Let me start by saying that I really don’t like to talk about myself – I want to make that extremely clear. There are many former coaches and players out there today that have much better stories than mine. I encourage them to share their stories on their path, their philosophies, their habits, and what they believe what makes an athlete successful. Especially at this time, now more than ever, players need to be educated about the dedication and discipline that will be required to make their dreams a reality. There are too many players around the world that are wasting their time checking their Twitter or Instagram feed instead of putting in the time to become a quicker, faster, and stronger athlete.
Most importantly, I believe that too many players are quitting today when facing adversity. Tom Izzo agrees.
I want to reiterate before you start reading that the names that you read below are not to name drop or validate the ability I had to play the game 10 years ago, nobody cares about that – including myself. This article is not a “humble brag” because I truly feel like I was a player that was always on the bubble, even in college. I want to show players that they don’t realize how close they really are to achieving their goals until they are finished playing and reflect back on their careers. I don’t believe that my story holds a candle to Dabo Swinney’s story, but it is what I have decided to share.
Hopefully this blog posts achieves two things:
- To leave coaches and players (or anyone in the game today) motivated to share their stories to help provide perspective and educate athletes, parents, and other coaches across the world.
- To help a player going through a tough time to stay motivated and realize that although the odds are stacked against you, you will amaze yourself when you stick to working hard and you don’t quit. “Don’t stop playing until they stop handing you a jersey”.
Every time I look back on the experiences and opportunities that I had in my life playing hockey, I always end up having the same expression when I am done reflecting.
“Man, I was lucky to have experienced that.”
How My Path Started
Being from Fresno, California (not exactly known for being a hockey hotbed) my journey to play ice hockey was much more different than the normal player. First off, I didn’t start playing ice hockey until I turned 12 years old. My passion for the game was sparked when I tagged along with my sister (eventual NCAA All-American Athlete & Women’s College World Series Champion) when she took a recruiting visit to the University of Michigan to play softball for the Wolverines. We had the opportunity to take in an ice hockey game at Yost Ice Arena as the Wolverines were playing an exhibition game against the University of Guelph, Ontario. The environment, the band, the crowd chants – all I can is that I was hooked from the moment I walked into the building.
For my 12th birthday, my mom and dad bought me skating lessons and I was absolutely obsessed with the game.
After playing two years in the local minor hockey association playing with my friends, I was presented with the opportunity to play at a tiny startup prep school in Langley, British Columbia after being introduced to Roy Henderson at the Global Scouting Showcase. The opportunity made complete sense for our family since the school offered double the ice time that I would receive playing AAA hockey in California for one third of the price.
Moving From Home to Create My Path
Although it was probably the hardest thing I had to do in my life, I said goodbye to my parents at the age of 14 and went on to chase my dream of playing college hockey. After nights of homesickness and tearful calls to mom and dad, I finally adjusted and decided that returning home wasn’t an option for me. I was determined to get over my hurdles and I was going to make it work.
Delphi was amazing experience that I will never forget. I always cherish the memories when look back on my time there. The school was made up of approximately seventy five kids and eight staff members from all over the world (teachers were from all areas of Canada) operating on a campus that was renovated from an abandoned driving school office building. The tight and confined area forced us to communicate and interact with each other. One thing that I learned quickly at Delphi was that everything was competitive – when you put your bag on the bus (rookies first), where you dried your gear (rookies in the corner), where you sat in the locker room (rookies squished together) – It was a pecking order that weeded out the weak minded and rewarded those with a strong will and competitive spirit.
Our school was competitive to the point that we played in the local Fraser Valley Collegiate Hockey League in Vancouver’s lower mainland with a team of 14-18 year old high school kids. Two of our teachers, Dave Tanner (former Montreal Canadiens draft pick and Yale University Captain) & Darren Kissock (BCHL veteran and WCHL minor pro defenseman), would suit up and play in our games against our rivals in order to let the college kids know that they couldn’t take advantage of us. Despite our teachers best efforts, the odd brawl would occur because we were a bunch of kids with a chips on our shoulders.
