I played parts of three seasons after my college career between the ECHL and the AHL, spending the vast majority of it in the former. I touched five pro rosters (seven if you count training camps) in that time, getting traded once, called-up and sent down a couple of others.

Here’s everything – well, the majority, at least – of what the ECHL lifestyle looks like:

The Conferences

The two ECHL conferences are very different. In the West, the cities are widespread and pretty awesome – Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Long Beach (my first pro game), Boise (a great little city), a couple in northern California (meh, at least they were warm), and Victoria, BC. So naturally, you fly pretty much everywhere.

For those of you who haven’t heard of a “sleeper bus,” it’s what a lot of teams in the Eastern Conference take. The teams are closer together there, so you tend to bus to games the day of, then travel back at night in your “bunk.”

Your “bunk” is a coffin, almost exactly, with a drop down DVD that may or may not work. They’re stacked to the ceiling, and everyone gets one. When I was in Reading, we drove to Elmira, NY, and drove back through the night after the game. Being a touch claustrophobic, I sat up at the gathering table at the back of the bus for the majority of the drive, took a pain pill, and waited out the night. I wish I had blogged back then, just to remember what on God’s green earth could’ve possibly been going through my mind.

Because of the difference in lifestyle, the league has taken form.

The Western Conference has a good deal more of the “older guys” (30+) who are generally team captains, who make a decent living (over $1000 a week with rent and utilities paid for), who don’t have to try too hard before playoffs and just generally love the game.

I played with Marty Flichel, Darrell Hay, Scott Ford, Travis Rycroft, and a whole host of other names in the West who were over 30 who really piloted our team’s ship.

But because the West is so far from the majority of AHL/NHL teams, it’s not the best place to play if you’re hoping to get called up. If an AHL team finds out at morning skate that a guy can’t go that night because he’s sick, or his injury flared up, or whatever, they’re certainly not going to book a flight for a kid from California to come play on the East Coast when there’s a dozen teams within a two hour driving radius that they can pull a body from.

So, out East is younger, with more hungry kids trying to climb the ranks (with no AHL contract, any team can call you up), while the West is generally older, with a mix of players who are either drafted or under contract with a team in a higher league.

***

The hockey

The hockey itself is likely better than you think.

Teams only dress 10 forwards, meaning you roll three lines, and generally have some slug that sits on the end of the bench waiting for his turn to work into a rotation, or go beat someone up. The purpose of the small roster (aside from saving money), is that it’s a developmental league. You don’t learn much sitting on the bench, so if you’re on an ECHL team, you’re guaranteed to get minutes.

There’s politics (though it’s a stretch to call them that) about who gets power play time, and who gets to play with whom, because you have players like myself who were on contract with the AHL team (so they’d like to see me get minutes and improve), and guys who just signed with the ECHL team, meaning the coach isn’t obligated to show them any extra love.

Then there’s the young kids who are drafted that the teams really want to develop who often suck for awhile, and there’s the comfortable older guys genuinely not trying to move up (they often buy houses in town, get married, have a family etc.) who are your best players, that have to sit on the bench to free up some big minutes for said drafted kid.

When it comes down to it at the end of the game and you’re in a close one, it has to be a big decision for the coach – is my priority to win, or to get these young kids in the right situations? (Hint: coaches tend to look out for themselves, and play the best guys regardless of who needs seasoning.)

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The finances

Before we get into this, the crazy part: there are leagues below the ECHL – the CHL (Central), maybe the UHL (United) still exists, possibly the FHL (Federal, which the United may have joined/become)…there’s even an SPHL (Southern Professional) – those are the places where you truly make no money and eat Pop Tarts.

For my part, I made $650 a week in the ECHL as a rookie ($45,000 pro-rated if called up to the AHL). They pay your rent, and all your bills…save for your cellphone, of course. The apartments are fully furnished. On the road (as in, half the season), they buy your meals or give you per diem.

By no means was I getting ahead, but I was fresh out of college, so it felt like real money to me. And hey, that is real money, if you earned it for more than six-seven months of the year.

I believe league minimum was $325 a week (before taxes) when I was last in the league (2009). Teams get X amount of dollars to spend per week on players, and they’d divvy that up however they so chose to do it. That meant when a player would get sent down from the AHL, you might get called in and hear your coach say “I’m going to cut your pay down $200 this week – when he goes back up next week, I’ll give you an additional $200.”

It was a very malleable “salary cap.”

***

The realities

It used to be that people thought the ECHL was a goon show, with a bunch of brain-dead morons engaging in pure thuggery, but I found it to be anything but that. There were moments, as with all levels of hockey where it got ugly – I’m thinking in particular of seeing Jeremy Yablonski and Matt Nickerson combine for 23 games in suspensions in one scrum (and that was in 2007) while our team earned none. That stuff happens.

But in general, the league is full of young talent. It was quite the transition from the WCHA with its huge ice and cages, to the far more North American style of pro hockey, but I figured it out eventually.

Players will tell you that the higher you move up, the easier it is to play, and I fully agree. The AHL, and of course the NHL, both play more organized, patient games. Players show better positional discipline, and don’t run around, so when you’re making reads in your head, it’s a lot easier to know how things are going to unfold.

