Frank Littlejohn was most recently a Beast. Truth is, he’s been many beastly incarnations since he began his pro hockey career 16 years ago. He’s been a Glaciercat, an IceHawk, a Falcon, a River Rat, a River Otter, a Mallard, a Jackal and an IceGator. And that doesn’t cover half the teams he’s played for over the course of his hockey travels. He’s ranked as high as General, a Baron and a Privateer, but he’s also been a Lumberjack. He’s been a Nailer and a Checker, literally and figuratively. He’s even covered off the winter weather conditions as a Chill, a Blizzard and a Frostbite. This issue of The Hockey News is known as our Rookie Issue, which showcases the players you’ll be seeing starring in the best league in the world for years to come. But for every
Aaron Ekblad and
Filip Forsberg, there are guys like Frank Littlejohn, who at 37 waits for the phone to ring with a minor league coach or GM on the other end, wondering whether he might be able to suit up and continue chasing the dream.
Littlejohn has played for 22 minor pro teams in eight leagues since he started drawing a paycheck from the game in 1998-99. But he knew what he was getting into, having played for five Jr. A teams in Ontario in five seasons before embarking on a hockey career. The longest he’s been in one place is four seasons when he played for the Adirondack IceHawks of the defunct United League. His shortest tenure has been one game, mostly with AHL teams for a couple all-too-brief call-ups.
His most recent stint was seven games this season with the Brampton Beast of the ECHL. It all started last year when he got a call from the St. Charles Chill of the (also) defunct Central League, asking him to fill in for a few games while the team was playing in Brampton. He hadn’t played pro hockey for a year, and even then his last stint was in the Federal League. Yes, there used to actually be a Federal League. Littlejohn had always wanted to hit the 700-game mark, so he decided to play, and that led to Brampton offering him a contract down the stretch and into the playoffs.
So Littlejohn worked out this past summer, hoping to resume his career with Brampton. But then the Central League folded and the Beast was absorbed by the ECHL, a younger, more competitive league that limits the number of veterans each team can have. But in December, the Beast ran into injury trouble and asked Littlejohn to come back to play three games in three nights. It turned into just two in two nights when Wheeling’s bus broke down on the way to Brampton and the Nailers couldn’t make the game. “As soon as I heard that Sunday morning, I said, ‘My body’s pretty sore from the first two games. I’m glad their bus broke down.’ ” Littlejohn said, who’s suited up five times since, but is no longer on the Beast’s active roster. The great thing about Littlejohn is his story is not one of failure, even though he never came close to playing in the NHL. It is, in fact, one of triumph. He’s 37 with four young kids and works as a part-time firefighter in eastern Ontario. He plays in a pretty good firefighters league these days, on account of so many good hockey players go on to become smoke eaters. He may never play a pro game again, but he’ll continue to wait for that call and if it comes, he’ll answer it without hesitating. The stint with Brampton allowed him to score his 500th career point last season to go along with 2,381 penalty minutes and more fights than he can remember. He spends time running hockey schools and coaching his son, who plays atom AAA hockey and is just beginning his own journey in the game. How can someone who has played that many years in that many places with so much passion for the game be considered anything but a success? “I always hoped to stick in the AHL so that maybe I could get that shot (at the NHL),” Littlejohn said. “It didn’t pan out for me. I would have loved it and I would have taken it by the horns for sure, but I can’t look back and say, ‘Geez, what did I do wrong?’ At whatever level I was at, I just loved it. Just loved it.” So Frank Littlejohn will continue to wait for a phone call that may never come again. If it doesn’t, he’ll most miss the guys in the room and on the bus, the same things Hall of Famers and fourth-line pluggers long for when the game is over. His paycheque is much smaller, and his hockey lifeline has been a lot more circuitous, but in reality, Frank Littlejohn isn’t that much different than Aaron Ekblad or Filip Forsberg, after all.
This feature appears in the Feb. 16 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.