At the time, I didn’t realize that I was suiting up with a future NHLer, a future US Olympian and two time National Champion (yes she is a woman and she was probably the toughest player we had), a future Major League Baseball Centerfielder (probably the most athletic person I have ever seen in my life), and multiple future NCAA division 1, Western Hockey League, and minor pro hockey players. And, little did all of us know how far some of us would go in the game to this day. I still run into the people that were in my life in that period and we sit back and laugh about the stories from those days enamored because we never thought that there would be so many successful players that came out of such a tiny group.
After three years of practicing for two hours a day, fives days a week, playing games on the weekend, I finally had the confidence that I needed in order to take my next step in my career.
My Big Break
Those years at Delphi taught me so many things. Mostly, they taught me what competing really is all about. Since the school dissolved due to the owners wanting to relocate the school, I pursued my next step in my career in trying out for the Team USA Select 17 festival for Team Pacific, which was a team that I didn’t expect to make.
The team was extremely political as it always is in youth sports and I didn’t set my sights high. I felt like I had the ability to make the team since I already had a year of junior hockey under my belt playing defense for the Queen’s Park Pirates in the PIJHL. However, the only way that I could try out was by trying to make the team as a forward since that was the only alternate position left. Despite playing against severe odds, I made the team. I was one of two players that was not a returning player from the year before that made the team and beat out 100 players to earn a spot.
At 17 years old and after competing for five years, I finally caught my first break from the tryout camp that sent me to St. Cloud. I was contacted by Head Coach Tony Gasparini of the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL, which is arguably the most prolific junior hockey league in North America, and notified that I was drafted by them. I was blown away. To be from Fresno and have only played hockey for five years, I earned the shot to play with some of the best players in the world.
In the last round, I was selected as the last pick (90th overall) right before some random goalie from New York named Jimmy Howard. I was stoked. I would lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling and just visualize the highlight VHS tape that was sent to me in a big manilla envelope from the team. I must have watched it 200 times before camp. There was 5,000 fans in the crowd every night and I felt like I was so close to my dream of playing college hockey.
I flew out to Blaine, Minnesota with my dad and played with some of the most talented players I have ever competed against. However, after competing in camp, I was cut. In my exit meeting, Coach Gasparini said he would give me a second shot if I showed well at the Select 17 festival.
After a couple of practices in St. Cloud, Minnesota, I earned the opportunity to play on the first line for Team Pacific with now NHLer Nate Thompson as we competed to defend the team’s championship from 2000 (we ended up finishing fourth). Nate was always pressing buttons, just like he does today for the Anaheim Ducks. Whether he was trying to convince me to line up a hit on NHLer Ben Lovejoy or to play physical on future NHL All-Star Zach Parise in the bronze medal game (which I almost killed myself trying to even touch him), he was always trying to find a way to compete in the short time I spent with him. It’s probably why he made it – he was never satisfied and was set on making a difference every shift. Throughout the camp, we set each other up on some nice plays and made a great showing for ourselves. I played some of my best hockey, and was recognized as being one of the top players in camp. I even received some personal letters from some top Division 1 schools telling me that I impressed them.
Despite my best efforts, I didn’t impress Coach G to take another shot on me and I went to play for the Helena Bighorns (Tier II) in the AWHL. This was after I tried out for the Chicago Steel and was cut, then headed over to the Cedar Rapids Roughriders and was cut, and finally ended my tour of the United States when I traveled to tryout for the Lone Star Cavalry to be cut. Over the next four years, I would play over 200 games of junior hockey and bounce around, sometimes playing for 6 teams in one season, trying to find a spot in the BCHL (British Columbia Hockey League) to play.
Adversity was continuing to play a significant part in my hockey career, but I couldn’t quit.
ONWARD AND UPWARD.
After Helena, I decided to head back up to Canada to try and play in the British Columbia Hockey League. I went from being cut by the Williams Lake Timberwolves to getting on a Greyhound bus to try out for the Merritt Centennials, where I was cut and headed back up to Williams Lake. The team was experiencing some injuries and I showing well at practice, so I received the opportunity to shine again in Williams Lake and scored some goals. I lasted a couple of weeks, but I didn’t stick to make the team. So, I headed down to play Junior B hockey for the Beaver Valley Nitehawks, where I earned another opportunity to play as a call up for the BCHL’s Trail Smoke Eaters (best team name in junior hockey, by the way). I had three points for the Smokies that game against my old team in Williams Lake before I was sent back down to Beaver Valley to continue to play.
