Sure, life as a pro hockey player is fun and exciting. What could be better than getting paid to do what you love?
It’s not always all it’s cracked up to be, though, and certainly not always as glamorous. It didn’t take me long to figure that out.
I started my pro career in the Buffalo Sabres organization in 1989. After training camp, I was sent to the Phoenix Roadrunners of the International League.
It was almost Christmas and my fiancée at the time was going to grad school in Boston. I hadn’t seen her since the summer, but she was coming to Arizona out for 10 days. We had a game the night she arrived, so a teammate’s girlfriend picked her up at the airport.
After the game, I came out of the locker room and gave her a hug. At that very moment, my coach, Gary Unger, called me into his office and said, “You got called to Rochester. You need to get to the airport right away. You’re booked on the red eye so you can meet the team tomorrow in Halifax.”
On one hand, this was great, since Rochester was the top farm team for the Sabres. On the other hand, I had to tell my fiancée she flew across the country to see me for one hour. But I was in the pros and it was a whole new ball game. (As a side note, we never did get married. But that’s a story for another day.)
People may not believe this, but playing in the minors is just as much fun as playing in the NHL. The only difference is there are fewer zeros on your paycheck. Things happen in the minors that would never happen in the NHL.
I was playing for the Atlanta Knights in the IHL, the farm team for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and we were playing the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, Calgary’s farm team.
In the first period, there was a fight in front of my net and I jumped in to help a teammate. I looked up and Andre Trefilov, the opposing goalie, was coming at me full steam. We fought for a bit, got game misconducts and were kicked out of the game.
By the second period, we were both up in the stands sitting with our respective scratched teammates drinking beers. By the third period, we’d all had a few drinks when the Salt Lake backup goalie was hit and went down hard. We later found out he broke his ankle.
All of a sudden over the PA system, they announced Trefilov needed to report to the Eagle’s locker room immediately. He needed to get dressed and go back into the game, since there was no other goalie to finish for them.
I saw him stagger down the stairs. We were all laughing and so were his teammates. Salt Lake was up 4-2 with five minutes to go when Trefilov went back in.
We won 5-4.
Moral of the story? Don’t drink and play goalie.
That’s the kind of stuff that only happens in the minors.
The NHL, on the other hand, may be glamorous, but getting there may not be.
I was playing for Rochester and we were in Newmarket, Ont., playing against the Maple Leafs’ farm team. At about three in the afternoon, my coach called my hotel room and woke me up from a pre-game nap. He told me to come down to the lobby immediately.
Darren Puppa hurt his back in Buffalo during the morning skate and couldn’t play that night. I needed to get to Buffalo pronto to back up Clint Malarchuk.
My first call up. The moment every hockey player dreams about. Except for one thing - I had no way of getting there.
We called cab companies and rental car companies, but couldn’t find one that would take us across the border to Buffalo. It was almost 4:00 p.m. and I had to get to Buffalo for the 7:30 p.m. game. I was looking at about two-and-a-half hours of travel time plus waiting at the border.
One of the Sabres’ scouts started going around the hotel asking people if they wanted free tickets to the Sabres game. All they had to do was take me there. An older couple who loved the Sabres agreed and off we went.
We got to the border at around 6:30 p.m. It looked like we were going to make it on time, but the border guards had a different idea.
They didn’t believe our story, even when I showed them my Rochester Americans hockey bag. We had to go into the station and explain to their boss why we needed to get to Buffalo right now. Finally, after a few phone calls, they let us through.
I got to the game at 7:45 p.m. I missed most of the first period. Puppa was on the bench with a heat pack in his jersey. He wasn’t happy.
Welcome to the NHL.
A native of Flushing, N.Y., David Littman was drafted by the Sabres in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft. He spent four years at Boston College before turning pro in 1989. Over the next 10 years, Littman would play in the ECHL, IHL, AHL and NHL (with Buffalo and Tampa Bay). The 40-year-old currently works as a producer for the wildly popular EA Sports NHL series of video games. Read his other THN.com blogs HERE.