The Ups & Downs of Professional Hockey

TORONTO-General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brian Burke, promoted the 2010/11 season for the Toronto Marlies with the slogan “every game is a try-out”. This, in a way is true, and not just for the Marlies but for the whole American Hockey League (AHL).

The AHL is a professional league but it’s also a stepping stone; a development league for National Hockey League (NHL) prospects. Of course not everyone who steps on the ice for an AHL team will be guaranteed to do the same for their parent club but any player will tell you that their only goal is to break into the “big league”.

A player must have a special skill set that sets them apart from the rest to be able to have a club confident enough to bring them up to fill a void or, even better, be part of the future

Image Courtesy of Graig Abel

plan.  Marlies goalie James Reimer has been called up three times already this season and knows it takes more than a few good games to put on a Maple Leafs jersey.

“It’s phenomenal; you never take this opportunity for granted. Up there (NHL) they really take care of you and there’s a lot of perks. Almost everywhere you go to play there’s great atmosphere and the fans are great…..it’s the best league in the world (NHL).”

Reimer is right. The atmosphere is great. It’s vastly different compared to AHL arenas.  Sure the fans are great but the average AHL attendance for this season is 4,681 people where as the NHL is well over 17,000. The Hershey Bears (Washington affiliate) leads the AHL with 9,094 fans per game but that still sits below the Phoenix Coyotes average game attendance of 10,282 (which is dead last in NHL). Here in Toronto, the Maple Leafs sell out 19,317 seats a game while the Marlies only get 3,767; no passion from any one fan can make up the difference of over 15,000 people.

Forward Joey Crabb managed to sneak in two games with the Leafs so far this season and his response to playing in the NHL was, “it’s unbelievable and special.”

That it is.

Being treated well and a great atmosphere isn’t the only disparity between the two leagues; the calendar for an AHL team can be gruelling. Earlier this season the Marlies went on a three week and 10 game road trip all because the Ricoh Coliseum hosted the Royal Winter Fair. Early January will see the Marlies head out for a nine game road trip because of a boat show. Forward Christian Hanson said that, after playing for both Toronto clubs, the biggest difference for him is the timetable.

“Honestly I think the biggest difference is the schedule, you play very few back to back games in the NHL where in the AHL you have a lot of three games in three nights and four in five nights.”

For the record, the Marlies have played four games in five nights three times this season and three games in three nights twice. They are only 32 games in to the season. The Leafs have played back to back games four times and never once three games in three nights. Also worth adding, the Leafs have a chartered airplane to fly city to city. The majority of the cities that the Marlies travel to are by bus. It is quite common for the Marlies, as well as many other AHL teams, to fly to one destination and bus back home, arena to arena, until the road trip is finished.

Veteran forward Mike Zigomanis is in his second season with the Marlies. He has played 197 games in the NHL and 351 in the AHL. He has seen his fair share of action, having played for 10 different teams in 10 pro seasons, and, like many other players who have skated for both leagues, he believes the speed is the difference.

“It’s definitely faster (NHL). That’s the biggest thing. Players are a little more patient with the puck and have a little bit more puck control.”

Once again, this filters back to the skills needed to succeed in the NHL. It’s not just about being big and having a hard shot. It’s about taking those attributes and doing it at a faster pace. The time a player has to think about making a pass is shorter in the NHL and you better be able to transition from offence to defence faster than the opposing player. Just ask Leaf forward Nazem Kadri.

And what happens to a player if he is able to play at NHL speed? Well, he gets rewarded by not only being on the biggest stage in professional hockey, but he also makes a hefty raise in salary.

Last season’s league minimum for an AHL player was a mere $36,500; in the NHL it was $500,000. You would have to play 13 AHL seasons to earn one year of the NHL minimum so to crack an NHL roster financially is a reward in and of itself. Without adding any confusion to the topic, the majority of the Marlies are on “entry level contracts”. Meaning the Leafs can call them up and send them back down as they please; it also means a serious pay cut if demoted. Marcel Mueller signed a contract in the off season which brought him here from Germany and his goal was to play for the Leafs and earn $1.1 million per season playing at the Air Canada Centre. Instead, his time in the AHL will only pay him $67,500 this year.

Kadri, who played 14 games with the Marlies to start the season, was expected to earn the same as Mueller but now, with his promotion, he is on the NHL side of his contract which pays about $1.7 million for the season.

Image Courtesy of Graig Abel

For 75 years now the AHL has been in business but this year marks the first time the league has had 30 teams; which means for the first time every NHL team has a development system of their own. There are more players ‘trying out’ than ever before. Unless you’re Wade Redden or Jeff Finger, you play in the AHL for the experience. You play for the practice and you play for your future. You don’t play for the money. If you earn your spot, it will come and so will the chartered planes, the atmosphere and the perks. The NHL may be the big show but the AHL is the talent show. It’s the place where you put it all out there for everyone to see in the hopes of getting a chance to have your name become a household name.

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