For the next couple of months, I would play for Beaver Valley and I was eventually traded to the Castlegar Rebels because Beaver Valley was looking to lock up their top defenseman and I was the sacrificial lamb. Junior hockey was a business and I completely understood that bieng traded was a part of the game at that level. Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise because I got the opportunity to finish the season with the BCHL’s Penticton Panthers for the rest of their season. Playing with my hand in a cast from receiving a slash three weeks prior, I notched a couple of points in my first game with Pentiction and convinced myself that I could play with the best. The only reason I could even play was because a couple of weeks prior when my coach in Castlegar called his paramedic friend up to saw my cast so that I could put a glove over it and somewhat grip a stick. After everything was said and done, it was a challenging year for me that taught me that I could handle adversity. That season was a steep climb in my path, but I got through it.
ONWARD AND UPWARD.
My Second ‘Big Break’
The following season (my 19 year old season) I signed with Penticton and was put on a shelf to rot after coming back from an injury and was told to find a team. I probably called every coach in Western Canada. Because of a hefty price tag, I didn’t move until Williams Lake negotiated a performance based trade with Pentiction. Coach Rick Pitta decided to give me another chance, and I was down right thankful for it. That year, I played all the way up to the final game of my 19 year old season against the Trail Smoke Eaters, when I got tripped up on a breakaway that would change my life forever. On a chipped puck, I stepped behind the Smoke Eaters’ defenseman at the same time that their goalie was charging down for the loose puck. At the last second, I barreled over the top to miss the goalie and sent myself into the end boards at full speed head first on a fresh sheet of ice.
Right away I knew what happened because it happened to me before. I broke my arm again, and this time it was bad. It felt like someone cut my arm off from the middle of my humerus leaving me no feeling from the shoulder to my finger tips. It was the worst pain I have ever experienced in my life.
The event staff ran on the ice to help me, but I was able to walk back to the dressing room holding my arm that I couldn’t feel, fighting the feeling of passing out while turning ghost white. Eventually I was put on a stretcher and rushed to the local hospital where I woke up to the Emergency room doctor hovering over me waiting for me to come to my senses.
“Bryce… Are you there? Listen, I have some news to tell you that I know you don’t want to hear, but its my responsibility to tell you anyways”
I was still trying to come to grips with what was happening to me, but I had no idea what was going on. I felt like I was dreaming.
“Bryce, it looks like what happened to your arm is bad news. After looking at the X-Rays, it looks like you’re never going to be able to play hockey again. If we cannot save your arm and put it back together, then we will most likely have to amputate it.”
Wait.. What? 40 minutes ago I was chasing the puck down in a game and now I’m in an emergency room hospital being told I might lose my arm. Life changed for me at the blink of an eye.
With my good arm (my right) I proceeded to grab the doctor by his collar and try to fight him as he was telling me that the one thing that I have been pouring my heart into every day since the age of 12 was going to be taken away from me. The nurses pinned me down, threw the laughing gas on my face, and I proceeded to pass out. All I remember is waking up the next morning in Kamloops with my father standing next to me in my bed wondering how the heck he got up to Kamloops, British Columbia so quickly. He was looking upbeat and he had a glow about him.
“Good news buddy! They are pretty sure that they can save your arm!” he said. The first question out of my mouth was asking him when I could play again.
To my luck, the surgeon that worked with the Canadian Olympic team was located in Kamloops and he put my arm back together after 8 grueling hours of surgery. For the next six months, I would rehabilitate my arm for two hours a day as I worked to get back to play. The rehabilitation process opened me up to a world that I never thought existed. To see what people in major car accidents and sports injuries were going through made me realize that I could make the recovery. I would see people with scars that traveled all the way up their legs trying to learn how to walk again after being hit by a car. Others were trying to find a way to just stand up again.
I’ll never forget my first day of rehab. My arm was locked at 90 degrees since it was in a cast for so long and I had to lay on the table as the PT assistant tried to get my range of motion back. The second most painful thing I’ve had to endure in my life was when she leaned over me with one hand on my shoulder and one hand on my wrist, pressing down to stretch out my arm. I would grind my teeth and grunt as she would lay on my arm to stretch it out before I would be relieved by a 30 second rest period.
