The Dream. In its purest form, scoring the winning goal of the Stanley Cup Finals in overtime, flying through the air in celebration like Bobby Orr surrounded by ecstatic teammates. Just playing in the National Hockey League, the world’s premier hockey league, however, represents the apex of the dream for thousands of youth hockey players across the world. The odds are slim, even for a player at a top-tier Division I program like Yale, but the dream, the culmination of years of 5 a.m. trips to the rink, grueling workouts and hundreds of hockey games in every snow-covered hamlet in America, rarely comes easily and dies hard. Twenty-one former Yale hockey players made a professional appearance this year, but only four stepped onto the ice for an NHL squad. The remainder took to the ice for minor league teams, hoping to one day earn their own shot at the NHL, or moved overseas to European leagues, taking a different path in pursuit of the dream. For most other Yale sports teams, it is anomalous for any player to look to continue their athletic career beyond the confines of campus, but for the Eli hockey players, the dream rarely dies immediately when the scoreboard hits triple zero on their college careers.
“[Playing pro hockey] has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid and the idea of getting paid to play hockey is still something I’m trying to wrap my head around,” defenseman Adam Larkin ’18 said. “You never really know what can happen in terms of how high you can go. There’s no other time in my life where I can come back and try this again so I might as well give it everything I have for at least the next couple years and try to have my ultimate dream of one day playing in the NHL come true. But even if I’m not playing in the NHL, it’s incredible that I’m playing a sport that I love and am being paid to do it.”
Yale’s hockey season this year ended with a whimper, especially considering the program’s recent high standards: a pair of disappointing defeats on home ice against rivals Quinnipiac bounced the Bulldogs from the conference tournament and left them sitting at home for NCAA tournament for the second year in a row. The losses marked the final occasion that the Bulldog seniors donned the blue and white sweater to play at Ingalls Rink. But almost immediately following that Quinnipiac defeat, Larkin and forward Ryan Hitchcock ’18, the only seniors to make multiple appearances for the Bulldogs this season, turned to the next step in the sport that has been their life. The high rate at which Division I hockey players continue their careers after graduation differentiates the sport from other varsity sports; the pursuit of the dream is not a phenomenon unique to Yale.
The contract negotiations with professional teams began immediately after the season concluded, although head coach Keith Allain ’80 began laying the groundwork with his players to discuss their professional futures much earlier in the season. Larkin also used the help of the agent he shares with the three other aspiring professional hockey players in his family, including his cousin Dylan Larkin, an All-Star NHL forward, as the Bulldog blueliner immediately dove into the professional pool.
“It’s a little bit of a waiting game, you’re waiting for teams to come to you if they’re interested,” Larkin said. “The coaches at Yale really helped me out. After a couple of days I had a few phone calls from teams that are in spots where they have players injured at this time of the year and need to fill a position. My agent understands the business side of getting into a team and talking to coaches about what my role is on the team, and he’s been a great resource for me to have to understand what I’m expecting when I show up to these teams.”
The duo each signed an Amateur Tryout Agreement with minor league franchises to kickoff their professional careers. An ATO is the standard way for college athletes to look to break into the professional ranks while they complete their spring semester of college, and it provides a low-risk opportunity for minor league teams to take a look at potential prospects without making any meaningful financial commitment. For the players, it gives them a chance to prove themselves at a new level of hockey, playing against veterans with professional experience, including the occasional NHL veteran, as well as equally eager players coming out of college fighting for their shot at the dream. Hitchcock signed his ATO with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League, the league that sits directly below the NHL in the American hockey pyramid, while Larkin came to terms with the Adirondack Thunder of ECHL, a rung below the AHL on the ladder. The ATO is a temporary contract, but it gives players a foot in the door.
