By Len Bardsley
Times of Trenton
It is an annual tradition, young men heading south during spring break, looking for some excitement and a little time to enjoy warm weather.
Except these are not coeds making their way to Fort Lauderdale or Cancun, they are college hockey players, starting their exodus into the ECHL.
A college player gets an instant raise when he joins an ECHL club, from zero to $325 a week and he can get into the mix for a possible playoff bonus. The playoff bonuses start at $250 per player for making the playoffs, $500 for winning the first round, $1,000 for reaching the Conference finals, $1,500 for the Kelly Cup runner-up and $3,000 for winning the Kelly Cup.
It is a win-win situation for the player and the team he joins since the player gets exposure and can increase his market value for the following season, while the team gets a young player cheap, trying to prove his worth.
A total of 20 college players have signed with ECHL teams this season, including a trio from the University of Minnesota-Duluth who joined the Las Vegas Wranglers, who have been eliminated from the playoff race.
Titans forwards Leon Hayward (pictured) and B.J. Abel are two examples of players getting what they wanted fresh out of college.
Hayward headed straight for Florida once he was finished with his season at Northeastern in 2002. A feisty forward who had not put up impressive numbers, Hayward figured a trip to Pensacola to play for the Ice Pilots was a pretty good move.
Hayward played five games for the Ice Pilots, didn’t register a point, but made the playoff roster and appeared in three more games before the team was swept out of the playoffs.
“It was great,” said Hayward, who knew Ice Pilots coach Todd Gordon. “I got to feel out the league and see where I was skill-wise. It helped me out with training camp the following year. I was done with my co-op at Northeastern so it worked out perfectly.”
Abel had finished up at Mankato State in Minnesota in 2003 and San Diego fit all his criteria as a perfect place to play for a few weeks in March.
“I had no money,” said Abel. “I really needed the money so I did some research and saw San Diego had a good chance at winning (the championship). It was a nice place to go and I had never been to California.”
Abel did a good job picking the Gulls, who would go on to win the Taylor Cup in the final season of the West Coast Hockey League, whose teams joined the ECHL as expansion members before the 2003-04 season. Abel played in 11 playoff games with the Gulls, missing one to take a final exam back at Mankato.
“It was tough,” said Abel of preparing for the playoffs and exams. “I had to fly back just before the final round. I could have done better, but I did all right.”
Three seasons ago, Titans coach Peter Horachek was forced to sign eight college players to fill out a roster decimated by call-ups and injuries. Andy Hedlund, Jason Deskins, Chris Lynch and David Schneider would all start the following season with the Titans.
The Titans didn’t bother to use players out of college the last two seasons under Bill Armstrong, but have revived the practice with Mike Haviland.
Haviland went the college route to fill out the roster and give the Titans some much needed depth and competition for ice time during the stretch drive, signing five players.
Every player signed out of college this season had a former teammate playing on the Titans, which made the transition easier and provided a two-way reference.
It has been a great move for Les Haggett, who joined his former linemate at Brown, Brent Robinson.
“Seeing how successful Brent was gave me confidence,” said Haggett, who has two goals and an assist in five games with the Titans. “It has been four years since I stepped into a locker room with all new faces, having Robbie here made me feel a lot more comfortable. I am just looking for the opportunity to play. (Robinson) told me about the place and he was very happy here, he thought it was a good situation for me. I am having a blast right now.”
Sounds like a great way to spend an extended spring break.