Like all AHLers, Tommy Cross plays with the same teammates he’s in competition with for an NHL payday – and that can lead to some awkward moments
By Lauren Beaven Pro hockey is all about winning, but getting to the NHL and earning the riches that come with it requires a different type of competition – one in which teammates are also rivals. In minor-pro leagues, the teammates that players train with, travel with, win with and lose with are the same ones they compete with to achieve their NHL dreams. It’s a psychological conundrum all non-NHL players face but most acutely in the AHL.
Tommy Cross knows the dilemma well. In July, the Boston Bruins signed him to a one-year, two-way contract worth $600,000 in the NHL and $72,500 in the AHL. That’s $527,500 on the line for Cross. In training camp, he made it to the end of Week 2, before being assigned to the Providence Bruins.
“I knew it was coming this year,” Cross said. “There are a lot of good players, and (the Boston Bruins) have eight defensemen that are NHL defensemen, so I kind of knew where I fit in to start the year.”
Demotion isn’t necessarily a death sentence. Injuries in the NHL often prompt openings for AHLers, creating opportunities to move up. Similarly, NHL players who don’t prove their worth can quickly find themselves back in the minors. Transactions are never-ending. Still, it’s been seven years since Cross was drafted in the second round (35th overall) by the Bruins out of high school hockey in Connecticut, and he’s yet to play a game in the NHL. Now 25, he’s approaching the age at which many pros face a difficult decision: give up their big-league dreams for higher salaries overseas or stick it out in the AHL and continue to chase the NHL dream and significantly higher wages. Dr. Adam Naylor is a sports psychologist whose clients include previous Stanley Cup champions. He’s helped players navigate this tension between their NHL dream and monetary reality. “There are a lot of guys that hit the panic button too soon – the guys that run to Europe before they need to for the money,” Naylor said. “(One player) I worked with went over to Finland and he called me and he said, ‘This is the worst idea I ever had. I should’ve never moved for the money. I should have stayed in the American League for two or three more years. I would’ve had more NHL shots.’ ” Though rare, there are players who have been to Europe and back. Right winger
Bobby Robins, Cross’ Providence teammate, made his NHL debut in Boston at 32, with 13 pro seasons already under his belt, including three in Europe and three with Providence. Robins played three games for Boston in October, amassing 14 penalty minutes before he was sent back to the Baby B’s. Patience and development are the keys to personal success for AHL players, but there is internal friction. Discovering where they fit in with any organization means players are constantly evaluating their teammates and themselves and seeing where they stack up. AHLers can never get comfortable. They’re being watched and analyzed, but they’re also doing the watching, because a player’s progression rides heavily on being better than his peers. “If I can play better than them, I’m going to play better than them,” Cross said, “and if they can play better than me, then they’re going to play better than me.” What’s interesting, however, is the moral balance that players like Cross reach – the acceptance that teammates are also rivals. “You don’t want to succeed because of someone else’s failure,” he said. “You want to do anything that you can do to move on and be the better guy, but at the same time you’re also teammates and you’re friends.” At your typical 9-to-5, being best friends with your cubicle buddy isn’t a necessity, and it’s not the end of the world if nobody wants to sit with you at lunch. But the AHL workday is anything but consistent. Of the 76 games per season, 38 require travel – hours on buses or planes, passing through customs, enduring exhaustion and injury from the last game while gearing up for the next. For professional athletes, co-worker connectedness can be the key to survival. The AHL, which has the bulk of its teams on the East Coast, presents players with a similar gruelling travel schedule to the NHL’s, minus the chartered jets. “It’s a long season,” Cross said. “You’re at the rink every day, you’re travelling for games, you’re going through battles together, you’re going through slumps together, you’re on win streaks together, you’re eating dinner together. There is a lot of time together, so you get to know your teammates very, very well.” It’s worked for Cross, who has leased apartments with different teammates for each of his three seasons in Providence. Aside from the smart economics of sharing rent with players on the same short-term leases year to year, Cross said the process gives some much-needed emotional support. Still, there’s money on the line. So while Cross and his Providence Bruins teammates are chasing the Calder Cup in the AHL, to a man they’d each prefer a chance at a Stanley Cup and the bigger paycheck that comes with it. Like each team in the AHL, that puts players in competition with each one another. “We all want to move up and get a spot with the Bruins,” he said. “In my pro hockey experience, I’ve had teammates that are awesome at finding that balance between being teammates, friends and rivals. They wish me nothing but the best, and I wish them the same. The reality is there are only so many jobs in the NHL, and there are a lot of guys that want those jobs. The competition’s always there.”
This feature appears in the Jan. 26 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.