Pandemic uncertainty drives minor-league hockey pros to find new careers


Quinn O’Brien is seen here. (Courtesy Quinn O’Brien)

While the hockey world waits for the NHL to chart its tricky course through COVID-19, hundreds of minor-league pros have had their worlds turned upside down.

The novel coronavirus has been a relentless scourge on so many aspects of society, and sports is not immune. Schedules have been postponed and shuffled, entire seasons shut down. The global pandemic has made erstwhile simple travel a nightmare for players and families hit by quarantines and border restrictions.

For players with NHL contracts, the pandemic is a temporary nuisance — vaccines are coming and hockey business will resume again, eventually. The big money will flow, ultimately.

But imagine being in your mid to late 20s as a journeyman minor leaguer, riding the buses and clinging to a dream of breaking through to the big time, at least once. Or, perhaps just putting off “real life” for a while by playing pro hockey in North America or Europe.

Life is getting a little too real for many. And sooner than they expected.

Since its inception in 1998, the Hockey Fights Cancer initiative has resulted in millions of dollars in donations to support cancer research institutions, children’s hospitals, and many player and local charities.

Minor-league contracts don’t kick in until the first week of the season, a season that won’t begin until February for the American Hockey League (AHL) and won’t start at all for the ECHL North Division or the British Elite League (EIHL), among others.

Minor leaguers already lost money last spring when leagues shut down in March with the first wave of the virus, and the majority weren’t raking in riches anyway. While top AHL players can earn a few hundred thousand dollars in a season, US$70,000 is more typical. ECHL salaries range from about US$600 per week for rookies to US$1,000 for the elite players in the league. In other words, it would take a playoff run to push even the best ECHL players beyond US$30,000.

When is enough, enough?

When is it time to join the real world?

David Pacan, point producer

David Pacan, 29, can measure his eight years of pro hockey in a most bizarre way: How he graduated from rookie status in Cincinnati, sometimes sleeping on the floor of the team bus for lengthy road trips, to becoming a prized veteran of the Brampton Beast, resting like a king in a bed at the back. Pacan wouldn’t trade any of that experience for a second, but he is calling it quits — a lingering inclination confirmed by the pandemic.

“I was already thinking about retiring,” Pacan says from his home in Etobicoke. “And when this happened (the season cancelled), it kind of solidified it. I know guys who could play another five, six years and are making the decision to quit.

“For the older guys, they’re thinking of having kids. There’s the fear of travel during the pandemic and getting sick. Or the season gets shut down.

“In the (ECHL), you’re not making top money. To make the season worthwhile, you have to play a full season. You can’t just stop and instantly get another job.”

By any measure, Pacan has had a stellar minor hockey career. After starring for the Cumberland Grads of the CJHL, the six-foot-three, 207-pound Ottawa native was part of an OHL Niagara IceDogs team that included Ryan Strome, Doug Hamilton, Tom Kuhnhackl and Jamie Oleksiak, narrowly missing out on a trip to the Memorial Cup in 2012.

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Drafted in the sixth round (177th) by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009, Pacan put up 404 points in seven ECHL seasons, with four callups to the AHL and one season in Slovakia with Kocise HC. Few pros have been as consistent as Pacan, who scored 40-plus points in all eight of his pro seasons. He topped out at 82 points in 67 games for the 2016-17 Beast. Last year, he finished third in team scoring with 54 points in 62 games.

Pacan credits good health and good teammates for his longevity and consistency. He learned, eventually, he says, that he was cut out to be a power forward.

“It kind of took a while to figure it out. When you’re younger you’re always that goal-scorer type of guy,” he says. “I liked that role, standing in front of the net. I’m 6-3, you have to do that.”

Though content with his career, Pacan finds it difficult reconciling with how the season ended — abruptly, in March, with no playoffs. There could be no NHL-style bubble in the ECHL.

“It’s hard because there’s no closure on the season,” Pacan says. “We could have made it pretty far in the playoffs and ending off on that note is pretty crappy.”

