(Photo: Brian Collett/Fayetteville Marksmen)
This is easily one of the most common questions we always get as a site – and I get personally – in our messages or in person. Next to questions about expansion, of course.
And for good reason! I honestly hadn’t had too much of an idea where players in our Southern Professional Hockey League came from, outside of them having high-level junior experience or being high-quality NCAA D3 players.
The biggest misconception, for both the Federal Hockey League and the SPHL, is that the players in the leagues are untalented or beer leaguers or Junior B dropouts. While there have certainly been less-than-exceptional players, the leagues contain high-level talent from reputable leagues and colleges.
From answering wayward phone calls from agents, to myself being personally emailed by foreign players over the summer, I’ve learned a bit of the ins-and-outs of at least a small sample of how players find their way to the SPHL.
The most important thing to understand is that these players want to keep playing hockey, and that’s why they DO play in these lesser-luxurious leagues.
Most guys in their late 20’s don’t dream of riding a sleeper bus every weekend, living with a revolving-door of roommates in apartments, or making a few hundred bucks a month, but most understand that it means they’re at an elite level as a player – being paid to play as a professional – even if it “is just the SP”.
Why I preface with that, is because it’s the same reason and way someone like me wants to be in minor pro hockey – to be better every day in a rare position.
Direct Contact From Players
The same way I had to apply via email and have phone interviews is actually not dissimilar to how a number of guys find their way into the league.
Their “advantage”, if it can be called that, is statistics. HockeyDB and EliteProspects are absolutely beneficial for guys who may not have the recognition of school or junior teams.
Typically the players will themselves call or email the coach with their background info and statistics. In some situations in the SPHL, players (typically foreign, not always) will have an agent, and this agent will contact the coaches with their “client”.
I would say this is the most common way players are found. Modern technology, tracking, and communications have made it almost easier than ever to be able to find SOME kind of work in hockey.
Does this immediately get you a tryout? Definitely not. There’s a lot of reference-scouting that goes in following this initial contact, should it get past the first step. The blessing/curse of having a database that registers all your stats and history is that there’s a resume essentially already made for you in where you play versus what you’ve done, followed by contacting those teams for information.
Have a name like “OHL”, “USHL”, or “ECHL” in your HockeyDB? Looks good. Have more than a handful of games? Great. Have goals or a high +/-? Looks better. It’s a shallow scouting book, especially since numbers don’t tell all the story in hockey, but it’s a good ice-breaker.
It’s always good to have someone go to bat for you. If coaches can get insight from someone who played alongside another player professionally/collegiality/amateur, or hear good things about them from fellow league coaches or reputable coaches in the collegiate ranks, it goes a long way.
In an especially-unfortunate instance like the folding of a team (i.e. Mississippi this past off-season), this could be the difference between continuing in this league, or being in Free Agent limbo.
This was the case for a pair of players we picked up at the beginning of the year from the Riverkings. We had signed one player to a Training Camp tryout, and he persisted that his former linemate was deserving of an offer. After talking with the player and looking back at the players stats, he was ultimately brought over. This isn’t incredibly uncommon of a scenario, though the folding situation is.
When our team was looking for an Amateur Tryout goaltender to fill a position left void by a called-up player, one of our Rookie Forwards gave a recommendation to a former College teammate having an impressive-season. The goaltender’s stats, recommendation from our player and his coach, and his availability worked out for a favorable mixture, and he found his way down for a weekend.
It is crucial for Coaches in Minor Pro hockey to have positive, honest, straight-forward relationships with other coaches in their own league, the ECHL (namely for Training Camp), and the FHL. The main reason this is important is for player information, especially in the context of potential trades or picking a player off of waivers.
You want to make sure that you’re trustworthy and provide the most-accurate information when talking in regards to players, because you want to make sure that you’re getting the same back when you need a player for a specific role or to fit your roster.
