Dec 19, 2004
Last week I read in the paper that talks were back on between the bloated, rusty entity known as the NHL and the needling, wheedling piranha known as NHL players. I heard the flat-voiced Bill Guerin on a radio somewhere droning that the fans of hockey were owed something after the CBA crisis, and if the season resumes, less expensive ticket prices would only be fair. I heard him hum along boringly about a 24 percent reduction in player salary and about the player's proposed luxury tax system... blah, blah, blah. As a fan, I found that all the NHL sludge was giving me tired-head. After all, for the past three months I've been getting a pretty good hockey buzz following the minors. I maintain the heart and soul of hockey have always lived in the minor pros, not in the Big League, and that premise hit home hard when the two worlds of the NHL and the minor pros collided in the person of Brad Lukowich.
I knew long before the NHL lockout that it's a beautiful thing to sit on the glass at a hockey game with a cold beer in hand for just $28. It's even better when your beer gets knocked off its perch when two huffing, battling players slam into the glass right in front of you. There's more spirit, if less glamour, in a minor league game, and the sticky handrails and ancient, gum-encrusted seats of a worn-down barn are soon just about as comfortable as the $130 lower bowl seats in a slick new venue with plasma screens flashing out images urging you to cheer on your latest NHL heroes.
A fine NHL defenseman for the 2004 Stanley Cup winning Tampa Bay Lightning (and previously, the Dallas Stars), Brad Lukowich bravely announced his allegiance to the Central Hockey League's Fort Worth Brahmas in the face of the Collective Bargaining fiasco. It was a noble decision, to step down a couple of rungs on the professional hockey ladder, and play purely for the love of the game. Lukowich soon proved to be the consummate CHL player, totally committed, providing good, solid play and a marvelous, confident presence.
When head coach Al Sims called his men together for some strategy talk, no one listened closer than Lukowich. No one watched harder. He swore (loudly) to himself if the effort he made wasn't what he felt was his best. He made every practice, every day, on time. He rode to games on the team bus. He lived in the team's housing during training camp. He was willing to share his knowledge and expertise with guys who might never otherwise have the chance to play with someone at the NHL level. He scored a few goals. He led his young teammates by example; and the example was good.
The team named him captain at the season's start, and Lukowich's leadership had a clear and immediate impact on the Brahmas, helping to propel them to first place in the CHL's Northeast Division, the first time the team has enjoyed that status since October, 2002.
Whether yapping like a Lhasa Apso at an official from the penalty box, or bellowing like a bulldog across the ice on an assist, the presence of Brad Lukowich was felt in every aspect of the Fort Worth Brahmas' game. And then, one Tuesday, he left for Tampa Bay to pick up his Stanley Cup Ring, and never came back. Twelve games into the Brahmas' best CHL season ever, their great white hope was gone, without a word of explanation. What happened?
If Lukowich had come out and said directly to the Brahmas "Hey, I just can't come back," not one guy on the team would have protested his decision. They would have thanked him for his time, and sent him on his way, wishing him all the best. After all, Lukowich is living the dream that every minor pro player aspires to. But Lukowich's hasty and oddly wordless departure reeks to me of something rather rotten.
I smell a sports agent with NHL tentacles. I smell the insipid stink of a money-grubber telling a money-maker that he'll lose his financial viability if he continues to play in the lower echelons. How he'll lose his value if his level of play is only average or above average in a lower-tier league. An NHL'er can't be scored on by a lesser light; it looks bad for the big league. I can hear the hot-breathed whisper of an agent telling the pro he'd better be playing at nothing less than an outstanding level in the minors, dropping every minor league player in his path; otherwise, couldn't it be proven that the minor leagues just might be as entertaining as the major one? A costly secret could be out.
Lukowich's departure inadvertently revealed two important points to me. Number one, the NHL doesn't want the players to play... anywhere... and honestly, they really shouldn't. Secondly, the NHL product relies heavily on the shaky assumption that it's the best hockey entertainment available, which may not necessarily be true.
NHL hockey may have declared supremacy in the hockey world, but some years ago, it fell victim to itself; and while it struggles to right its ballast, the minor pro leagues are humming along quite nicely. When I first heard of NHL players coming into the minors to keep up their chops, it sounded exciting - and it was, for a week or two. Wow. We got to see a favorite NHL player up close and accessible for $15 or so. But now, I honestly can't see a discernible major impact that any off these "drop-downs" have made to any minor level franchise. The Brahmas may have rallied around Lukowich, but smart shopping in the summer by Al Sims netted several skilled players, and the Brahmas have continued to do quite well (13-7-3 overall) even after Lukowich left them. NHL player Brenden Morrow, as of this date, is still playing off and on for the CHL Oklahoma City Blazers, who are experiencing a mediocre season (9-10-4).
