The next season, I was traded to L.A. from Philly in a trade that I think saw L.A. get myself and a sixth-round draft pick for nothing just so they could make space for Sean Couturier (looking back now, that was a solid move).
I was ecstatic: Fresh start, new colors, I was out of the Glens Falls Civic Center in Glen Galls, N.Y., and off to Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H. – which in arena terms, would be like basement to penthouse – except a few days before, I was handcuffed and put in jail because of a warrant for my arrest thanks to some shoddy police records and an alleged unpaid speeding ticket, so I had to hang out in ADK for a few days after the trade to get that squared away.
When I got there it wasn’t quite like I envisioned. The coach told me he really knew nothing about me, so I would have to wait patiently for an opportunity. That opportunity took what seemed like forever. I don’t think I saw regular ice time until there was about 25-30 games left. The rest of the season went well: I was blessed with two linemates that I gelled really well with right off the bat, Justin Azevedo and Trent Hunter. My final few games I played well enough to earn a one-year contract extension. Finally, I thought a team is choosing to sign me, not just pick me up from another NHL team’s recycling bin! This is my chance, here we go baby, Leegy is headed to Hollywood and he’s staying.
Well, unfortunately this was around the time of the NHL lockout, so my dream camp in L.A., which had me staying there all year and getting 50+ points and finally becoming the player I was destined to be (I’m a dreamer, don’t take those stats seriously) was taken from me so that the grievances between the players and the league could be ironed out. So my La-La Land vacation was quickly changed to another year in Manchester, but hey: I’m one of the stars there now, the coach loves me, I’m ready: bright lights here I come.
Camp was intense. There were a lot of young Kings players in Manchester so I began to feel it slip away again. But my line was Tyler Toffoli in the middle with myself and Tanner Pearson (two of the hardest working and most skilled players I played with in the AHL), so again, the stage was set: first-line, big-time players with me. This is it.
Well, that lasted a whole day and it was back to reality for me, a reality I never fully understood. I know I had screwed up at every turn, but my game was there (and still is for all the haters out there). I felt as if my past had me trapped. I was a common healthy scratch my second year in Manchester with not much explanation as to why I wasn’t playing. Me and the coach were like fire and gas; I feel like I had some type of meeting with him every other day about what was wrong with my game.
I believe he actually gave me the nickname “50 percent” because 50 percent of the time I was the best player in the league and the other 50 I was invisible. What I don’t think he realized is he only dressed me for about 40 percent of the games, so to me the math just wasn’t adding up – but I feel truly in my heart that once I made my choice with Columbus, that no NHL team would touch me. Luckily for me I had finally conquered my main drug addiction and was functioning at a more normal rate so the slide in my career was handled in much healthier ways. I still had a few habits, but none that you won’t find down at any local high school.
So these hardships in Manchester were dealt with much more responsibly than in previous years, except for the “eff you” match we had in the Springfield hallway after Game 1 of the playoffs when he told me I wouldn’t be seeing Game 2, an argument that I feel cost me all potential offers for the next season.
Since my NHL/AHL career has come to an end, I have bounced around all over the place – a short stint with the Toronto Marlies thanks largely to Steve Spott, who is one of the nicest, most genuine coaches I have ever had the pleasure of playing for (along with Greg Gilbert who coached me in junior and pro, as well as Rich Seeley and Jeff Giuliano, who were the first coaches to take the time to ask me about what I was dealing with off the ice and in turn sort of inspired this article).
After Toronto I went overseas for parts of two years, and finally ended up in the ECHL. Writing this has driven me through all stages of emotion.
I have cried, laughed, been angry, depressed, sad, embarrassed, but the more and more I read over it, the more grateful I am for every single moment of it. I wouldn’t be who I am today without what I have been through. I have the most beautiful wife, an amazing dog, and the best family and friends in the world. All because the experiences I went through shaped me into a man I am -- finally proud of the man in the mirror.
For the non-athlete readers out there, give us some slack. The reality of professional hockey isn’t millions of dollars flying around on private planes eating steak and sushi at 30,000 feet. For the very lucky that is the experience, but the reality of pro hockey is long bus rides, cold, run-down arenas, low budgets, low paychecks and a life that could make any man insane.
Yes, we love the game and when you love your job you never work. I love hockey, but some days I hate my job just like you. Just because we are doing what most wish they could it doesn’t mean it’s all a dream. Every athlete from the $30-million men to the $400-a-week man has battles he is fighting – even though our lives look so peachy from the outside, sports is a dangerous, dangerous industry and going through what I have gone through has pushed this to the forefront.
And for the athletes, get help if you need it. The game lasts until you’re 35, if you’re lucky – life lasts a lot longer than that. If you aren’t right don’t wait because you never know when it will go past a point you can’t return. We have lost many players already just because of our pride, to think we are too tough for these real-life problems. I respect the hell out of every player willing to put that jersey on for a living. It’s a long, dark road, but if you want it and are willing to put in the right kind of work the rewards can be endless. Get a financial advisor, eat junk food sometimes and remember to have fun -- you are where you are because of all the fun you had growing up playing the game trying to make it to that next level. Just remember that when you get there not to forget the little things that made you love it in the first place.
I love hockey, I love the atmosphere, the smell, the sound, the dressing room, and I know I still have a lot of good hockey left in me. Plus, everyone loves a comeback story. But if this weekend was my last game, I just want to say thank you, you were my first love, my life, and I will always miss you.
Thank you Shannon, Dad, Mom, Tyler, Jake, Grandma, Grandpa, Nana, Puppa for the endless support and love along with my friends and my handful of fans (Legein’s Legion) and thank you to all the guys I have met because of the game. Some of you were lemons but most of you guys were amazing friends that I will share special memories with forever.
Follow Stefan Legein on Twitter at @legeeyfbaby.