In 2019, Pacan married his girlfriend, Sawyer. The two met while Pacan was playing in St. Catharines for the IceDogs. They make their home in Etobicoke, west of Toronto, and while Sawyer works for the Flynn Group of companies, Pacan teaches hockey skills at JSI Hockey in Oakville and shoots on goalies at The Crease Goaltending Academy in Etobicoke.

This past summer, Pacan took some firefighting courses and hopes to catch on with one of the local departments.

What will he miss most about pro hockey?

“Honestly, in the Coast, you’re on the sleeper bus the whole time — it’s all those bus trips, hotels, the different places you travel to. Some great, some not so great. Those are the things I’m going to miss, especially hanging out with the guys.”

“That’s kind of why I want to get into firefighting, you develop that brotherhood. It’s almost pretty similar where you would do anything for the guy sitting next to you.

“It’s been a blast. I’ll never forget it. Going to battle with the guys has been one of the best things of my life.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Corey Durocher, Silver Stick champ

For Corey Durocher, playing hockey was all he ever wanted to do from the first time he hit the ice with the West End Hockey League Initiation Program hockey at age four. As a nine-year-old, Durocher led his novice Ottawa West Golden Knights team to an International Silver Stick championship in Michigan. Durocher and Ryan Spooner (a six-year NHLer now in the KHL) provided the strength down the middle for an Ottawa Senators minor midget-AAA team that was one of the best in Ontario.

At 18, Durocher was drafted by the Florida Panthers and played in the OHL with the Soo Greyhounds and Kingston Frontenacs before reaching a U Sports (formerly CIS) University Cup tournament with the Carleton Ravens.

Now 28, Durocher hopes to eke out one last season for the Allen Americans of the ECHL Mountain Division — if they can start playing as planned in mid-December. The pandemic helped cement Durocher’s decision to move on from hockey in 2021.

“This was probably going to be my last year playing anyway,” says Durocher — a native of Allen, Texas — prior to a training session. “I’ve had a few injuries and stuff like that. And I kind of want to get on with life and start making a little more money.”

Durocher’s girlfriend, Alexis, was a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys the past three seasons. Her cheer career was also shortened by the trickle-down effect of the virus, which included a bubble-type quarantine for camp tryouts.

“She just retired in the summer after three years,” Durocher says. “She didn’t want her last year to be upside down.”

Durocher is training and skating in Allen as part of a group of four that were the only Americans members in town at the time we spoke. Others were having issues crossing the border without their hockey work visas in place, paperwork delayed by the league’s uncertainty with a start date.

Carleton University Ravens forward Corey Durocher takes a penalty after dragging down McGill University Redmen left wing Neal Prokop during second period action in CIS University Cup hockey in Saskatoon on Friday, March, 21 2014. (Liam Richards / CP)

Durocher spent most of the off-season in Texas, part of it recovering from a hockey concussion.

What he will do next isn’t clear, but Durocher did complete his degree in sociology at Carleton and hopes to lean on that.

Unlike Pacan, the six-foot-three, 195-pound Durocher was set back by injuries later in his career.

Durocher was close to a point-per-game player with the Kansas City Mavericks in 2018-19 (36 points in 39 games), but he has had trouble staying healthy.

“One year I had to get pins in my toe after breaking it in practice,” he says. “I lost a month and a half with that,” he says. “At the start of last season, I got plates in my face from an exhibition game injury, and missed two weeks because of that.

“I also had two concussions last year, back to back.

“I’ve had a good experience, met a lot of great guys. Just had a few random freak injuries that kind of suck.”

Injuries played into his decision to wind down his career.

“Maybe if I was in the NHL or AHL making more money, but you’ve kind of got to look at your long-term health,” Durocher says. “I’m not making enough money here right now to justify it.”

When he does leave, he will do so knowing few have loved the game more.