Whatever league, whatever team, these NHL drop-ins are the big time boys who can come and go at will, shuffling and re-shuffling a team's roster, changing a minor-pro teams' marketing plans and fan bases, and carelessly putting a young guy back on the 26-hour ride home to wait out a season he could, and should, be playing in. Every player has their place in the hockey echelon, and NHL players should keep to theirs. During this time when the warts and weaknesses of the NHL system are being thoroughly and painfully exposed, the AHL, CHL, ECHL, UHL, etc. should all be supported by hockey-fan ticket money. Frankly, the NHL players ought to sit at home, and stop taking roster spots from the minors. Those who scattered off to Europe so they can't as easily be cajoled or "reasoned" with, or, for that matter, convinced, that they're robbing some other "lower-level" guy who deserves his big chance, should be at home, and experience "solidarity" with their high-paid brethren. Both the NHL and NHL Players' Association ought to realize and recognize that there are other leagues that are providing just as much bang for much less buck. C'mon. It's their time. Give it to them.
The NHL is driven by money lust. The minor leagues, because they aren't being bled out by massive salaries, are not. Instead, they provide guts, and occasionally, some glory. If you want to, next season, you can pay an extra 100 bucks a ticket to witness the speed and finesse of NHL players, but I for one, am not missing it - really. Of course it's amazing to see a player with the ungodly skill level of a Forsberg, but it can be just as much of a thrill to watch a tie-breaking, do or die shoot-out, or to see two big lesser-light heavyweights from farms in Saskatchewan bust each other up on the ice unapologetically, even though they are best friends who grew up playing on the same peewee and junior teams.
Minor pro players may have an edge because they want so badly to play like a Forsberg, or a Scott Stevens, or a Wendel Clark. They're mostly very young, and filled with a fire that is often extinguished within a few hard seasons on the road. All these guys ever talk about is "going up," and the hunger for "going up" makes for some exciting play.
After Lukowich left the Brahmas, I took a good look at the teammates he left behind. All of them could represent any guy on any minor-pro team, struggling upstream in the great salmon run that is hockey. They don't bask in the grimy glare of the attention and publicity that is aimed at their NHL counterparts; in fact, much of the time, they're hardly noticed in the hockey world. But they are the backbone of the sport, the ones who are giving it their all every game, every season, and they remind every one of us of what hockey was like before it swelled up like a big pustule by trying to model itself on pro football and basketball.
Brian Bansner is a towering rookie with a looming presence who played last year at Utica College , New York . "I take my role very seriously," Bansner states in an slightly ominous undertone. Like many designated enforcers, Bansner, off ice, is quite reserved, generally soft spoken and polite. On the ice, his face wears an unreadable expression that can be far more fearful to an opponent than a wicked grimace. A 6'3", 223lb forward, Bansner is adjusting his clean cut college league play to suit the rough and rowdy CHL Brahmas, where the game can be very physical, if not downright dirty on occasion. "The standard of play is much higher, the players have much more skill. In college, you're just not allowed to fight, you'll be kicked out of the game, so my PIMs weren't very high. That might be changing this year."
The Brahmas' Dave Csumrik is a feisty yet amiable character; his game-weathered face often breaks into a crinkly smile, and his raspy voice recalls the prime of David Lee Roth. A noticeable lump sits on the left side of his nose. "Some high-sticking," he says, with a glint of a grin. The 5'11", 190 lb. defenseman has had a solid career in the minor pros, and like many guys in hockey who purposely choose to stay just outside of the limelight, he's been somewhat of a roving journeyman, playing all over the continent, from Ontario to Alaska . Good on the assist, Csumrik plays the rough and ready kind of hockey that seems to be in the very DNA of most players who come out of the general Toronto/Southeastern Ontario area.
Maybe if Lukowich hadn't jumped on board with the Brahmas for a few games, these two guys might have slipped under the radar, just another couple of good minor pro players bolstered by a big-money player who deigned to skate with them for a few games before the money bug reared it's spiny little head. Then again, maybe not. Csumrik, Bansner and the hundreds of other minor pro players have their own stories to tell, their own skill sets and their own on-ice personalities. They're paid to play hockey. They're professionals.
Just like their NHL counterparts, minor-pro players can become legends. Their game-worn jerseys can sell for hundreds of dollars. They are stopped after games by giggling females and melon-bellied men who want to tell them how they could have scored a goal that night. They train, they practice, and they sometimes sustain terrible injuries. They are fierce and fearless on the ice. They visit kids in hospitals, they attend supermarket openings, they are interviewed by journalists and they're protected and sometimes abused by their teams and leagues.
Look at them - the ones who get pummeled, and pummel back for your pleasure, and for only a $350-a-week paycheck. Watch the ones who earn a hat-trick for the price of your $11 seat. These guys are the ones who'll bash their opponents and themselves into the glass almost carelessly, because this game may make or break a career that may never go any further than the arena they're skating in. They chase a Cup not because it makes money for themselves and the franchise, or because of bonuses, shiny diamond rings or endorsement opportunities, but just because it means they won.
Sarah Green is based in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Kimberly Kolba is a professional photojournalist (and ballerina) in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Many thanks to her for the great images.
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