NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The ECHL is seen by most fans as a springboard for new players to get to the American Hockey League or even the National Hockey League one day. But for many young professional players, the ECHL is a goal that takes time to obtain.
Players that, for a variety of reasons, were initially overlooked by scouts or didn’t make an ECHL club out of training camp, look for ways to make it to “The E.” One of those ways is to play the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL,) grind it out, and wait for a chance to come up to the ECHL.
When the call comes, they pack up and travel to wherever the team is that is giving them the shot. They have to go into a new locker room, try to fit in, and then try to make a positive impression on the ice, not only with the team they are with but also with the team they are opposing. Players never know when the next, possibly career-changing, opportunity is going to come.
Steve Bergin spent five years as a player with the SPHL’s Pensacola Ice Flyers before becoming an assistant coach with the South Carolina Stingrays. He knows the reputation of the SPHL is improving, but for years, it had a bad reputation as a league and some players were reluctant to play there. Over time, the SPHL has fine-tuned its image and players are more willing to go to the SPHL to gain experience and earn a call-up to the ECHL.
When the Stingrays need to add a player to the roster, head coach Spiros Anastas and assistant Steve Bergin often look to the SPHL and its players to fill their need.
“We like to do our research. We like to reach out to people. Word of mouth is big. Obviously we don’t have people down in the SPHL scouting for us. I talk to my old coach (current Ice Flyers head coach) Rod Aldoff who is still down there and Jeremy Gates the assistant coach who played with me in Pensacola for three or four years,” Bergin said.” There are still players in that league who were there from when I was there, so just using the resources, talking to people, doing your due diligence and seeing what kind of player these guys are and almost just as important to see what kind of person they are. We are big on our culture here. Making sure we are bringing in the right guys that would fit in not only on ice but off ice as well.”
Good channels of communication involving the organizations and players are key for a player earning a call-up to the Stingrays.
“We’re pretty transparent with them. With the honesty of what the situation is, And we’re like that with their coach as well so they know what they are getting themselves into,” said Bergin.
Whether it is a player that has played in the ECHL before or a player getting his first shot in the league the process is pretty much the same according to Bergin.
“Right off the hop we try to make them feel comfortable. They come in and they are obviously nervous. It’s a step up. We have new systems, it’s a new team. They’re a fish out of water. So we try to make them feel as comfortable as possible and just focus on the things that have made them successful in the SPHL. The systems and all that will come with time. But we try not to get them too wrapped up in that stuff. We want them to know our structure and know how we play. But as the game goes on we teach them all those minor adjustments. Just go out there and play and play hard. Hockey is universal. If you are working really hard, you are going to give yourself an opportunity to be successful. We tell our guys that whether they are on an American League Contract or if they are on an NHL contract, It’s all the same. If you are working hard, you are going to be a much better player.”
The Stingrays currently have eight players on their roster that have played in the SPHL. Forwards Patrick Gaul, Patrick Megannety and Christian Horn; as well as defensemen Mike Chen, Cam Bakker, Vinny Muto, Chris Leone, and goaltender Gordon Defiel have all worked their way up from the SPHL.
First Shot at the ECHL
The player that has arguably come the furthest up through the ranks is Bakker. He started last year in Cornwall of the Federal Hockey League before getting an opportunity with the Roanoke Rail Yard Dogs. He made the most of his time there, and that turned into a training camp invite from the Stingrays. He made the opening day roster for the Stingrays after a strong camp performance.
“I feel really good about it,” said Bakker. “I’m proud of where I came from. It takes a lot of work. Kind of have to gut it out in some of the lower leagues. You don’t get treated as well as you do up here. Cornwall was nice it was close to home. So it was a good start. And then in January I went to Roanoke. They were fantastic. I think I matured a lot as a hockey player and as a professional. The coach there found me a spot up here for training camp. I worked my tail off to try and earn a contract here. They seemed to like what they saw.”
Staying in the ECHL can be tough. Roster numbers briefly forced Bakker back to the SPHL. However, within a few weeks, he was back in Charleston and doing his best to contribute to the team every day.
“Spiros was talking to me throughout the first month I was here about the numbers. So the whole time I was waiting for my chance and Spiros was good about it, being honest, saying my chance would come,” said Bakker. “I’m getting more comfortable with the game speed and how the East Coast players play. There’s some good talent and you have to be ready to take them on whenever you get a chance to be on the ice.”
Transitioning From Being A Call-Up
Mike Chen spent the majority of last year with the Knoxville Ice Bears before getting the call from South Carolina in February.
“Throughout the entire year I thought I was doing pretty well, with points, plus/minus and everything. It was just a patience thing to get that call a little bit later than I saw other people do. But once I did, it was a great culture here. I just kind of fit right in with the group,” said Chen. “The coach was really detailed with the systems and sat me down and went over video with them before the game so it was real easy to jump right in and be part of the team.”
Chen would spend over a month with the Stingrays before finishing out the season with Knoxville. He made the most of his time in Charleston and was re-signed by the Stingrays during the summer for the 18-19 campaign. With over half of the team new to Charleston this year, Chen quickly found his role had changed from being the new guy to being a player welcoming new faces to the locker room.
