CLEVELAND – As the puck drops on the American League season Friday night, Edmonton Oilers prospect Taylor Fedun and about 100 other players will get their first real taste of professional hockey. And with close to another 100 NHL lockout refugees, it promises to represent a baptism by fire.
“It’s almost like the AHL on steroids,” said Fedun, a 24-year-old defenseman for the Oklahoma City Barons who spent last season on the injured list. “Well, not really on steroids. You know what I mean.”
For Fedun and the other members of the rookie AHL cohort, the start of the AHL season represents their real introduction to hockey manhood. Ask any scout or GM and he’ll tell you that the biggest adjustment in a player’s career is going from junior, college or European hockey to the AHL. And for rookies this year, the adjustment will be all that more drastic considering the talent level in the league this season will be phenomenal.
It’s in the AHL where a player really begins to learn what it takes to be a professional, largely because he’s playing against one of two types of players. The first are the prospects, players on their way up the hockey food chain who are eager to do what it takes to make the step to the best league in the world. The other is the veteran, such as Barons 34-year-old captain Josh Green, for whom the game is a way of life and their primary source of income.
Players who come in off dazzling careers at lower levels often find the adjustment a bigger one than anticipated. And, more importantly, for the first time in their careers, nobody is holding their hands and telling them how wonderful they are. Lake Erie Monsters coach Dean Chynoweth, who played 241 games in the NHL and another 229 in the minor leagues, marvels at how similar players are now to when he played. On the ice is one adjustment they make. But for the most part, many of them combine that with the fact that they’re clueless about the realities of day-to-day living as working adult.
“The questions you get asked are incredible,” Chynoweth said. “Things like, ‘Well, what do I do with my (pay)check?’ ‘Well you go open a bank account.’ ‘Well, how do I do that? What bank?’ We’re dealing with apartments right now and we get a lot of calls from the property managers saying, ‘Can you help us out? He doesn’t understand you have to pay first month, last month and a security deposit.’ And you can see why. When you were in college and junior, for four years you were told where to go, when to be there, what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat it, and how you’re going to have a nap.”
Barons GM Bill Scott said it took players such as Tyler Pitlick and Curtis Hamilton about half last season to adjust to the level of play. After all, the AHL is the premier development league in the world, with roughly 80 percent of the players in the NHL having played in it at some point during their careers.
For players such as Lake Erie’s Michael Sgarbossa, who won the Ontario League scoring championship with the Sudbury Wolves with 102 points last season, it will be an interesting learning curve. He doesn’t expect to be as productive as he was in junior. In fact, like many players who play in the AHL, he may eventually put up even better numbers as an NHL player than he did in the minors.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what the speed of the game will be like and will I be able to keep up with it,” Sgarbossa said. “I’ll be thinking about things I need to learn and what I can get away with.”
It’s almost like a high school kid going off to college. He goes from an environment where he was the smartest kid in his class to one where most of his classmates were also the smartest kids in the class.
“In so many instances, in junior hockey, you’re the big dog, you’re the top guy and guys were men amongst boys,” Chynoweth said. “They could play the pace they wanted and dictate the pace and then you get into this and you can’t in a lot of ways.”
Brayden McNabb received a one-game suspension for his vicious elbow to the head of Joey Hishon in the 2011 Memorial Cup. Almost 18 months later, the victim is still serving his sentence, unable to play and not know when or if he’ll ever play again.
The Lake Erie Monsters have placed Hishon on their roster, but after missing a full season with post-concussion syndrome, he isn’t even well enough to skate or practice with the AHL team without contact and did not take part in training camp. He continues to rehabilitate at his home in Stratford, Ont., but nobody with the parent club Colorado Avalanche knows when, or if, he’ll make his debut at the pro level.
“He has felt better and he has skated,” Chynoweth said. “Much of what they’re doing now is neck-related.”
When asked whether the Avalanche are confident he will eventually come back to play at some point, Chynoweth said, “I haven’t had that conversation with them.”
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.