“An ATO will allow a guy like Adam to build a professional hockey resume, he’ll play 15–20 games in that league, it’ll allow him to develop a relationship with an organization,” Allain said. “At pretty much every game he plays there will be a pro scout from another team in the league. He’s not just playing for Adirondack; he’s playing for Adam Larkin. Hopefully this will allow him to get some exposure as well as some experience, and he’ll have an understanding of the professional lifestyle and style of play going into his first training camp next year.”
The National Hockey League stands as the ultimate dream, but making an NHL roster poses a daunting task. The world’s foremost professional league was founded in 1917 and has evolved from the “Original Six” franchises populated almost exclusively by Canadian players into a continent-wide enterprise with 31 teams and star players from around the world. However, there are only 23 spots on each team, and the few open slots each year generally go to one of the players selected in the seven rounds of the NHL draft, although being drafted provides no guarantee of a shot at the big time. That limited roster space has given rise to a widespread system of minor league teams below the NHL for younger players to develop and gain experience while they seek an NHL opportunity. Minor leagues are an integral part of American sports; every major team sport, with the exception of football, has an umbrella of smaller teams that lie in an organized hierarchy below the major professional league. Only baseball has a larger and more extensive minor league system than hockey. The AHL and the ECHL are the two main developmental leagues, effectively equivalent to Triple- and Double-A in baseball. Every AHL team and almost every ECHL team have an affiliation agreement with a NHL franchise that enables the major league team to stash its prospects in the minor leagues and give them the chance to develop into an NHL-caliber player.
The ECHL often provides the first taste of professional hockey for its players, but its teams are suspect to the constant turmoil endemic to minor league hockey. The Thunder, a microcosm of the minor league scene, has been in existence since 1990 but has relocated four times since its initial start in Cincinnati, Ohio to Birmingham, Alabama; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Stockton, California and two years ago to Glen Falls, New York. That locational turmoil is matched by the frequency of roster turnover.
“[The level of roster turnover] is crazy,” Larkin said. “I was in Adirondack for three weeks, and every weekend there were new guys coming in. I think the East Coast League is probably the league with the most roster turnover of the three North American leagues; they’ve had [52 guys on the roster this year] and there’s only 18 or 20 playing a night. There’s a lot of ways to get in and a lot of ways to get out, so you just get used to introducing yourself to new guys all the time.”
Professional hockey provides a stark contrast to college, but the minor leagues are also a world apart from the bright lights of the NHL. The average NHL player makes about three million dollars a year, with a minimum salary of $650,000. In the AHL, the minimum salary comes in at $42,375 with an average of over $90,000, although that statistic is significantly skewed upwards by demoted NHL players who keep their NHL salaries during their minor-league stints. The ECHL minimum is $10,790, while both AHL and ECHL players receive per diem allowances to cover living expenses. The fan bases are smaller too, and although their passion for their local teams is not in doubt, in many cases minor league hockey is the only show in town. The ECHL averaged 4,252 fans per game last year, while the AHL checked in at 5,823. That further increases the financial pressure on teams and players alike, a contributing factor in the frequency of franchise bankruptcies and expansion teams to fill the void. For minor league hockey players too, financial stability is not a hook to continue their careers; the desire to continue playing comes from personal, not financial motivations.
The lifestyle change is radical as well, although the necessity to study for finals still exists alongside the professional hockey dream. Minor league hockey teams practice for less than an hour daily and are usually off the ice by noon. Even accounting for individual workouts, that leaves tremendous opportunity for downtime, a potential pitfall for aspiring pros. Still, that experience is not unfamiliar to most players trying to make the jump to the minor leagues, as nearly every Division I hockey player spends at least a year in between high school and college playing in the junior system. In American junior hockey leagues, the players are not paid, and the team covers all expenses while providing a host family, but in every other aspect the league is effectively professional.
“There’s kind of a frantic pace to college hockey because you play so few games and each game is so vitally important,” Allain said. “When you get to the pro hockey level, the players get a little bit better and the play becomes a little bit more controlled. The game becomes more predictable, there are fewer mistakes made, even though the tempo is really fast it seems like a calmer game, less helter-skelter.”
