Why work when you can play? UHL players might not get rich playing minor league hockey, but hey, it sure beats working for a living
FOR SCOTT FEASBY, LIFE AFTER hockey means working on his father’s dairy farm north of Toronto.
He’s not necessarily dreading it, but he’s in no rush to get there either. That’s why he’s trying to squeeze as many years out of his United Hockey League career that his 30-year-old body will let him.
Like most players at the Double-A level, Feasby has to work during the offseason to make ends meet. The UHL has a hard salary cap of $250,000 per year, meaning weekly paychecks range anywhere from $300 to $1,200 during the 25-week season.
For younger players, the sacrifice is worth it because they’re still chasing the dream of making it to the next level. For veterans such as Feasby, the UHL is almost like vacation compared to the dawn-to-midnight rigors of dairy farming or working 940-5 in the “real world.”
“What better job can you have coming to work a couple of hours a day?” says Feasby, team captain of the Muskegon Fury. “Yeah, you take some bumps and bruises. But overall you have a lot of time to relax. The bottom line is you’re having fun.
“When you’ve played since you’re five years old and have played at this level for so long, it’s hard to give it up, too. You have that itch to get at it each year; you want to win each night.”
Feasby’s fortunate that he’s got a secure future awaiting him. “Our farm’s expanding every year,” he says. “I don’t get many days off in the summer. Most people in Muskegon know that. They know I’m glad to be back to have some fun.”
The most attractive part about UHL life is that teams are required to pay their players’ housing costs. After shelter, the most important thing athlete’s worry about is staying well fed.
“Usually you go grocery shopping from day to day, because sometimes you’re only home for a day or two,” says the Knoxville Speed’s Craig Desjarlais. “You can’t go shopping for food that’s going to expire when you go on the road for two weeks. So we make almost daily trips to Kroger.”
Single players typically share apartments and Desjarlais has a good working arrangement with teammate Casey Burnette. “He’s been doing the cooking, doing our pregame meals when we’re at home. I’ve been fortunate because I’m not the best cook in the world. So far he’s cooked some great meals, so I can’t complain,” he says.
By now, Desjarlais has probably sampled Burnette’s chicken-and-pasta specialty at least 30 times. That’s why he also keeps an eye out for special deals at Knoxville-area restaurants.
“If you’re going out to eat, you might as well go to a place where your team has a 50%-off deal,” he says. “You can always save money that way as opposed to going to some steakhouse and spending $30 for a meal. You’ve just got to use your money wisely. It’s not like we’re bankrupt here. We make enough money to survive and have a good time.”
The B.C. Icemen’s Glendon Cominetti saves a few dollars by only eating twice on game days. “Once right after practice and then a pregame meal. I go to a buffet in the afternoons so I don’t have to eat dinner,” he says with a smile. “Actually I eat at home a lot. You learn how to shop.”
Teams also give players $25 for meal money when they’re on the road. Adirondack IceHawks coach Gates Orlando knows that guys making $300 per week might pocket some of that money. Instead of cash, he simply picks up the team’s restaurant tabs. That way he doesn’t have to worry about players collapsing from lack of energy in the middle of a game.
“If you go on the road and give them envelopes of $25 each, who knows who’s going to eat?” Orlando says. “This way, if I control the meal, I know they’re all eating. You don’t have to give them cash. We can pay, so long as it’s a simple meal. We’ve always treated the guys pretty good.”
Orlando, who had an extensive pro career Rat included three years in the NHL and several seasons in pro leagues in Italy and Switzerland, never had to worry much about financial security. However, he knows from experience that minor league life at any level isn’t really easy.
“I’ve heard stories about guys turning the heat down, watching TV in their warm jackets,” he says. “Our top players are making good money, but they’re not getting rich. What keeps them going is that they still enjoy playing. It’s their love for the game, their passion. It’s a good lifestyle for six months. They can actually do something they enjoy and get compensated fairly well.
“The other six months they work as a regular person.”
Finding a decent-paying summer job is one of a UHL player’s greatest challenges. The list is almost endless: construction, landscaping, waiter, even car sales.
“You just can’t afford not to work in the summer time,” says Muskegon’s Dean Mayrand. “You have to work very hard. You’re working to earn money, then you’re working on conditioning and hockey, also, because you want to make it to the next level. It takes a lot of time during the summer.
