Hockey players debate professional avenues

Goalie Jason Greenwell said he's considering playing overseas in Europe after his days at Eastern are over.  Photos by Anna Mills
Goalie Jason Greenwell said he’s considering playing overseas in Europe after his days at Eastern are over.
Photos by Anna Mills

Rigors of junior hockey apparent to aspiring hockey players

By Peter Sowards



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After being released by the Alabama-based Huntsville Havoc, a professional hockey team in the Southern Professional Hockey League, freshman defender Chase Wharton started to think long term about his future.

His thinking led him to Eastern, where he can play hockey for the Eagles for the next three years while earning a college education and hopefully a degree. “You can’t play forever,” Wharton said. “It’s something I will need in my figure, and I figured no better chance to do that than after just getting released.”

Wharton joined EWU’s club hockey team midway through the 2012-13 season thanks to a British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League rule that allows professional players to go from pro to college without penalty, so long as they do so within their age-21 season. According to coach Bill Shaw, the rule allows for players to try out the pro ranks for a short time and determine whether or not they are a good fit.

However, a player who waits until he is 22 years old is out of luck. “If you’re 21 years old and you try it, you’re fine,” Shaw said. “If you’re 22, then you have to sit a full calendar year before you can play.”

From ages 16 to 20, Wharton and other aspiring players are eligible to play junior hockey, a highly competitive competition in the United States and Canada. Shaw compared the nuances of junior hockey to Amateur Athletic Union basketball. “It’s all kids of that age, but they’re not really attached to a school. They’re attached to a club team instead,” Shaw said.

Canadian junior hockey, in which most players in this area have participated, is broken up into three major tiers: Major Junior, in which the Spokane Chiefs play, Junior A, and Junior B, C and D.

Elliot Martin played in Washington, Montana, Minnesota and Texas during his junior hockey career.
Elliot Martin played in Washington, Montana, Minnesota and Texas during his junior hockey career.

Elliot Martin, currently a junior forward for EWU, knows the rigors of junior hockey well. Martin played for the Butte Rough Riders in 2006, was traded to the Tri-City Titans in 2007, then moved to Minneapolis and tried out for “a bunch of different teams.” He caught on with the Minnesota Flying Aces in 2008 and had a “cup of coffee” with the Wichita Falls Wildcats during the 2008-09 season. “It was pretty unreal,” Martin said of the experience.

“It makes you grow up in a hurry, being 16 and playing with 20-year-old guys that have 50 pounds on you and definitely a few inches,” Martin added. “You mature a lot faster.” Martin said that he owes much of his character and independence to the experiences during his junior hockey career.

Martin and current EWU hockey club president Jason Greenwell said that playing overseas in Europe is a viable possibility to continue their hockey careers after college. “They provide housing for you, a car for you and your family if you have a spouse and then they also pay you,” Greenwell said.

“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about the professional aspect,” Martin said. “Because if you’re capable to go play, and you don’t have any commitments that are keeping you in one place, it’s a good move to go to a European league.”

Shaw said he tried to impress onto the players the importance of getting a college education. “The most important thing is getting these guys something they can do with their lives in case hockey doesn’t work out, which, unfortunately for most of them — it’s just like any other professional sport — it’s not going to work,” Shaw said. “It’s the one percent of the one percent that make it, and the rest of them don’t. You got to give them another option.”

Still, a common theme from Wharton, Martin and Greenwell was to follow your dreams while being realistic. Martin said that it is wise to not make any quick decisions, laying things out and taking all factors into consideration. “You have to try and see the big picture and what’s going to benefit you most and create the most opportunities for you.”

“Most players in any sport have played since they were little kids,” Wharton said. “And chances are, if they’re still playing by the time they’re 18, they love it. You kind of owe it to yourself to make an attempt to see what you can do with it. If that’s not what you want to do, then follow what you want to do, whether it’s sports related or not.

“I know that I had a dream just like every other kid does to play some kind of professional sport, … and I went for it. I would say the same for anybody else that is 18 years old or 20 years old or whatever — just to make an attempt.”

Follow me on Twitter @PeterSowards or at @EasternerSports