Larkin similarly noted the step up in quality he faced in his foray into professional hockey. In the seven games he played in Adirondack, the blueliner netted his first professional goal and assist, served a penalty, and in the end his ledger sheet saw him on the ice for one more goal scored than conceded. As the minor league season draws to a close though, his thoughts have already turned to the next step.
“Moving forward, the first thing I have to do is make a roster for the fall,” Larkin said. “The negotiations will probably happen this summer. I’ll be able to work with my agent to find myself a contract. I hope in the American League, but if not, I just want somewhere to play and I think I’ll be able to prove myself going into next fall and if that means I start in the East Coast League it’s about finding myself in the best situation to play good minutes and then get called up to play in the American League. You have to be a little bit patient with it. I’m just going to keep working to put the best product on the ice that I can. I’m so grateful for everything that hockey has given me and I feel that I need to make sure I carry this out and keep playing for as long as I can and as long as I want to. It has completely shaped my life, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without it.”
Progressing up the ladder to an NHL roster is easier said than done, even for those with excellent performances in the minor leagues. Forward Kenny Agostino ’14 won AHL Most Valuable Player in the 2016–17 season, notching a league-leading 83 points in 65 games. This season, he made a grand total of five NHL appearances, a frustrating number for a player who has displayed his mastery of the minor leagues but never received a true opportunity to make his name at the next level. That presents another possible option for the forward for the upcoming season — Europe, a continent where a number of former Bulldogs players have made a name for themselves.
There is a wide mosaic of hockey leagues across Europe. The most prestigious is the Russian Kontinental Hockey League, where former NHL stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk make millions. But political and cultural concerns, in addition to inconsistent compensation makes the KHL a less attractive destination for Americans. The only Yale alumnus in the KHL is forward Brian O’Neill ’12, who plays for the Helsinki-based Jokerit. The wealthiest league is in Switzerland, where reigning champions SC Bern average over 16,000 spectators per game, and the league as a whole averages nearly 7,000. A plenitude of other European countries: Finland, Norway, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and even Spain and Italy, have their own hockey leagues, with varying levels of interest, competition and compensation.
“Europe is a different cultural experience and a different life experience,” Allain said. “If you’re not going to be a National Hockey League player, you’re going to be playing in an environment where the rinks are packed, and the fan bases are rabid. You can also make quite a bit of money playing in the higher leagues in Europe, certainly more money than you can make in the AHL here, so if hockey is more than just a pastime, if it’s somewhere you can make a living and get a start in life financially, going to Europe makes a lot of sense.”
There are six former Elis currently active in Europe, all of whom graduated in or before 2012 and including three players, O’Neill and a pair of Switzerland-based forwards Mark Arcobello ’10 and Broc Little ’11, who made the Team USA roster for the 2018 Olympics. The three most recent Elis to venture overseas, defenseman Mitch Witek ’16 and forwards Matt Beattie ’16 and Carson Cooper ’16, continued their hockey careers in France. The trio signed for Etoilé Noire de Strasbourg, a club based in the historic city that is the official seat of the European Parliament.
“It’s everyone’s dream growing up, to play professionally,” Beattie said. “I put so much time into hockey growing up that throughout college I wanted to play professionally. I didn’t have the greatest college career and got hurt for my entire senior year and wasn’t ready to give it up. If I stopped playing, I would have shortchanged all the effort I’d put in during the previous 15 years of my life. I wanted to have a cool experience and I used hockey to get that.”
Beattie was a former seventh-round draft pick of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks in 2012 after a sterling postgraduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy where he scored 39 goals and 73 points in 28 games. He failed to scale the same heights at Yale, with just three goals and nine points in 53 games, which combined with missing his senior year through injury precluded any potential NHL career. Nevertheless, he wished to continue playing hockey. After Allain helped Cooper and Witek find a team in France, a country where previous Yale alumni enjoyed success like forward Denny Kearney ’11, who scored 48 points in 25 games for Briancon in 2013–14, Beattie joined them across the ocean once he recovered from the injury that robbed him of his senior campaign. The opportunity to attain the dream in Europe, combined with the attraction of experiencing a new culture, proved too good of a chance to pass up.
