An Existential Journey in Hockey Part 1

Submitted by JimLahey on May 14th, 2011 at 4:26 PM

I remember the scene vividly. Immediately following 6:30a.m practice, my coaches called me into a separate room and asked me to sit down. All five of them sitting across from me, they explained how important tomorrow night's game was:

"This is the biggest game of your career so far, their captain, like you, is also one of the best players in Ontario. If we win, people will say you're better than him. We always support you, but if we lose, people are going to blame you and say that he's better than you. Do you want that? Get to sleep early tonight, make sure you eat lots of carbs, protein tomorrow, and drink water all day. When I talk to your teacher, I want to hear from her  that you were asking to go to the bathroom all day."

I was 8 years old.

 Every parent, and i mean EVERY parent of a child who plays AAA hockey in Ontario believes their child will some day play in the NHL. Most will never even sniff the OHL.

In Ontario, if you're good at hockey you play in the OHL. Period. In many O cities, the players are celebrities among the adults, and heroes among the children. For me, from a young age it was assumed that I was good enough to play in the OHL and probably the NHL. This, of course, was the view of the locals who had a distorted view of just how hard it was to make it.

One summer, I was training with a group of top under-15 players at the local arena. On the arena's second rink was a group of professional players who skated together in the summer. It was either: current NHL players, former NHL players, current OHL players, or the absolute elite from junior B or CIS. They need an extra player and came to our side to see who was playing. The hockey community being relatively small, they recognized me as a top young prospect and asked me to go play with them. I was incredibly excited and nervous. They made me play defense, not my position, but I didn't care. On my second shift, Andy McDonald (current St Louis Blue and former Hobey Baker finalist) came down the wing and put it through my legs, causing me to fall over, and proceeded to score. My teammates were not pleased. About five minutes later, Andy McDonald was coming down the wing again, and I anticipated the same move, but it was a fake. He treated me like a pylon and scored again. Immediately after the goal, Steve Ott (current Dallas Star) came up to me and told me to get off the ice and go back to practice. As I was leaving, I could hear them yelling at each other.

Steve Ott: "Jesus Christ, where'd you find that fuckin guy, you idiot? He cost us two goals."

Steve Downie (TB Lightning): "He's supposed to be one of the best 13 year olds around, I don't know, get off my ass."

That is the culture. Nobody thought it was out of the ordinary to treat a young kid like that. Not even me. Perform or get off the ice. There was probably over $5,000  in bets on that game between the NHL guys. I was costing someone money.

Secretly, I didn't want anything to do with the OHL. Every OHL player I knew seemed like an arrogant idiot with no intelligence to back it up. School was my refuge. I am a nerd who happens to have athletic ability. School was the only aspect of my life where nobody put pressure on me. My cousin, a walk-on football player for Lloyd Carr, turned me into a Michigan fan. He was my hero, ten feet tall to me. He took me to the big house and gave me tickets to the games so I could go with my uncle.

After a game, he arranged for one of the hockey trainers to give me personal tour of Yost Arena and the dressing rooms where the players hung out. The trainer showed me around, explained to me how I couldn't walk on the block M in the middle of the carpet. He told me about all the great Michigan hockey players who were current NHL draft picks, and the others who were now lawyers, doctors and business professionals. Then I watched them play. The atmosphere was shocking to me. The band, the chants, the pretty female students, the winged helmets. I was used to the OHL where leather hats and handle-bar mustaches are the norm. That was it, forget the OHL. I'm going to Michigan.

Over the next two summers, I tried out and made a top-prospects team. There are dozens of teams like this. The teams play in summer tournaments designed to give scouts a chance to see the best players before their draft-year season. While I was probably one of the bottom 2 players on both teams I played on, my teammates included Drew Doughty, Sam Gagner, and Logan Couture.

These tournaments were my first actual contact with scouts. I was honest with them. I told them I was about 50/50 on my decision to play in the OHL or go the college route.