Coaches are in communication a lot more than I think the average fan would anticipate. In fact, I’d say during the early and middle parts of the season, coaches are in pretty-consistent communication with each other, contemplating trades and moves to find the right piece to benefit each other and build the most complete roster they can. It isn’t wise for a coach to alienate themselves from the others, because as the saying goes, “politics makes strange bedfellows”, and you never know when you might be an acquisition away from setting your team in the right direction – without undermining your opposition intentionally.
It’s a lot about communication – open and honest – and you never want to burn a bridge, be it a coach or a player. I’ve seen it a few times over the last couple seasons where a previously-moved player has returned back to the initial organization in some way. It’s important to have those relationships readily available.
This is an unbelievably-tricky tight-rope to walk for coaches in the SPHL. How do you find the most talented players, while assuring their not too-talented where they move up? How do you find middle of the road guys who are worth more than their stats?
The challenge, quite literally, keeps coaches up at night. I look back at our Training Camp roster, and our coach had to start from scratch with our organization, after taking over a team that had one of the worst records in SPHL history last year. Training Camp was more-or-less just an extension of the collegiate season, with so many rookies headlined by a majority of Protected Players up in ECHL camps. We were confident with the hungry, unproven group we had, and we were right – then help came as ECHL camps started releasing players.
Again, it’s a very tricky process. You want to field the most-talented players and the best team, but with that success comes the challenge of watchful eyes from above. Our team has been lucky in the fact that we only had barely a handful of players go up, with only one being up for over a couple weeks. A team like Macon, hasn’t been so lucky.
Macon started off 11-0, had an outstanding goaltending core and a team of scorers. ECHL teams took notice, and slowly deconstructed a tight-knit talented team to the point where when we played them last weekend, I hardly recognized most of the players from just our previous season meeting. Now they find themselves on the other side of a downward spiral, with a pair wins two weeks ago holding off a long-losing streak.
It’s a tough business. You can go from the best to struggling to find the best-available in the course of a few weeks. That’s the danger of a development league and being independent – anyone can contact you and want your players, and if your players want to go on to the next level, how can they say no?
That’s why coaching in this league is a revolving-door of acquisitions, adjustments, roster moves, and transactions – finding that squad of players to come in from the start who have that potential to make up a solid lineup without any overwhelming superstars is far easier said than done.
Especially when you have to stay under the Veteran Umbrella, and wanting to get those guys who may not be looking to move up or may be unable to move up come at a higher-priced premium.
Maintaining your roster, the salary cap, the teams above you, and the talent of your squad – now you tell me it’s easy to coach in this league.
As common-core as this seems, I honestly have not heard all-too-often actually being in the SPHL of a notable number of Call-Ups signing full-contracts. There have been the rare few, but most seem to be on essentially PTO’s or short-term SPC’s.
I’m not saying this as a dish at the Federal Hockey League, because I’ve seen a number of talented players who did come up from there and become regulars in the SPHL – former Marksmen Zach Tatrn (Port Huron, SWPA, Steel City) and Paul Fregeau (Watertown) certainly come to mind – but just that it’s surprisingly less-common than I had anticipated.
However, from following call-up trackers from the FHL to the SPHL this season, it seemed the more-permanent acquisitions happened in the earlier part of the two seasons. That was notably what started the decline of the Danville Dashers, and created a myriad of roster movement for the Carolina Thunderbirds. Especially when you consider a goaltender like Christian Pavlas from Carolina who was called up by the SPHL a few times.
Typically, it is off-season acquisitions or Training Camp tryouts that see players transition from the FHL to the SPHL – not unfamiliar to the SPHL up to the ECHL.
However, the difference I’ve noticed is a lot more geographically appropriate. The guys from our team that’ve been called up to the E have went to Norfolk or nearby teams, namely.
As the FHL grows in legitimacy with competitive teams, better pay, and better players, expect this category to grow.
The bottom line is, there are boundless ways for players to either end up or get themselves to the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Whether players work to get here and are happy to be high-level independent pros, or still chasing the opportunity to make it to the next, affiliated-level, the competitive drive and hunger of the players is apparent.
No matter how, the crop and quality of talent continues to improve as the league legitimizes. That’s what makes following the player development so fun here.