“It’s been my whole life since I started out at three or four with the West End Wolverines,” Durocher says. “I rode the wave as long as I could, but there comes a time when you’ve got to think about your overall health and your life in general. Get a job in the real world.”

Quinn O’Brien, Gee-Gees captain at large

Quinn O’Brien grew up on a farm in the Pontiac region of west Quebec, and to hear his University of Ottawa Gee-Gees head coach tell it, O’Brien likely prepared for hockey by hoisting farm tractors.

“He won our fitness testing four years in a row,” enthuses Patrick Grandmaitre, the man who turned the Gee-Gees hockey program around after it was disbanded from 2014-16 over sex assault allegations (the two players charged were found not guilty).

O’Brien, a self-described “third- or fourth-line grinder from the “Q,” became a key part of that renewed program. Grandmaitre sought character above all in his players, because he knew the team would be under a microscope. O’Brien fit the bill.

A tough, six-foot-three, 220-pound forward from Campbell’s Bay, O’Brien was an early alternate captain and was awarded the “C” in his final university season, 2019-20. Though the Gee-Gees were a more consistent team the year before, they pulled it together in the 2020 playoffs and reached the U Sports national tournament in Halifax, only to have the event cancelled the night before Ottawa was to face host Acadia in the Gee-Gees opener March 13. Friday the 13th.

“We all got sent home,” O’Brien says. “There was no time for goodbyes.

“It was a sour pill to swallow and a very strange way to end your university career, with guys you basically spent four years with. A lot of us were there from the beginning of the new program.

“And then we had planned a trip to Mexico, all the guys, and that got shut down, too (due to COVID).”

In April, O’Brien signed a pro contract with the Glasgow Clan of the EIHL. As the summer ensued, the EIHL schedule was first delayed, then cancelled altogether. O’Brien thought he might have an agreement with a Division I French league team, but it fell through.

Now, it looks as though O’Brien’s pro career could be over before it started. With a finance degree from the U of O, O’Brien has a job as a financial adviser with Scotiabank. He has a house and the bills to match, and expects to marry his fiancee, Erica, as soon as the pandemic allows.

“I don’t like to admit it’s completely over just yet,” O’Brien says. “I still feel I have a lot to give. But I’d say the door is definitely closing behind me — I’m on my way out the door and it’s not quite closed.”

Until then, O’Brien doesn’t like to speak of retirement.

“I’ve never really said the ‘R’ word yet, but that could just be me holding onto something that isn’t really there,” he says.

Quinn-O'Brien Quinn O’Brien is seen here with his fiancée, Erica. (Courtesy Quinn O’Brien)

Like Pacan in Etobicoke and Durocher in Ottawa (he worked with kids at Peak Performance in Kanata), O’Brien is giving back to minor hockey players. With the guidance of the Fort-Coulonges minor hockey association president, O’Brien has set up a hockey camp in nearby Shawville, home to the famed Murray hockey clan — Bryan, Terry and Tim etc. (O’Brien is a friend of one of Tim Murray’s sons).

When he can, O’Brien plays a bit of men’s league, knowing that might be his hockey future, not the one he imagined just a few months ago.

“I’m 25,” he says. “I could have ended up playing four or five years of pro hockey. That was something I was ready for. I wanted the hockey experience, yes, but also the chance to live in Europe.

“That was something I was set on.”

Weighing all the factors, including the fact O’Brien would be expected to fight, transitioning to a new career starts to make sense. The EIHL pays slightly less than the ECHL, although it has more security — after a one month trial, teams commit to their players for a full season.

“If you looked at my stat line (more PIM than PTS), you know what I was expected to do in any league I went to. There’s that, too,” O’Brien says.

“It’s a combination of things. I want to keep some sort of a brain up there, so I can use what I went to school for.”

O’Brien is planning at least one more hockey get-together. The Gee-Gees are hanging on to those Mexico flight tickets, hopeful of using them at a later date.

“A few guys have quit hockey, so they might look a bit different by the time they show up down there,” O’Brien says. “That will be fun.”

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