With pretty much any job, the better you are at it, the better you're able to live when you're away from it. Being good at what you do rightfully enables you to earn more money, which should allow you to live more comfortably.
I knew that would be the case with pro hockey as well, but I wasn't aware of just how drastically different the quality of life would be at each level.
The lifestyle, the money, and the hockey were all completely different universes depending on which league I was playing in at the time. Here's what I mean.
When you make an ECHL team, you're aware there's a league minimum of $350 a week (that's what it was when I last played in 2008/2009 anyway. Also, that's before tax). You're clearly not there for the money, you're there for the opportunity to move up.
I was fortunate to be on a two-way deal with the AHL, so I managed to squeeze out $650 a week while I was on the lower rung, which is neither as bad, nor good, as it sounds.
It's not as bad as it sounds because the team also pays your rent and utilities. It's not as good as it sounds because you get paid for something like seven months of the year (the ECHL season starts about a month after the NHL season). So yes, I did sharpen skates in the off-season.
Similar to what other players experienced, I noticed something when I got called up: I made a lot more money. My AHL pay was 45 grand (over those 7.5 months), so I would make that pro-rated for every day they kept me around.
… I liked when they did that.
Further, teams give players per diem for meals every day they're not at home. In the ECHL it was 32 bucks a day (Applebees!), in the AHL it was something like $56 (Applebees with a beer!). You know, because better players need to eat more expensive food. (During my 10 days or so at Isles camp, per diem was around $100 a day, and they provided meals, it was ridiculous. There was an omelet station at breakfast.)
I think the first place I stayed when I was with Bridgeport in the AHL was in Philly, and they put us up at a Four Seasons basically right downtown. There was a gigantic flat-screen on the wall and my bed felt like a cloud. I did not experience such things in the ECHL.
Guys just have more money the higher up you go, so nobody is trying to save per diem by eating gas station apples. But that's not where the lifestyle really changes for hockey players.
At Islanders camp they flew us to Moncton on their team plane, which was an unforgettable experience (both the peek at the lifestyle and the people of Moncton. They gave us a lobster feast I'll never forget).
The charter flight thing is bizarre. I remember Miroslav Satan(notes) pulling up in a silver Mercedes, kissing his wife, getting on the plane … and then we left. We just … left. It's like getting in a cab. I had no idea travelling was this easy for anyone.
We all basically had our own row on the plane, and the stewardess asked if I wanted the rock bass, steak, or chicken (the steak was done perfectly). Then they handed out chocolate bars, candy and gum. I am not making this up.
Those benefits can be earned by being better at this part, those 20 minutes or so per game that you're actually on the ice.
There's only been one game in my life where I felt like I was in over my head, and it was in Hartford while I was with Bridgeport. I wasn't getting a lot of ice, and watching from the bench makes it feel faster than actually playing it. I had a goal disallowed ("kicked in," but it was really just re-directed), but beyond that, I was useless. The pace was unlike anything I'd ever seen after spending the first half of the year in the ECHL.
That's the difference at every level — the skating. They say the jump from the ECHL to the AHL is bigger than the jump from the AHL to the NHL, and man I hope that's true. If those NHL guys are skating better than those dudes in Hartford, I never had a hope to begin with.
The nice part is, the higher you go, the easier it is to think the game. Players play their position better, and things seem simpler. It's more … organized. At times, the ECHL feels like high school gym class floor hockey, where everyone is chasing the tennis ball.
All in all, the lifestyle isn't that tough at any level. But as a player, you learn the simple equation pretty darn quick: if you play better, you get to live better.
Photo credit: Chris G. via Jalopnik