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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

It’s not about the money for minor league players

John J. Roberts Fort Collins Coloradoan

The line between success and failure in the Central Hockey League is about as fine as the skate blades the players glide on during their shifts at work.

Work?

Yeah, the employees in the CHL are not much different from the rest of us. They work year-round to make a living for their families. And many of their fans probably make more money than the players they cheer.

It’s a far cry from the lush life players lead in the elite NHL.

The CHL salary cap allows teams to divvy $8,500 a week among 18 players on the rosters. That’s an average of less than $500 a player per week.

New Mexico Scorpions owner Doug Frank said that last year some players on his team made as little as $300 a week. At those rates, players really have to love the game to stick with it.

“That’s ultimately what it comes down to,” said Colorado Eagles second-year coach Chris Stewart. “The risk vs. gain thing just wouldn’t work if you sat down and figured it out that way.”

The CHL is among the professional hockey leagues rated at the “AA” level. The next rung is the “AAA” American Hockey League on the way to the National Hockey League.

The average salary in the NHL was around $1.8 million in 2003-04. In the AHL, players make an average of about $50,000 a year, according to the league.

The chances of a CHL player making it all the way to the NHL are slim. A call-up to the AHL is more likely, but not many get there, either.

The players don’t kid themselves about where they are or where they’re going. Instead, they throw their bodies around the rink, travel by bus and live year to year, knowing there are no guarantees of where or if they’ll have a job by the time the next season rolls around.

Eagles defenseman Lee Ruff, 28, is from Strathclair, Manitoba, and works at his parents’ farm in the off-season, harvesting wheat and barley.

He went to college at Northern Michigan University and has a degree in electronics. He knows he could do better financially, but that’s not the point.

“We come to the rink every day, and it’s a great passion,” he said. “For me, half the time, you don’t even think you should be getting paid for it. You’re having so much fun.”

The sacrifices players make are not simply individual ones. Some of the players are married with children, which makes for a unique commitment by loved ones.

“You’re always moving place to place,” Ruff said. “You can be here in Colorado today, and tomorrow, you could be in San Angelo (Texas). It’s hard if you have a young lady that’s following you around. It’s hard on them to get jobs. … It’s hard on family and friends and relationships.”

First-year Eagles defenseman Kris Mallette came to Colorado with his wife, Susie, and a 10-month-old baby girl, Grace.

He refers to the 20-hour drive back home to Kelowna, B.C., in the off-season almost as a quickie road trip. He was making a 50-hour haul when he was playing for the Elmira Jackals in the United Hockey League in New York the previous two seasons.

Mallette says it’s a team effort in his household to live the hockey life. Priorities for expenditures must be set and adhered to.

“We’re definitely not hurting, but we’re not making millions,” he said. “You make do. There’s some things that you may want and you just can’t have, and that’s the sacrifice you have to make.”

The players appreciate the support they get from fans.

“To me right now, this is the NHL,” Ruff said. “The hype around town, people recognize you in public, the little kids run up to you. It overwhelms you; it really does.”