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Bourne Blog: Once college season ends, the race to sign is on

Justin Bourne
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BOZAKWELLMAN

The time for transactions — and the fight for roster spots and paycheques — is never over in professional hockey, even after the trade deadline comes and goes. NCAA puck is starting to whittle down title contenders, meaning each week sees more players from around the country wearing street clothes, preparing to commence the standard post-hockey-season bender.

The second that final buzzer goes, it's open season for pro teams — NHL, AHL and ECHL — to pick the ripest fruit and add it to their respective baskets. For an undrafted, unsigned college kid, that's a pretty sweet deal. If two teams want you, you get to stand back and watch the bidding war drive up your bank account.

The problem is, the school semester isn't over. A kid who takes his studies seriously has a dilemma on his hands. Do you ditch your classes, go play hockey somewhere and try to finish your degree long distance? Will your professors let you do that? Or do you just go polar and say, "hoop it, I'm outta here" or "sorry school's too important"?

Every March, college seniors, juniors and talented underclassmen face tough decisions. And guys hanging on to third-line roster spots start looking out for the next college hotshot trying to steal the food off their table.

My own senior year at the University of Alaska-Anchorage was decent for a player in the WCHA, which, if you ask my friends, was thanks largely to second assists on the powerplay. I have bad friends.

At a healthy 6'1" and change, I figured I'd have a shot to play some pro hockey. I was hoping to get an AHL opportunity and was torn between leaving school or staying. But as a player, it's not always your choice. All the AHL interest I had was for the next season, so I figured, decision made.

The problem was that ECHL teams kept calling — rather aggressively. Which makes sense, I guess, as most decent NCAA seniors can step in and help an ECHL team, not just get by. One team offered to fly me from Alaska just for games on the weekends. And another was in my own backyard, the Alaska Aces.

The tough part was, I wanted to play, but didn't want to label myself as an ECHLer to teams we would be negotiating with in the off-season. This is the stuff you're supposed to think about as a pro.

St. Louis Blues head coach Davis Payne, then the Aces' man behind the bench, offered me a Mario Lemieux deal — I'd only have to play home games until the playoffs or whenever I finished my studies. I was not nearly good enough to deserve such treatment, but hey, soak it up while you can, right? I made a spur of the moment decision one morning when he called before practice. I got in my car and showed up at the same rink my college team played in, and went to the unfamiliar dressing room.

It was great to get some pro experience, and I found myself in some of the most competitive playoff games I'd ever seen. I'm grateful for that opportunity, and learned a lot from Davis.

One year later, I learned about the painful flip side.

I had been a part of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders' AHL farm team, for about six weeks when the college season ended. The Islanders' injury list would make you think their bus must have rolled, but it meant I had a chance to get decent ice time in the AHL.

Unfortunately, when the college season ended and the Islanders starting putting new player's names on amateur tryout contracts, it suddenly dawned on me that I must have taken someone's job in Alaska the previous year — and that some college kid was coming in and putting my job in jeopardy.

Well, crap.

I was relegated to the press box. I ate popcorn for eight straight games before being sent back down to the ECHL while the Sound Tigers gave those minutes to younger kids they had committed their dollars to.

And that's the way the business works. You can't stress about it and let it affect your game, but you can't be oblivious to it either. Especially once the European season ends and an even bigger influx of players hits the North American game; fringe players simply can't take their foot off the pedal.

For the newcomers, it's a free-for-all. Even with the new rookie salary restrictions, they can still make one heck of a good living. And for players not worth rookie max, it's open season. Time to start making some crucial decisions based on your best guesswork. Choose your own adventure.

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