Erik Gustafsson spent the last four months of the 2015-16 season in the NHL, living the high life.
For road trips, he’d walk right on to the tarmac, and climb aboard a chartered plane with all first-class seats and several upscale meal options. On the road, he’d stay in Ritz-Carltons or the Four Seasons, or the like. He’d work out at palatial gyms and skate in state-of-the-art arenas. And his paycheck was about 10 times larger than it was while he was playing for Rockford in the American Hockey League.
So when he didn’t make the Blackhawks out of training camp in the fall of 2016, the comedown was sudden. And harsh.
“We started with an eight-hour bus trip to Cleveland,” Gustafsson said, chuckling. “We stopped at Chipotle. I mean, Chipotle is good, but it’s not quite the same.”
Vinnie Hinostroza has spent time in both the AHL and NHL in each of the past three seasons. (AP Photo)
For players who bounce from the AHL to the NHL and back, life in the big league serves as both a cruel tease and a healthy motivator. For players who spend years in the NHL only to be demoted to the AHL — players such as Cody Franson and Lance Bouma — the lifestyle change can be jarring and demoralizing.
No matter who you are and what you’ve done, once you’ve gotten a taste of the NHL, nothing else can compare.
“Every player, since they were a kid, dreamed of playing in the NHL, not the AHL,” said Tomas Jurco, who’s been up and down with both the Red Wings and the Hawks. “So once you’re here, you’ll do anything you can to stay here.”
Players are quick to point out that the AHL isn’t some sort of awful hellscape, an endless horror of indescribable agony. You’re still playing hockey. You’re still making good money, especially if you’re on a one-way contract. And the Hawks have made sure the IceHogs are one of the better outfitted teams in the AHL.
But the bus trips are long. The occasional flights to Texas or California or the East Coast are (gasp!) commercial, and in economy class. The hotels are modest. The arenas are more bare-bones. The schedule is strange — often three games in three nights over the weekend, then three or four days off in a row.
And everybody’s goal is to get out and move up. So when an NHL player is demoted, it can take a few days to accept the situation. IceHogs coach Jeremy Colliton knows to keep his distance early, especially for longtime NHL vets such as Franson or Bouma.
“You have some conversations — we know you’re there, we care about you — but sometimes it’s just best to not get too in deep into things for a few days, let them sort of accept the fact they are where they are,” Colliton said. “But at some point it’s time to get back to work, because in the end, we’re all being judged every day.”
Franson has earned universal praise for the way he’s handled his demotion after nine NHL seasons, almost serving as as an extra coach. Bouma is adjusting well, too.
Once you get over the initial shock and disappointment, it’s still hockey. And usually, it’s a bigger role.
“It’s really not hard at all,” said Vinnie Hinostroza, who’s been up and down a handful of times over the past three seasons. “You’re still playing hockey, you’re still doing the same job. You just go from having a little bit less responsibility in the NHL to having a lot more in the AHL.”
After not making the Hawks out of camp last fall, Hinostroza made a point of keeping a positive — and determined — mindset in Rockford. It paid off, as he earned a call-up in December and now is entrenched in the NHL as a productive player.
And while he said the bus isn’t bad — “You play cards, you watch a movie, and you’re there” — he still hopes he’ll never be on one to Cleveland ever again. That’s the real dream.
“It’s hard at first, but after a few weeks, you get used to it,” Jurco said. “The life is still not bad, it’s not like you’re going broke or working an extra job or anything. You’re just living a little differently.”
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