games for the Alaska Aces, he was quite cognizant of the number of players throughout the league who where from here.
“There were a lot of Edmonton connections. I remember Zack Boyer from Edmonton. He scored the Memorial Cup-winning goal for Kamloops. The goalie in my last year in Alaska was Scott Reid, who married Meaghan Mikkelson, of St. Albert, who won the gold medal with Team Canada at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. I remember because they gave Scott the weekend off so he could go to Vancouver to watch her win the gold.”
Mitch Moroz was the born-and-raised Edmonton player who scored the Memorial Cup-winning goal for the Edmonton Oil Kings in 2014. He was drafted in the second round, 32nd overall by the Edmonton Oilers and spent three seasons with the AHL farm clubs in Oklahoma City and Bakersfield. He spent his last three seasons on the roster of the Idaho Steelheads.
There’s an Edmonton-area player or two on half the teams in the league, including the likes of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Newfoundland Growlers, Wheeling Nailers and Worchester Railers.
Ben Carroll, of Sherwood Park, and Josh Atkinson, of Spruce Grove, are returning from the Allen Americans. Joel Messner, of Lorette, Man., is headed home from the Atlanta Gladiators. Jordan Henry of Milo, spent the season with the Brampton Beast. Mason Mitchell, of Edmonton, was with the Cincinnati Cyclones. Levko Koper and Cole MacDonald, of Wetaskiwin, played for the Florida Everglades.
Dylan MacPherson, of Red Cliff, was a Swamp Rabbit. Colby McAuley, of Sherwood Park, and Kenton Helgesen, of Grande Prairie, were Steelheads. Giorgio Estephan, of Edmonton, was a Growler. Darian Dziursynski, of Prince Albert, and David Dziurzynski, of Lloydminster, and Nick Schneider, of Leduc, are returning home from playing for the Kansas City Mavericks. And Christopher Garrie, of Red Deer, is headed back from the Wichita Thunder.
There’s an old expression in show business that you can’t eat your press clippings. I know this can’t compare to a pay cheque, but here, guys, at least, is a press clipping.
On Twitter: @ByTerryJones
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