It’s playoffs again, one of my most and least favorite parts of the season. It’s my favorite part of Dave’s season (and I explained why here), but it’s my least favorite part of the NHL season. I love watching Dave’s games during playoffs for the heightened excitement, I really hate that the channel broadcasting the NHL playoffs seems to be the only station we are capable of receiving on our television. This girl has a hockey quota and by May it has been reached…and then exceeded.
As I watch the NHL’ers battle it out on-screen (Go Wings!) and live the day-to-day of Dave battling it out here (Go Americans!), something occurs to me. What would possess a human at any level to choose a job where they are continually skating full tilt into another human/the boards, losing teeth, getting stitches and nursing bone bruises? Besides the financial compensation, the only real answer can be a love of the game. And while I’m sure players in the NHL love hockey, I have a hard time seeing how they could ever love it as much as most guys who make their living and spend their professional career at the minor level. They simply don’t have to.
Whether you play in the minors or in ‘the show’, you probably have played the game of hockey for most of your life, as long as you can remember. You love the rush. The physicality. The camaraderie. The competition. It’s a difficult game, it can be a grueling schedule. Players at both levels play hurt, they battle for a spot in the line-up, they play their hearts out in the current season in hopes for a better contract the next season. At both levels you feel the thrill of winning, the agony of defeat, the flattery of adoring fans. At the heart of things, it probably isn’t so different no matter which league you call home.
But professional sports aren’t run by the hearts of the players, don’t let Hollywood fool you. Professional sports are a business, the players are employees, and money makes the world go round. If you make (at minimum) close to half a million dollars a year (with the super stars earning up to 10 million) as an employee of the NHL, versus a fraction of that at all subsequent lower levels, to some degree, your motivation is different. Even if you don’t realize, it just has to be, doesn’t it?
Money surely isn’t everything, but with an NHL salary it seems to me it would be a lot easier to make the decision to keep playing year after year. The off-season is a lot less stressful when you don’t have to worry about finding temporary summer work in order to pay the bills and preserve savings. An income like that could ease the pressure of finding and paying for housing in the summer months, and it probably doesn’t end up being your mother-in-law’s basement. The stresses that come along with playing at that level are certainly high, the pressure to perform, the anxiety over extending your contract and sometimes the heat of the spotlight on a national stage.
I don’t mean to downplay the difficulty at playing at either level or insinuate that a dollar sign cures all ills, because as Dave tells me, when you block a shot with your body it hurts just as much no matter what team you’re on. And I see his point.
But then I realize…
In a league like this, where the salary cap is much smaller, you may be battling to make the playoff roster for a team you’ve played hard for all season long as opposed to living with the security of a guaranteed NHL contract. If your per diem on road trips will only feed you for a full day if you make liberal use of Subway’s $5 footlong policy, you truly have to be dedicated to life as a minor-pro hockey player. Unlike in the NHL, in this league (even though we’re lucky to have a union and more security than the every-man-for-himself jungle of Euro hockey) your health insurance runs out 15 days after the last game of the season, and you never really know when that game will be. If you drive thousands of miles on a urine soaked bus with a tendency for flat tires or broken axles, you’d almost have to love the game more than someone who flies comfortably over the heartland in a private jet.
So to Dave and his teammates this year and all the seasons past, living the dream, paying the price, blocking the shots, making it work until it doesn’t anymore: well done. Play on, players.