“I think my time here really settled me in. Guys like Gaulsy and Leacher (Joey Leach) where here when I was here. It’s easy to feed off of them when younger guys or new guys to the team are asking questions about the team or city,” said Chen. “It’s nice to bounce stuff off them and after talking to them, now I know what to say to people now.”
Being Happy Where You Are
Gordon Defiel had an up-and-down season last year between the SPHL and ECHL. But through all of the call-ups he only logged one game, playing in relief and never getting a start.
“I started in Utah, I was there for a few months, then I went to Pensacola, and then I went to Orlando, up and down for a month. Felt like every other day I was somewhere inbetween Orlando and Pensacola. I went to Fort Wayne and back to Pensacola and I got a call up from Greenville at the end but I was tired of doing the call ups and sitting on the bench kind of thing. So I ended up just staying in Pensacola for the rest of the year,” said Defiel. “It was kind of frustrating last year. I would go up there (Orlando) quite a bit and the one game I got into play was kind of funny. I was in Mississippi in the SPHL on a Friday night. After the game, I fly out on a red eye flight to Fort Meyers. Met the Orlando in Fort Meyers and they didn’t have a jersey for me, so I wore a black jersey and then the other goalie got pulled. So I went in halfway through the game in the Everblades arena. It was alright but it wasn’t the ideal year I thought of.”
With a year of professional experience under his belt, Defiel started the season in Fort Wayne’s training camp but found himself starting the year with the Macon Mayhem of the SPHL.
“This year I have a completely different mindset,” said Defiel. “I went into last year with the expectations. I had a good college career. I thought I was entitled to (play in) ECHL. I kind of changed my whole mindset this summer. Now, I just play the game because I love it and whatever happens, happens. My mentality is way different and it’s helped a lot.”
A month into the season and Defiel found himself in a similar situation. He was enjoying playing in Macon, but another ECHL team was on the phone with an offer. South Carolina needed a goalie after Parker Milner was recalled to the Hershey Bears.
“I told Coach Spiros when he called, I probably wasn’t coming and I really wasn’t interested in coming up for a couple of days because of the whole scenario from last year,” said Defiel. “But at the same time I figured one of these teams, one of these call ups, it’ll work out. So I told him I’d come up for the week and I’ll just practice hard for a couple of days and see if I can make a good impression. If anything else happens, then maybe I can be the guy that they call. Then it turns out I’m here for a little bit and then with Mo’s (Adam Morrison) injury I’ve been here for a little over a month now.”
His first game action was coming in for an injured Morrison. They split credit for the shutout that night against Florida, and the very next night he got his first start in the ECHL.
“It was awesome. I was looking forward to playing in the ECHL but my mindset is completely different now,” said Defiel. “Any game I play, I want to execute my job and do my role and have fun. But if it is ECHL or SPHL, my mindset this year is it doesn’t matter which league, I’m just going to go out and do my thing. It was fun to play and fun to realize that I can play in this league. It helps the confidence a little bit because until you play in the league, it’s all speculation.”
Times Change And Opportunity Awaits
More and more players are coming up to the ECHL from the SPHL. As the reputation of the SPHL improves, more players are choosing to start their professional careers in the SPHL and work their way into the ECHL.
“It’s come a long way from what I hear”, said Defiel. “It’s crazy how many good players are in that league. In Pensacola, throughout the year we had a couple of draft picks, we had four national champions and pretty much the whole league is top (NCAA) division one guys and top division three guys. It’s a good league. I think it is growing and becoming a better developmental league.”
Chen’s advice to players that start in the SPHL is to work hard and be patient.
“If you do start in the SP, and we have a handful of guys on our team that did start there, don’t get too frustrated Or think too down on the league. I’ve seen guys go to the SP and think it’s a joke and don’t try hard. And they’re the ones not getting calls. If you know that in the back of your mind that the SP is not where you are going to be if you keep working hard, you’ll move up and you’ll be just fine.”
Coach Bergin sees a parallel between the relationship of the AHL and ECHL and the ECHL and SPHL.
“I’d say it is similar to us and the American League. There are guys that are American League players that don’t want to come down to the Coast. But they come down and they are the big dog and they are on the power play and they are learning how to be pros and they are developing in those crunch situations. Guys that are playing here and they are playing in the last minute of a game, playing in those pressure points of a hockey game, so that’s huge for development. It’s the same thing down there. Those guys are learning how to be pros and how to develop so when they come up here they are ready to go.”
Bakker agrees that the SPHL can be an ideal place for development and gaining experience and now that he is in the ECHL he is going to keep pushing himself.
“You have to grit your teeth a little bit and put the work in, for sure. It comes down to how hard you work as a person. Stay away from some of the extracurriculars that go on off the ice and focus on putting your time in, getting the practices in, the reps in and anyone can get a chance. You just have to keep working for it. I’m going to focus on where I’m at right now and keep trying to improve. That’s one thing I want to keep doing and see how far this hockey dream can continue.”