By Jacob Marotta
Thirty hours on a bus, with only stopping one. Bussing from South Dakota to Texas after a long, hard game of hockey is something people may know about being a minor league hockey player. What the people don’t know about is the families, the mental health, the drug and alcohol abuse, the painkiller addictions and so much more behind the scenes. I was able to catch up with my brother, Samuel Marotta, an ex-professional hockey player who was kind enough to speak on his experience and what he has seen behind the scenes of professional hockey. Sam was a goaltender in the Philadelphia Flyers, Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks minor league hockey affiliates. He played in both the AHL (American Hockey League, AAA) and the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League, AA). He has played in many places ranging from Elmira, NY to Anchorage, Alaska.
The average day for the minor league hockey player starts at 7:30AM with a below average breakfast spread at the rink followed by off-ice stretches, warmups, and videos. Next comes an hour practice on the ice that is followed by another stretch and cool down. After practice comes another film session with special teams, such as power play and penalty kill unit. By this time it is about 12:30PM, however the day has only just began. From here, the players have to keep the fans, sponsors, and owners happy. In order to do so, they are required to make daily appearances at the elementary schools to read, fast food chains to make appearances, and local news and charity programs they have to work in order to play that night. From here they head back to the rink for pregame warmups and preparation from their coach. They will then play their game at around 7:00PM and do it all over again the next day.
Still think it doesn’t sound that bad? That is a day of the life of a minor league hockey player with a home game. Usually after home games these players don’t go home. They shower, pack their stuff up, and get on a crowded bus to drive to their next destination which could be 30 hours away. Anything farther than 30 hours on a bus, they take a plane.
A huge problem in minor league hockey right now is health; not just physical health but mental as well. All of these guys are playing this sport for a living, however the pay is not sufficient enough to make a living. Now imagine the many guys that have wives and families. These guys are trying to support their family while on the road twenty-four seven making very minimal money. When you’re in this situation, you’re doing anything you can to survive. The players are now relying so heavily on painkillers, alcohol, and other drugs to kill physical pain and the stress they have of getting released at any moment. “We had a guy get traded to our team from Alaska. He met us for our game in Texas from Alaska, and did not play so well in his first game. He was released from our team that night and was out of a job miles away from his home in Canada.” Samuel Marotta said this about one of the hundreds of teammates he has had in his minor league career. Its things like this that lead guys to alcohol and painkillers, which takes their career south in no time. The sad part about this, is the depression and other mental health issues that comes with it, including suicide. Marotta says, “It is sad but it’s true. Playing in the minor leagues has affected so many guys’ lives in a negative way it is sad to see what the sport they love so much can do to them.”
The thing people don’t understand about minor league contracts is that they are usually week to week; meaning that at the end of one week, you could no longer be a hockey player. It is so easy for them to grab players out of college, or major juniors. One downfall of the week to week contracts is that players can end up leaving college early to play a week of pro hockey and then be out of a college scholarship and can’t go back to play. If you make the choice of playing major juniors, don’t even think about college. Once you play major juniors, you are not allowed to play college hockey. Therefore, hockey is consuming these guys’ lives and spitting them out with nothing to show for it. So why do it? “It’s the dream. It’s the dream of being a professional hockey player in the NHL. If you make it, you make it. If you don’t, you can say you tried,” Marotta says.