It’s a familiar pattern played out by Western Hockey League grads when the NHL proves a dream too far because they are missing just that one thing — be it speed, size or connections — but who otherwise have enough skill-sets and the will to keep pursuing pro hockey.
After giving it a shot in the minor pros in the AHL and ECHL, several WHL-grad Islanders have gone to Europe for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to live and play overseas. If it’s a choice between Italy, France, Germany or Kalamazoo, Utica or Bakersfield, the career-closing lifestyle choice seems obvious.
“This is my fourth year in Germany and it’s another amazing experience,” said Sean O’Connor of Victoria, selected in the third round of the 2000 NHL draft by the Florida Panthers after a stellar WHL career captaining the Moose Jaw Warriors.
“The lifestyle of playing in Europe is so much better than the grind in North America in the minors,” added the 32-year-old, who also played in the BCHL with the Victoria Salsa (now Grizzlies) and rugby at Oak Bay High.
O’Connor should know. His career has taken him through the AHL with the San Antonio Rampage and Cincinnati Mighty Ducks and through the ECHL with the Jackson Bandits, Augusta Lynx, San Diego Gulls, Las Vegas Wranglers, Phoenix Coyotes, Victoria Salmon Kings and Ontario Reign.
OK, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Augusta — especially during the Masters — aren’t bad places in which to play. But North American minor-pro hockey is still a tough road through a lot of lesser towns.
“The pay [in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga] is way more than the AHL. Plus they pay all your taxes and [for] cars, insurance, house [accommodation]. You can honestly save everything,” noted O’Connor.
“But the food, beer and wine are so good, they get some back there.”
The physical O’Connor, a bruising six-foot-three forward who can score, had three goals in six games with Munich EHC to start this season but has just been traded to Ingolstadt ERC.
“The quality of hockey is great and it’s also fun to beat all of my old Victoria friends I grew up with like Matt Pettinger and Jame Pollock,” he said.
The Racquet Club products Pettinger, who played 422 NHL games, and Pollock, a 1997 St. Louis Blues draft pick out of the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds, are with the Hamburg Freezers and Nuermberg Sabo Ice Tigers, respectively. Pollock, still an effective offensive blue-liner who spent four seasons in the AHL with the Worcester IceCats, has five goals and 11 points in 13 games this season. Forward Pettinger has three goals and nine points in 15 games.
In Italy, former Vancouver Giants and Edmonton Oil Kings WHL junior Garry Nunn of Victoria is playing with Valpellice after winning a Kelly Cup during three seasons with the Alaska Aces of the ECHL.
“The experience has been amazing,” said Nunn, a darting and quick forward who is thriving on the Olympic-size European ice sheets with four goals and eight points in eight games.
“It is absolutely beautiful here. Each guy on the team gets his own apartment and his own car,” added the Racquet Club product, who began his junior career with the hometown BCHL Victoria Grizzlies before jumping to the WHL.
“The level of play is definitely better than the WHL just because there are a lot of older, experienced players and I would compare it to the ECHL. The top two lines on each team are very strong, usually all imports, but I find it drops off a bit from there. Most of the imports are former NHL, AHL, ECHL players.”
The culture has taken some getting used to — although in what seems a pleasant way.
“The lifestyle is quite opposite to home — everything closes mid-day for siesta and everyone just gives off a very relaxed and laid-back vibe,” said Nunn.
It sure beats Anchorage in January.