“Doc… This looks pretty painful for him, I am afraid I am hurting him too much. That’s enough for today, ok Bryce?” she said.
“You can go as far as he can go mentally” the doctor said yelling from the other room. “His pain tolerance is completely up to him.”
She looked at me with this ‘Well, you heard him – its up to you’ look on her face waiting for my response.
“Let’s keep going” I said. “I need to get back to playing as soon as possible if I’m going to keep my spot next year.” She asked me to cover my face with my hat since she didn’t want to see my expressions, and she proceeded to lay back on my arm and bring the pain.
Nobody had the heart to tell me that my goal of playing again wasn’t going to happen. Guys on the bus thought I was crazy when I would ask them what I needed to work on over the summer so that I could come back better for next season. My parents were pretty silent, but they always believed in my will. It helped me get through everything. In the offseason, Coach Pitta recruited two players for my spot, and rightfully so, my arm was destroyed and I was the only one in the world that thought I was going to play again. He was, and still is to this day, such an amazing person.
After seven months of training two hours a day, rehabilitating two hours a day, and working a part time job for my father’s coffee business, I loaded up my pickup truck and took the 18 hour journey back up to Williams Lake for training camp. After four games in camp, I staved off three hungry rookies that wanted to take my spot and earned my opportunity to stay in the locker room. Now, I had to find a way to stay. For the entire season, I competed with some of the greatest teammates I could have asked for. We competed hard for each other and we were truly playing to help earn success for each other, and it was all to the credit of Coach Pitta. He taught me more about the game than I could ever imagine, both inside the rink and outside the rink. He was always preaching that playing the game was a privilege and that the “hockey gods will pay you back if you do things the right way”. He was a coach that stuck with his players in the days of revolving doors, which was something that all of us respected. We had the highest level of respect for him and he was the ultimate player’s coach. Outside of my family, he is one of the most influential people in my life. Coach – thank you for everything that you did for us.
We achieved great milestones and set a BCHL record for our road power play percentage (40%) in my final year of junior hockey. The year before, we got to the interior finals with the best team I have ever been a part of. I was lucky to be on that team and I’m still grateful today that I had the opportunity to play with such amazing players.
As my last year of junior hockey started to wind down, guys started to commit to school, but I didn’t receive many offers and my clock was ticking.
I couldn’t quit or panic – I just had to find a way to get noticed.
ONWARD AND UPWARD.
My College Hockey Years
After several months of talking to schools over the summer, I committed to play at Utica College in upstate New York. Playing at Utica was one of the most challenging and one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. For anyone that thinks that Division III college hockey isn’t competitive, they couldn’t be more dead wrong. After playing three years in the BCHL against top talent like Travis Zajac, Milan Lucic, Carey Price, and many other fantastic players, I found myself scratching and clawing every day to be a significant player on the team. I attribute the toughness of playing Division III hockey to the fact that it is made up of a ton of talented players that fell through the cracks. With only 60 Division 1 schools offering hockey programs, this level was the next step. It was filled with competitive, gritty players that were completely capable of playing Division 1. Hands down, it was the most competitive four years of my life.
I remember my first day on campus and getting the opportunity to meet the upperclassmen like it was yesterday. I will never forget hearing that we had to run a sub 6 minute mile and physically test in the major lifts (bench, squat, and clean) just to have the opportunity to be on the team. Our off days consisted of 5 mile runs, field sprints, and runs to the infamous ski hill in south Utica that we had run up 10 times. The hill took about two and a half minutes to run up and another 4 to climb back down. Hands down, it was the most grueling workout I have ever been a part of in my life. In my four years of dryland training at Utica, I saw a lot of grown men cry, a lot… and I mean a lot of vomit, and I watched guys fight internally with themselves to continue to push on or pack it in. It was that hard. Fortunately, for new recruits that may read this, I hear that you’re in the clear and don’t have to worry about that anymore.
