Tyler Ennis now looks to be a mainstay on Buffalo's NHL roster, but he spent 69 games in the AHL and only 10 games in the NHL last season. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
For every aspiring hockey player, the dream is to suit up in the NHL. It doesn’t hurt that jumping from the minors to the big show also comes with a pay bump often in the range of 10 times the old amount.
Many prospects and fringe NHLers have different stipends depending on where they are plying their trade – and it’s a big difference. The minimum NHL salary is $500,000, but that same player may only earn, say, $67,500 in the American League.
The result is a mind trick many players must train themselves for. Anaheim’s Matt Beleskey, who played in both leagues last year, has the mantra down pat.
“When you’re playing in the NHL, live like you’re still in the AHL,” he said.
Agent Eustace King, whose clients include Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis and Atlanta’s Anthony Stewart (each of whom have earned money in both leagues), has a similar credo he instills in every one of his young charges.
“Save early and save often,” King said. “We tell that to the guys right away.”
Much like Beleskey, King’s players are set up with a financial advisor as soon as they sign their first contract, which usually comes with a tempting signing bonus. But money needs to go to a lot of unsexy places before it can be spent – disability insurance, savings accounts, investments, for example – which is why the plan is so important. King refers to these different places as “liquidity buckets” and another one of those buckets goes towards simple cost-of-living expenses.
“You need to have money for the summer and to train,” King said.
Which means showing up to your first NHL training camp in a Mercedes-Benz is not be the smartest decision in the world.
“If a player comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I signed for the max, I want to get a Benz,’ I’ll probably suggest they wait and reward themselves when they get to the NHL,” King said. “We make them live in the now.”
Which can be tough, especially when a youngster makes an NHL squad loaded with stars who have some fat contracts behind them already.
Beleskey, who played most of the pre-season on the Ducks’ top line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, uses the material and on-ice successes of his Ducks mates as motivation.
“You see the luxury, you see what’s possible,” Beleskey said. “Getzlaf and Perry are both young guys and both have nice cars, a couple of them.”
Of course it’s hard to beat the future Hall of Famer on the Anaheim roster, Teemu Selanne. The Finnish Flash sometimes drives to the rink in a Maybach, a car with a price tag well north of $300,000 just to start with.
“I think you’re supposed to have a driver for that car,” Beleskey joked.
When right winger David Laliberte went from the Adirondack Phantoms to the Philadelphia Flyers, he knew he had to be frugal, but he also wanted to look like a pro.
“I needed a couple of suits,” Laliberte said. “So I went to Hugo Boss.”
For the newbies on the team, playing in the best league in the world comes with its own privileges, too.
“It’s always fun,” said right winger Joey Crabb, who split time between Atlanta and the AHL Chicago Wolves in 2008-09. “You get the private plane, the food’s sitting there waiting for you, the hotels are nicer.”
Plus, the dynamic of the team is different. In the NHL, the goal is pretty clear: get that Stanley Cup. In the AHL, teams are comprised of hungry youngsters and grizzled vets looking for another shot at the big time, so one player’s call-up can be another’s frustration.
“It’s a very different league,” Beleskey said. “In junior, it’s a bunch of young kids trying to win a championship. In the AHL, there’s so many people at different levels. There’s a lot of competition on the team.”
Not only that, but the chance for frequent movement via call-up means even living conditions need to be Spartan.
“Being in the AHL, you have to be smart about it,” Laliberte said. “You have to find a place to live that’s not too expensive.”
But once you are up, that’s when the big paycheck enters the picture. Remember that 10-fold salary increase that comes with the promotion? That kicks in as soon as a player is called up, meaning extra zeroes and some tricky math, since a player may only have a brief stint in the NHL.
Take Buffalo’s Ennis for example. Last season, Ennis was called up to the Sabres from AHL Portland on two separate occasions. The first was for one day, one game (and Ennis scored against the Flyers for his first NHL goal that night). The second call-up came at the end of the regular season and lasted nine games. In total, Ennis spent 17 days on Buffalo’s regular season roster. Subtracting his signing bonus ($87,500) and the escrow that comes at the NHL level (18 percent), Ennis earned $56,879.53 for those 17 days with the Sabres, based on an NHL salary of $787,500.
And despite the fact Ennis spent almost the entire season with the Portland Pirates, his AHL earnings over the 175 days he was on the farm came to just $59,244.79, from a base salary of $65,000. That bumped Ennis into a nice six-figure salary for 2009-10, with nearly half of it gained in a little more than two weeks.
If only players knew how long they’d be up in the NHL, it wouldn’t be too hard to plan for the future, but that’s also contrary to the nature of the business.
“The first time I came up was because Todd White was hurt and they said they had no idea how long I would be up or what to pack for,” said Crabb, who switched organizations from Atlanta to Toronto over the summer. “I ended up being up for a month or two. I thought it would be a one- or two-game deal.
“You can’t bank on getting the big bucks.”
And in some cases, you can’t even bank on where that money will be spent. Because Anaheim didn’t have an AHL affiliate last season, Beleskey spent time with both the San Antonio Rampage and the Toronto Marlies, as well as the Ducks. That meant a lot of cross-continent travel for the youngster.
“It was pretty hectic,” he said. “I think my car sat in San Antonio for a couple of months. At one point I spent 90 consecutive days living in a hotel, but I was in the NHL, so I can’t complain.”
Crabb, 27, knows he still has a lot of hockey ahead of him, but that doesn’t mean he’s casual about his future – he’s seen too many players ignore finances at their own peril.
“You definitely have to think about it,” he said. “I’m not going to be playing hockey forever, so I try to put some away for investing, or saving or retirement. A lot of guys aren’t too smart with money and burn through it before they’re even done.”
Having said that, his 29 games with the Thrashers a couple seasons ago gave him a little more cushion than expected, so Crabb bought himself one toy.
“I bought a jet ski,” he said. “So I treated myself a little bit.”
This article appears in the Oct. 25 edition of The Hockey News.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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