“I studied a fair amount of French in school,” Beattie said, “so I was kind of comfortable with the language, but the culture was totally different. The French people were a lot more laid-back. I mean I grew up in New Jersey, and people are pretty aggressive there, and the French are pretty laissez-faire with everything. Some things that you think are really simple to take care of in the States are not nearly as easy over there. It was a little tough to adjust, but it was fun learning about a different culture and being able to live right in the middle of it.”
The Strasbourg team had an eclectic cultural mix, comprised of a combination of European teenagers just breaking into the game, imports from North America, either college hockey alumni or young French-Canadian players and grizzled, 30-something, long-term veterans of the French Ligue Magnus.
The Ligue Magnus has 12 franchises, each with fan bases of varying commitment and intensity. Beattie noted that although Strasbourg frequently filled its 2,000-seat arena, attendance on road trips varied precipitously, from crowds of 5,000 to effectively empty stadiums. On a national level, however, hockey assumed a decidedly tertiary position behind soccer and basketball, and even placing hockey third in the French sporting consciousness may be a stretch.
The on-ice adjustment to Europe is equally stark, deriving from the different size of the rink, which is fifteen feet wider than it is in American hockey. The larger surface area gives more space for passing and skill and places a decreased emphasis on intricate defensive systems and physical strength. The European style of hockey derives from the great Soviet national hockey teams that espoused an intricate, flowing approach to hockey, emphasizing puck possession and individual skill to speed and strength.
Beattie concurred, “It’s a totally different game [in Europe]. [It’s] not that there was more skill out there but the game was more skill-based. People were trying more things out there than in college. College hockey is a much tighter game and is played more physically and aggressively.”
The 2016–17 season did not end in ideal fashion for Strasbourg, as the team ended up finishing in 12th and last place in the Ligue Magnus, resulting in its relegation to the second tier of French hockey, although Beattie posted 16 points in 31 games. Despite the team disappointment, Beattie took another journey to continue his professional hockey career, this time to Australia and the Melbourne Mustangs.
Unlike the European professional leagues, the Australian Ice Hockey League is not fully professional, and its players do not receive a guaranteed salary. Instead, they receive reimbursement for living expenses, as well as the opportunity to have a job to work when they are not at the rink. It also places a limit on the number of foreigners that its member teams can import, limiting each of the eight clubs to four non-Australians each.
At the end of the season, after posting 23 points in 27 games, Beattie reached the point where the dream had lost some of its overwhelming luster, and hung up his professional skates for good.
“Obviously if I could draw up a perfect story I would have gotten a chance to play for Vancouver or another NHL team, but that wasn’t in the cards for me coming out of college,” Beattie said. “There were some frustrating parts about being in France and some frustrating parts about being in Australia, but I got to learn a lot and travel a lot, so I’m very happy with how it turned out.”
The dream takes many different forms, and most hockey players who pursue it never actually make it to the National Hockey League. Nevertheless, the passion and overwhelming love for the game on display provides a valuable experience in the moment and for life moving forward. It also reflects well on a Bulldog program that has enjoyed previously unprecedented success during Allain’s tenure, including lifting the 2013 National Championship.
“It says a lot about the players and how much they love the game,” Allain said, “because many of these guys are not going to play in the National Hockey League, but they’re looking for different things. They’re looking to continue playing the game they love and get a life experience that’s different from what a lot of guys get when they graduate from Yale.”
And that in the end, is the true essence of the dream.
Chris Bracken | email@example.com
Clarification, April 6: A previous version of this article referred to ECHL as the East Coast Hockey League. But as the league expanded to include seven non-east coast teams in 2003, the name has been changed to ECHL instead.