I was tested throughout my four years at Utica in every aspect that I could imagine. There are a lot of players out there that think that its smooth sailing once they get into college. I handled a ton of adversity while playing at Utica, especially when I was named captain of our team. Being a team captain is not an easy job if you are the type of player that always looks in the mirror. Plus, you learn real quick how to be steadfast when you know what hits the fan and everyone looks to you and your classmates to lead the way.
I just hope that I did a job that people would be proud of that helped move the program forward. Not for self recognition, but rather because I cherished the opportunity that Coach Heenan gave me to lead my teammates. I took a lot of pride in playing for a blue collar town because I identified myself as that type of player and person. When you play with pride, you truly value what your peers and fans think about you as a player and as a person. It puts you in a vulnerable spot as an athlete but it puts you in an exciting spot too because you feel like you have to prove yourself every night. I’m not going to lie either… playing in front of 3,000-4,000 people was an honor and it was exciting to play every night in Utica.
It was an honor to be a part of a program that had so many great people involved in it. When the ushers at the game remember your family members and when you run into police officers that tell you “great game last night” when you’re shopping at Wal-Mart, you can’t help to feel special. The city truly wanted us to win and was so positive and supportive regardless of the outcome some of our games during the growing pains. Also, I will always be extremely grateful for my teammates and the stuff that we pushed through every day to become a more complete team. There were so many good guys that played there that I still keep in touch with to this day. It was a blessing to have had the opportunity to play with each and every one of them as they were great people. The coaches, teachers, and the people at the school gave me one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I will always be grateful for that.
As I said before, Utica was a challenging experience that taught me a ton. Physically, it was the most demanding experience of my entire life. Mentally, it was the most rewarding experience of my life. Coach Heenan taught me what mental toughness is really all about and made me reach levels within myself that I never knew existed. No matter how difficult you think something may be, there is always a way to power through it. While I was a captain, I was held accountable not only for my performance, but for the performance of others. You learn a lot about trying to keep people on the same page. Some times you fail miserably, other times you have a glimmer of success by leading with your actions. To this day, it was the hardest task I had to handle in hockey. Managing yourself while influencing your peers around you is not an easy task, but if you can master it, you set the foundation to live a productive and meaningful life.
As I started to wind down my senior year, I thought that my games at Utica would be my last. I didn’t have a great career when it came to putting up numbers (except penalty minutes) and I was more of a plug than anything. However, after we lost out to Neumann College in the ECAC West tournament, I received a phone call proving that I was wrong.
At the time, my long time friend and future assistant coach Jason put a phone call in to the Muskegon Lumberjacks to give me an opportunity.
“He’s only a half a point per game player at the Division III level… I don’t know” was the response that Jason received from the General Manager, Tim Taylor, of the Lumberjacks at the time. “I’m telling you, you have to give him a shot. He can play.” Much to his reluctance, Tim gave me a call to come skate and tryout with them. Much to my surprise, I packed my bags into my truck and set out to Western Michigan.
After sitting out and watching two games, Muskegon got into a brawl with the Flint Generals on a Saturday night and had a couple of players ejected. Being short staffed, the GM of the team came up to me and said “Be ready to go because we might have to use you tomorrow since guys are suspended”. The next day I threw my bag on the bus and hunkered down in one of the first rows as the team trainer started to walk back, handing me an envelope with cash in it for per diem.
I opened the envelope up to find $12 and the first thing that I thought to myself was “Holy crap. I finally made it.” And I was just loaded. $12 baby – it was enough to stuff in a styrofoam cup after writing my order down in the middle of the locker room for a luke warm post game meal. I was pumped. Once I got to the rink, I was pulled aside by Coach Ramsey and he gave me the guidelines of my tryout.
“Listen, since we haven’t seen you play, we are going to use warmups as your tryout. If we think that you can play, we will give you an opportunity sometime throughout the game. So, show us what you’ve got.” Coach Ramsay made it very clear. Tryouts were warmups. You would have thought that I was playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals whipping around the ice and sticking out like a sore thumb. The non-chalant warm ups of professional hockey don’t fit well with an eager, hungry DIII college player that is wheeling around the ice 100 miles per hour.