I generally use the tennis-ball-in-gym-class analogy to illustrate everyone chasing the ball, nobody thinking – the ECHL isn’t quite that, but it’s a far cry positionally from the A. Another common pro sentiment is that the jump from the ECHL to the AHL is bigger than the one from the AHL to the NHL, and I think that’s a huge reason why.

I enjoyed my time in the League, and had I not suffered a trio of injuries my last year, I’d likely still be playing. The league was better than I expected, and a lot of the talent there will go on to play in the bigs (Jonathan Quick, for example, was a Reading Royal before me, and James Reimer was the goalie there during my brief stay).

But they did happen, and I’m thankful that they did the same why I’m thankful I got have a kick at it out of college. Some major perks have come with switching to the blog lifestyle.

I haven’t torn an MCL in ages.

Comments (16)

  1. Just an FYI, the UHL ceased in 2010.

  2. I’m hoping I can drag a bunch of my cousins out to a San Francisco Bulls game around Christmas, and the only rolling three lines thing sounds even more awesome.

    • I always really liked the three lines thing. It makes sense from a business perspective, and it’s not worth the quality drop-off to add a 4th line. Plus, the players eat a few more minutes a game.

  3. Always loved watching ECHL games because there’s a slightly higher level of unpredictability. The lower end of the talent pool in the ECHL can at times be unimpressive (I follow a West Coast team and have seen this improve dramatically since the WCHL merged into the ECHL). Even so, you also get an interesting combination of older guys who are hungry to win (to them, this is their Stanley Cup), young guys who desparately want to prove themselves and move up, and local heroes who feed off of their minor celeberty status. Of course, there are also the usual downsides: Players who were drafted high several years ago who think that they are too good for the league, players with slick talent in one area and glaring problems in another (think amazing scorer who thinks defense is floating around the blueline), and significant roster changes that are constantly occuring as teams struggle to improve.

    For the money, I’d rather sit in prime seats at an ECHL game than in the nosebleeds in a glossy NHL barn. That may be because I became a fan watching AA hockey, but there’s just a certain charm to it that isn’t quite as apparent in the bigs….I mean, there are guys who love the game so much that they’re willing to play for $325 a week. That’s something special.

    • By the way, the teams you mention on the West coast have changed quite a bit since your playing days (No Long Beach, no Phoenix, and you left out Vegas and Ontario).

      There’s probably more bussing now for some of the teams: Ontario, Bakersfield, Stockton, San Francisco, and Vegas are all relatively easy drives from one another…

      • Yeah, I noticed that Justin obviously played after the Gulls folded.

        Ken Baker’s description of the culture shock playing against the Gulls is hilarious.

        (For those unfamiliar with the WCHL, San Diego made money hand over fist. The only reason they don’t exist any more is because the team owners were angling for an NHL team, but finally gave up trying to get the city to upgrade the arena.)

        • Yep, the owner took his toys and went home.

          The old WCHL days were pretty crazy – the Gulls could afford to cheat on the cap to an extent that nobody in the league could compete with them most years. Still, with only 6-9 teams, there were some bitter, bitter rivalries.

  4. I remember you for the Royals, I worked for the team, crazy to see you doing this now. Thought about the same thing in regards to style of play when watching the NHL every night, when living in Pittsburgh, to being at every home Royals game and following the guys who went up to the AHL. Great article!

  5. The Federal Hockey League does still exist. I play ball hockey with a guy involved in the operations of one of them. I think that during last summer a couple of the actual players also showed up to run with their team, just for kicks and grins.

  6. To add to what Devils Win said, I would like to add that Victoria also no longer exists in the ECHL. And he’s right about the busing. I used to work in Phoenix, and we bused everywhere except Utah, Idaho, Alaska, and Victoria (which required travel by plane, bus and boat).

    And some would argue with you over whether the level of play in the CHL is really below that of the ECHL. I’d say top-line against top-line, they’re pretty even. The biggest difference, in my experience, is the depth. The Federal league is about a half-step below the SPHL, which is about a step below the ECHL and CHL.

    • I’d have to say that the CHL is marginally below the ECHL…there are plenty of quality AHL/NHL assigned players in the ECHL and not so much in the CHL The CHL, if I remember correctly, makes up for some of this by allowing more older players (ECHL only allows 4 veterans). I haven’t seen a lot of CHL players come to the ECHL and be particularly competitive – most become 3rd line plugs…

  7. I played in the SPHL for a year and a half. I ate so many Pop Tarts that, to this day, I cannot even look a box of them without shuttering.

  8. Funny, because I _love_ pop tarts. And I get to live in Tallahassee, Florida? Sign me up.

  9. Great insight, thanks for sharing Justin! The ECHL has always been a bit of a mystery to me, so it’s cool to hear a bit more about the details and the lifestyle. Those sleeper buses sound rough, not sure I could sleep well in those…

  10. Great article – as a Canadian lost in Cincinnati, I discovered the Cyclones and some great hockey. I was there when they won their most recent 2 Kelly Cups (I believe they dressed over 50 players during the year for the second one). I watched a young David Desharnais come into his own and work his way all the way up from Cincinnati to the big team in Montreal. Overall great hockey without the gooning people think.

  11. this was a great read and the comments were good also.iam a big hockey fan and i enjoy reading about pro minor hockey leagues.

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