Truth is, I wasn't 50/50 at all. I was 100% on Michigan. The question is, was Michigan 100% on me?

PART 2 TOMORROW: Draft Year/College Recruiting and Beyond




May 14th, 2011 at 4:30 PM ^

Just so you guys know, I am purposely leaving out my identity. I like being able to post here without having to worry about being politically correct and having the wrong people see it.

Also, I only have time to do this in parts because I'm in the middle of my exams right now and can't focus on this for too long at a time. Thanks for reading.


May 14th, 2011 at 8:34 PM ^

For not wanting anyone to know your identity you sure gave us some big hints.


Anyway, I didn't really understand how competitive hockey was until I read your personal account. It's got to be tough will all that pressure to succeed, but I would venture to say that it prepares you for the NHL.


May 15th, 2011 at 2:23 PM ^

I don't have experience with any of the other big time sports, but I'm assuming that baseball, football, hockey and basketball are all nearly identical in that regard. With hockey in the US you get the added benefit of almost all the kids at the AAA level being spoiled rich kids (and the really awesome parents that go with them) when they're that young too.

Mr Mackey

May 14th, 2011 at 4:34 PM ^

Very well written. This is why I love this place. I played hockey my entire life, obviously nowhere near as good as you, so it's great to read about this. I'll definitely tune in for the next parts, thank you

Mr Mackey

May 14th, 2011 at 5:57 PM ^

I played at Novi and was up against Lidstrom's kids a lot (who aren't very good, BTW) and my big story is that he was on the bench for one of my games against them, and I scored twice on his son and had one of my better games. During the handshakes, he shook my hand and said "that was impressive. you've got some moves"


May 14th, 2011 at 5:39 PM ^

"Every OHL player I knew seemed like an arrogant idiot"

Easy tiger. God help I stand up for my friends who have played in the OHL; as expected. But, seriously, this is like assuming every NCAA player is kind, generous, intelligent and charitable. There is some balance both ways.

I have played in similar situations against pros and juniors and you are is play well or gtfo. That part was quite accurately stated.

I'm waiting for version 2.0.


May 14th, 2011 at 7:34 PM ^

Grew up nowhere near hockey country before heading to Michigan, and have lived in Minnesota for a while now, but have no idea what these kids go through. Looking forward to more!


May 14th, 2011 at 8:38 PM ^

Good stuff. I look forward to part 2. Your point about the OHL kids are completely true. I know the Abdelkader family and he came to a smilar decision. He like you valued his education. Yes, I know he went to MSU. However, the fact remains he got a damn good education at MSU, much better than the education he could have received while attending partime at some podunk canadian college. Abs right now is going back to MSU for his MBA in the offseasons. 

Mr. Robot

May 15th, 2011 at 10:53 AM ^

Played with guys like Couture: Year older than me, so on current roster.

From Ontario: Down to three.

Due to age, must  be upperclassmen: Down to two.

Playing with NHL guys "out of position": Down to one.

I won't say the name anyway, but I'm 99.9% sure. Thanks for your dedication to the program and (presumably, if I'm right), congratulations on the degree. Hopefully you take after Jack Johnson and maybe when you're in town to play the Red Wings some weekend you can participate in Score-O. Just don't blame it on the stick if you miss like Jack did.

Mr. Robot

May 15th, 2011 at 1:06 PM ^

I'm going off the top of my head. so if I screwed something up, give me a break. Only reason I everm know Couture's age is because he plays for the Sharks and the Wings just came up short of a 3-game comeback against them.

Our Canadians this year were Louie, Brandon, and Lindsay, right? Am I failing to account for somebody?

Canada loves S…

May 16th, 2011 at 2:16 PM ^

You guys are missing some subtle clues. Like the fact that he is currently studying for exams, while U of M has been finished for quite some time. Obviously he is taking the certifying exam to become board certified in trailer park supervising.  I know this b/c I was once his Assistant Part-time Weekend Trailer Park Supervisor.