“I train hard during the offseason. That’s not cheap, either. It costs $10-per-hour for ice time and I box, too, and that costs a little money.” As an Ontario resident, Mayrand benefits from the U.S.-Canadian currency rate. “American money transfers into a lot more. I send 8100 home every week and that’s $150 Canadian, so that does help out,” he says.
B.C.’s Derek Wood heads home to Prince George, British Columbia, at the end of each season. “By the time I get home, a lot of students have already taken up the jobs,” he says. “It’s tough to find a job that’s going to pay you enough to put food on the table. The economy’s not that great.
“That’s a tough life, especially if you’re 21 or 22 years old and you’ve got a family. My wife works, and she’s definitely supportive. It would be nice to spend more time with my son, but sometimes it’s not possible.”
“Some people just play hockey for fun at this level,” Wood says. “But for the most part everyone wants to be at the next level.”
Regardless of their skills, the lure of higher leagues is undeniable. Only one NHL player makes less than $200,000. Detroit has the NHL’s richest payroll at $64.4 million. The lowest-paid Red Wing, Maxim Kuznetsov, makes $475,000 a year. That’s almost double the total annual payroll for each UHL franchise.
Now that the International Hockey League has folded, the American Hockey League is the destination most Double-A players hope for. Even there, salaries range anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000, a major step up.
Adirondack’s Frank Littlejohn and Marc Busenburg earned promotions to the AHL’s Rochester Americans this year. While leaving holes in the IceHawks’ roster, it also inspired teammates about the possibility of better things to come. It explains why 25-year-old Eric Seidel is willing to put other career plans on hold for a chance to keep playing hockey.
“I’ve spent my whole life playing hockey,” he says. “I’m trying to get something out of it. My parents and I spent so much money sending me here, driving me there, now I’m playing hockey to get paid.
“I’m playing because I love to play. The better I do the more I’m going to be worth. I’m hoping to have a good year and write my own ticket, pave my own way next year.
“I’m not in this right now to make money. I’m happy to get a job. I’m around good people, having a good time, and I work four nights a week. What else can I want?”
Refreshing attitudes like this are a key reason for the UHL’s success. Fans will always plunk down $10 for a ticket to see players giving their best every second of every shift. The IceHawks are in their third season at Adirondack, filling a void left by the AHL’s Red Wings, which had lackluster teams during the tail end of a 20-year stay in Glens Falls, N.Y.
“It’s like night and day,” says booster club president Bill Nolan. “These players are very, very appreciative of anything they get.”
Nolan spends time before each home game cutting up oranges and bananas, then taking them to the locker room to give the players an energy boost. “I think if we did that years ago they’d throw them at you,” he says. “At this level the kids are thrilled to get them. If we have a dinner meeting, they’re there. If I ask for seven players for some event, I get eight. At the next level, if you ask for seven you might get two.”
Booster clubs play an important part in the life of any minor pro hockey player. Members provide food, furniture, even phone cards.
“It’s got to be very, very difficult,” Nolan says. “That’s why we do simple things like phone cards to help them call home and keep in touch. Some of them will do this for a couple of years, just hoping to get that break to go to the next level. A lot of them wind up going back home and getting regular jobs like all of us.”
Adirondack’s Trent Schachle spends summers doing construction work near Anchorage. At anywhere from $25-to-$39 per hour, the pay is quite a bit better than Double-A hockey. His brother owns a $200,000 home, has a handsome retirement nest egg, and no substantial bills to speak of. At 29, Schachle could be in the same boat. But even with three young children, he’s willing to delay a few of life’s comforts to pursue a life in hockey.
“Is it worth it?” he asks. “I think it is. My kids come out and they like to see me play. The oldest just wants to go to hockey all the time. I think that’s good for a kid to get into a sports environment, no matter what the sport is. It keeps them motivated.”
Adirondack’s Booster Club hosted a team dinner meeting early this season and raffled off a number of items including a large action photo with Schachle’s uniform No. 10 in plain view. Schachle’s young sons walked up to the photo where four-year-old Tanner turned to his three-year-old brother, Brayden, and said, “Look, there’s daddy!”
As it says in the MasterCard commercials, “priceless.”
