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Sunday, August 14, 2022

McKenna: What it’s like to be a free agent waiting for a deal in August

How does it feel for a professional hockey player to be midway through the off-season and not have a contract?

Terrible, that’s how.

It happened several times during my career. And while each instance was different, the feelings were the same. Nervousness. Dread. Despair. All coming in waves.

It’s something that depth players experience to a much higher degree than the superstars of hockey. The big dogs are tied up on long-term, big-money contracts. But for third goalies like myself, or veteran tweener players that spend time shuttling between the AHL and NHL, the off-season can be a grind.

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It’s why signing on the first day of free agency is so important. You don’t want to get left without a seat. Because the longer it goes, the harder it is to secure a roster spot.

I found this out firsthand when I joined the New Jersey Devils organization in 2009. The previous year, I spent the first two-thirds of the season with the Norfolk Admirals on an AHL deal. The parent club was the Tampa Bay Lightning, and I wasn’t even invited to training camp. That’s how far down the depth chart I was.

But by late January, the Lightning found themselves in goaltending injury trouble, and I had outplayed my partner, Karri Ramo, in the minors. So Tampa Bay signed me to an NHL contract on February 1, 2009, and I spent the rest of the season with the Lightning. I started 13 games, won four, and posted a .887 save percentage.

I knew I wasn’t coming back to Tampa the following year. Dustin Tokarski was coming along and the Lightning wanted him to play in the AHL – which is the league I knew I belonged in. I wasn’t truly ready for NHL minutes at that stage of my career.

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My numbers weren’t great with the Lightning. But going into the off-season, I reasoned that other NHL clubs would take into account how poor we were as a team in Tampa Bay during my time there. Especially down the stretch when the Lightning traded away as many pieces as possible and we were ravaged with injuries.

I didn’t help much with my on-ice performance. But I did have a few strong starts, which made me hopeful for the following season.

My best guess was that I would sign either an NHL two-way or AHL one-way contract for 2009-10. The AHL seemed to be my destiny. And I was fine with it, knowing that I still needed time to develop.

But to my surprise, there weren’t any offers. I had just outplayed a highly-touted prospect in the AHL for the majority of the year, and finished the season playing significant minutes in the NHL. Yet no one wanted me.

Maybe it shows my own naivety at that point in my career. But I was shocked to find out that my best option going into the 2009-10 season was to attend the Devils training camp on a professional try-out agreement. No contract. Just a chance to prove my worth.

New Jersey told me to come to camp, do my best, and if everyone was happy they’d offer me an appropriate contract. The Devils had Martin Brodeur, and Yann Danis had been signed as a free agent to back him up. Only Jeff Frazee was returning at the AHL level. So to me, there was a clear opportunity to land a spot in the AHL.

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Being assigned to the Devils AHL affiliate in Lowell, Massachusetts seemed like a foregone conclusion. But the moment I showed up in New Jersey, things felt off. The Devils put me — a 26-year-old veteran of four seasons of pro hockey and 15 NHL games — in their development camp along with the franchise’s junior and minor pro prospects.

When official training camp opened, I was assigned to a locker room far down the hall from the NHL regulars. New Jersey preferred to have two groups in training camp: NHL players. And the rest of us.

I never skated with the NHL group.

Just over a week into training camp, I was among the first cuts. Devils GM Lou Lamoriello offered a two-way AHL contract, then explained that the organization’s plan was to eventually send me to their ECHL team, the Trenton Devils. But first, I would attend AHL training camp in Lowell.

It felt like all the blood had instantly drained from my body. It never entered my head that, after finishing the year in the NHL, New Jersey would have even considered sending me to the ECHL. Especially with a spot in the AHL seemingly up for grabs, and the conversations that took place during the off-season.

But what really stuck in my craw was that I never had a chance to skate with the NHL group and show the Devils what I was capable of. And I said just that during my exit meeting with Lamoriello and David Conte, who at the time was Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations for New Jersey.

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It was pretty obvious that — from the get-go — my fate was sealed no matter how I performed in training camp. I really didn’t want to play for Trenton if I had to go back to the ECHL. I started calling around, trying to find a better solution. But by that point, most teams — even at the ECHL level — had their goaltending spots full.

I was stuck.

Without a better option, I accepted the AHL two-way contract offer and went to Lowell, knowing full well that I was on borrowed time. During AHL training camp, Frazee suffered a scary laceration on his neck from a skate blade. And with him out of game action for over a month, it kept me in Lowell.

Then, I played some of my best hockey ever during the first few months of the 2009 season. I was so angry at the entire situation that it fueled me. For whatever reason, I always played my best when I was mad.

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My mom used to say it all the time: “Don’t piss him off. He’ll just play better.” And she was right.

It would be easy to look back on the ordeal and have resentment against the Devils for how they portrayed my opportunity coming into camp. I was told that I’d have every opportunity to battle for a roster spot, be it NHL or AHL. That didn’t happen.

But the cool part of the story is that eventually, Lamoriello and the Devils rewarded my strong play. When Frazee returned to action, New Jersey kept me in Lowell. And by early 2010, the Devils offered me an NHL two-way contract for the remainder of the year as well as the upcoming 2010-11 season.

I ended up playing two NHL games for New Jersey during my second year with the franchise. What began as a fraught relationship ended with another chance to play in the best league in the world. I’m grateful for those NHL minutes. And I also value how Lamoriello was willing to reward a player like myself who came from outside the organization.

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But the months leading up to that training camp in New Jersey were torturous. I didn’t know where my career was headed, other than downward. Or so it seemed.

Eventually everything worked out. But even those first few months in Lowell weren’t a cakewalk. I was constantly on pins and needles thinking I was going to be called into the office the next day and sent to Trenton. I can’t tell you how happy I was to receive a housing letter from the Devils, instructing me to get a play to stay in Lowell for the rest of the season.

Stability is sometimes an elusive target for hockey players. We all know what we’re getting into. And things can change very quickly. But signing a contract early in the off-season is such a temporary relief. There’s no uncertainty.

I’m thankful that as my career progressed, I usually had a deal done on the first or second day of free agency. Because another summer like 2009 might have put me out of the game for good.


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