Walking back into the dressing room after warmups, I was feeling pretty good about myself and how I showed in warmups. I was pretty confident that I would play but once the game started, I sat like a bump on a log. The term for me was being a ‘grocery stick’ because I sat between the forwards and the defense and separated them, much like a grocery stick separates peoples items at the supermarket checkout.
First Period went by… then the second period… halfway into the third….
I was pretty convinced that I would not play and that I was done. They didn’t like me. They don’t think that I can play at this level. That was fine with me – At least I knew I came out and gave it a shot. I could live with that for the rest of my life. Then, to my absolute surprise I hear, “Dale, you’re up on the left side with Grabs and Cozzy”. I nearly wet my pants and jumped up on the bench waiting for my change to come up for left wing. When he started to come back to the bench, I was waiting with anticipation for my skates to hit the ice. Right when he got back, I jumped and 14 years of work came to fruition.
For the next 45 seconds of my life, I played like a bat out of hell in complete silence. I don’t remember hearing anything as we spent the entire shift in their end before I picked a puck up from behind their net off of a cycle and fed my teammate in front to earn an assist on my first shift of playing professional hockey. After celebrating the goal, I got back to bench, sat down and I started to hear again. I received a couple of pats on the helmet for my first point, but it was short lived because before I knew it, I was up again and ready to go.
For the next couple of weeks I would practice and play games against players that I played juniors with or against that went off to big time schools. While I was this Division III outcast trying to make a name for myself, I found myself enjoying my ‘cup of coffee’ playing semi professional hockey. It came full circle to me when I was lining up against a player that was one of the most highly touted defensemen in the country when we were 17 and ended up playing Division I hockey at a big school. We looked at each other before the puck dropped and he looked at me and said “Good to see you again buddy”. I replied “Never thought that I’d be seeing you again, especially here”.
From that moment, my entire life was put into perspective for me. Everyone has a different path, and the ones that continue to compete always meet up at the end. Here I was, a kid from Fresno, California that started playing the game at 12 years old and battled through adversity, told he was never going to play the game again, lining up for a face-off playing professional hockey. It wasn’t a moment of pride for me. It was a moment of appreciation for all the people that impacted my life to help me get there. Also, I appreciated all the hard work that I put in to get there.
I enjoyed every minute of playing professional hockey as I hacked it up for another half dozen games flubbing back door passes and burying prime opportunities into the goalie’s chest. Eventually, I was told that I didn’t have the skills needed anymore and my hockey career ended. Eventually, everyone’s game clock stops ticking. Mine stopped the next season as the talent pool got incredibly deeper.
You Will Never Know Your Own Potential
Was my path an ideal journey? Absolutely not. Was it worth it? Absolutely, 100%.
Is my story a magical road to success? It sure isn’t, but it sure is a reminder to those that are grinding it out today.
Nobody will ever know the ceiling of a person’s potential, especially that person that is staring back at you in the mirror. There are so many players that I played with that had way more illustrious careers, and deservedly so, that are still my great friends today. There are some players that had shorter careers like myself, but that doesn’t make them any less of a man. They each have amazing stories that I have come to love that share one key thing in common: They didn’t quit. No matter how hard it got for them (and some of them had some extremely hard paths to success), each one of them pushed forward and continued to surprise the person that was looking back at them in the mirror.
Everyone has a different path. What is unique about my path is that it that it made me who I am today. So, if you’re out there wondering why you aren’t having the success that you want, you have to remember that the hockey/sports gods are testing you. I have always believed that “The hockey gods give their toughest battles for their toughest soldiers”.
You’re going to get cut. You’re going to be told that you aren’t good enough. You’re going to have moments where you feel invincible and moments where you wonder why you play the game. From my experience, none of that matters. What matters is that you don’t give up on yourself, even if that little voice inside your head is telling you to.
Now that I am out of the game, I will continue to transfer my experiences into the work world and keep carving my path. After what I have been through as a player myself, I know that adversity is just a temporary test. You just have to strap in, give your best effort on a daily basis, and continue to move forward. The journey and the grind is the best part of the ride. You won’t know it either until you stop playing.
If you’re continuously facing adversity and don’t know what to do, take some advice from a player that probably never should have been there. No matter how hard things get in life, always remember:
Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Be a fighter and continue carve your path.