Schachle believes the rigors of hockey are mild compared to danger he faces working high up in the air on steel construction projects. “I’m working at least 50 and sometimes 60 hours a week, every week, in summer,” he says. “It’s sort of mindless, just welding. Here you get to be a little creative. You’re more like a kid. I really enjoy that, just getting out there and playing.
“That’s why I’m here. I’m still having fun playing the game. I think that’s why everybody’s at this level.”
IceHawks teammate Hugo Belanger spent last summer selling cars after capturing the UHL’s MVP Award as its leading scorer in 2001. “I needed to find something that was going to give me a decent salary. It didn’t matter how many hours I had to put in. But it was definitely different because I was working 11- or 12-hour days and I didn’t have weekends off, because that’s the time you sell the most cars,” he says.
What did he learn? “The next time I buy a car it’ll be different, let’s put it that way,” he says with a laugh.
“I took it as an experience,” Belanger adds seriously. “It gave me a lot of communications skills and the way to negotiate with people. It’ll definitely help in the future.” He’s among the league’s scoring leaders again this year, so retirement isn’t in his immediate plans, but eventually Belanger would like to open his own business, a restaurant perhaps. Hockey has prepared him for such a challenge in many different ways.
“I’ve had opportunities to meet some very powerful and important people,” he says. “What I’ve really learned is that they’re just like you and I are. It’s just a matter of status or money. When you go out and have a beer with these people they’re exactly the same as you and I are. Usually they’re not smarter than you and I are, they just happened to make the right moves at the right time. Maybe they’re a little more educated or they did the right research in the right areas. It doesn’t mean they’re smarter.
“Intimidation is not a factor for me any more. I don’t think I’ll ever be intimidated talking to anybody.”
Just in case Belanger opens a sports bar, he might want to think twice before hiring Seidel as a waiter. Seidel is among the UHL’s fastest skaters, but admits it took him a while to acquire the finer points of joining a wait staff, the first such job he had last summer.
“It took some time to figure it out,” he says, shaking his head. “At first I was sweating about it and got really nervous. People weren’t getting their food and you know how people are when they don’t get their food. They were yapping at me.”
Given a choice, he’d rather be hit along the boards by a 240-pound defenseman.
“I understand now when I go to restaurants,” Seidel says. “I take it easy on the waiter or waitress.”
Adirondack netminder Ryan Person is just happy to be with a stable organization. He spent last year with a Western Professional League team in Louisiana that folded during the season. “I went down there the end of November. We got a paycheck the next week. All of a sudden we didn’t get another for about three or four weeks,” he recalls. “Then talk started about the team folding so guys started getting on the phone and getting worried about their jobs.”
“You’ve got bills to pay back home, your rent’s due and there’s nothing to pay it with. So you start scrounging around pretty darn quick.”
Person has done landscaping work each of the past seven summers, a seasonal job that alternates perfectly with his hockey career. “Here you mostly make enough to make ends meet,” he says. “So I keep my job back home. But I enjoy working, too. It keeps me busy, it keeps me out of trouble.”
Knoxville’s Marc Dupuis is a sixth-year pro with nearly 200 games to his credit in the IHL and AHL. His UHL paycheck is decidedly smaller, but he still enjoys the satisfaction of a hard-fought game. “It’s a league for us to play in. We enjoy doing it,” he says. “Last summer I was seriously thinking about giving up the game and going back to school or pursuing some sort of career. But I decided to play another year. I’m having fun. That’s the main thing.
“Who knows? Maybe this will be my last year. H1 take it one step at a time and go from there.”
Coaches are extremely cognizant of their players’ economic conditions. “It’s tough, especially for a guy who has kids, Orlando says, “They have to find alternative work to make ends meet. For a single guy, he can probably live on barely nothing. His housing’s paid for. You just have to learn your parameters, what you spend.”
Having low-paid players presents challenges for coaches, too. “It’s a two-edged sword,” Orlando says. “Guys are not making much so you don’t have to deal with that prima donna-type player. On the other hand, a guy who’s not making very much money, it’s tough to get him to go through the wall for you. You can only push him so hard. There’s a fine line.”
“If you become a drill sergeant or dictator these guys are going to say forget it. These guys have to have fun.”
Sources: 2002 Century Publishing, 2002 Gale Group