ROAD TO STARDOM
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Every hockey-loving kid dreams of playing in the NHL, but few ever expect that the path will include stops in places like Rochester, Hershey, Houston or Grand Rapids.
In reality, most NHL-bound players will spend some time in the minor leagues, where they must develop and hone their skills. For some, it's a matter of months; others spend years and years before getting their big break.
Examples abound on the Detroit Red Wings. For Darren McCarty, Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper the team's Grind Line the stay was relatively short. For others, like goaltender Manny Legace and defenseman Jason Woolley, the road was a bit longer.
For all, the process played a pivotal role in them becoming the professional hockey players they are today.
What a great experience! says McCarty, who spent the entire 1992-93 season in the AHL with Adirondack. It was my first season as a professional and I thought it was the cat's pajamas.
It was a wide-eyed experience for McCarty, a fresh-faced rookie on a veteran-laden team. All of a sudden I'm making $30-35,000 a year and as a 20-year-old kid, that's enormous, he says. I got to buy my first Jeep.
Woolley's experience, it seems, was almost the exact opposite. I hated it, he says, only half-kidding. At the time you always think you should be playing in the NHL. But looking back, it was something I needed.
Love it or hate it, playing in the minors often provides the seasoning that a raw, unproven prospect needs.
Kirk Maltby, Edmonton's fourth choice in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, scored 50 goals for Owen Sound in his final year of junior hockey before he joined Cape Breton of the AHL.
Mentally, I knew I wasn't going to go up and score 50 goals, so you learn to adjust, he says. At the same, you want to contribute, but you've got to have patience, to have the work ethic that will take you to the next level.
During his rookie year, the 1992-93 season, Maltby's style of play slowly evolved. Playing at Cape Breton helped me become a better all-around player, he says. I had to change from an offensive player to being more defensive-minded.
You learn that you have to change your game a little bit as you go up the ladder.
Sometimes it's more than a prospect's playing style that has to change. Draper floundered in the Winnipeg Jets organization for three years, mostly playing for their minor league affiliate in Moncton, before he found new life with Detroit. The Red Wings secured his rights for a now infamous $1.
For whatever reason, things didn't work out for me in Winnipeg, Draper says. Maybe it was the transition of being on my own, of realizing that I'm a professional hockey player now. But the bottom line was I got another opportunity elsewhere and I made the most of it.
In the minors, patience can sometimes be as important as your skills and abilities.
After six years, I was almost labeled a (career) minor leaguer, Legace says. Was I frustrated? Tons of times. You look at who's in the NHL and you wonder why you're not getting the opportunity to take that next step. Every year you get sent down and you get frustrated.
Woolley went from Michigan State University to the Canadian Olympic program. After the 1992 Olympic games, he expected to get a pass to the NHL, but the Washington Capitals were already stacked with defensemen.
He bounced between Washington and the Capitals' minor league team in Baltimore, and later Portland, for three seasons.
There's only one way to handle going down (to the minors) and that's to play your butt off, Woolley says. You've got to make an impression every time you're out there. You have to take it for what it's worth. Go down and work on your skills.
If you pout, guys are going to see that and management is going to see it and it's going to be even tougher. If you're floating and not giving 100 percent, you're hurting everybody's chances and that's not what you want on a team.
All I did to rebound whenever I was sent down to the minors was to tear it up. My goal was to dominate down there. If you dominate, you're usually going to get your shot.
Like Draper, it took a change of scenery before Woolley could establish himself as an NHL performer. After gaining his release from Washington, he found new life with the Detroit Vipers in the International Hockey League.
I had an absolute blast, Woolley says. I went to the Vipers and started to enjoy the game again. I wasn't even sure I was going to get to the NHL (again), but I was having a heckuva good time down there.
Woolley signed with the Florida Panthers in February during his season with the Vipers. That was nine seasons ago and he's been in the NHL ever since.
Playing in the minor leagues is often a way for young prospects to distinguish themselves. McCarty's rough-and-tumble ways would eventually earn him a spot with the Red Wings.
I was taught by one of my junior coaches that you've got to do something really well, better than most other players, to establish yourself, and then you can work at the rest of your game.
Fortunately for McCarty, he was playing on a team ideally suited to his physical style.
We had a tough, tough team probably the toughest team in hockey that year, he says. Being able to play a physical game really helped my transition and we had a lot of veteran players who looked out for me.
Kirk Tomlinson, Ken Quinney, Chris Tancill and Gary Shuchuk all of whom spent most of their careers in the minor leagues provided excellent examples for McCarty during his minor league season. They were guys that would spend time with you and work with you after practice, he says.
Maltby says veteran minor leaguers can provide a calming influence for a young kid.
For me, it wasn't one particular guy it was more their influence as a group, Maltby says. The veterans helped relax the younger players. At the same time, the younger guys helped motivate the guys who had been around for four or five years.
Maltby admires players who stick it out in the minors. After four or five years, I can see where it might start wearing on you, he says. It's just a matter of staying positive. You try to remember why you love hockey in the first place.
It can be a grind down there, Legace agrees, remembering the eight-hour bus rides and playing three games in three nights or four in five. A lot of guys in the NHL have never seen the minors. They don't realize how good they have it. (Playing in the minors) makes you appreciate what we have here.
Draper says his enthusiasm for the game was renewed by Newell Brown, the head coach at Adirondack when he came to the Wings from the Winnipeg organization. He was very energetic, Draper says. You'd come to the rink every day and you knew you had work to do, but it was a fun atmosphere.
And having fun is what hockey should be all about. We did everything as a team and it was blast just to be around each other, McCarty says. It was one of the most fun years of playing hockey that I've had.
McCarty says playing in the minors was a real positive experience because he took everything he could from the opportunity.
I learned about leadership and what it took to be a winner, McCarty says. You're always learning. I think that's what is important a willingness and open-mindedness to learn.
Learning your trade in a winning atmosphere doesn't hurt. Maltby played on a championship team at Cape Breton during his first season in the minors.
Winning the Calder Cup gave me confidence going into the next season, Maltby says. It enabled me not to be nervous and gave me the opportunity to show my skills to the big club.
For a young player looking to progress, often getting a regular shift in the minors is better than sitting the pine in the NHL.
You can go up and play three shifts, but you're not going to be able to show anything and they're going to send you right back, Woolley says. I think it's good for every kid to learn to ride the bus and play on the road like they do in the minors.
Just the opportunity to play every day is huge, Draper says. I got to play different roles and that helped me in my development and helped me become a part of the Red Wings, and here I am now in my 11th year with the organization.
Maltby is not alone when he says that he enjoyed playing in the minors because it was a whole lot better than the alternative no hockey at all.
I was a young guy just happy to be playing hockey, Maltby says. At the time, it didn't matter that it was the minor leagues. I wasn't complaining. I was a professional hockey player.