When Kyle Bushee received notification that he made the 2018 ECHL All-Star Classic as the representative for the Kalamazoo Wings, he knew there may be some differences between him and his All-Star teammates.
“I’m sure you probably don’t get many married 32 year olds as All-Stars,” he joked to the League Office during the planning process.
Bushee is in his 11th season of professional hockey, and during that time, has played for six different ECHL teams, as well as multiple AHL teams and a season spent in Denmark playing for the Aalborg Pirates of the Danish Hockey League. Though he has an extensive hockey resume, it was his first All-Star appearance, and he was named Captain of the Central Division squad in the 3-on-3 All-Star tournament.
“Just to be recognized amongst my peers – to have that honor was amazing. I think I appreciated it and cherished it a little more, just being around for so long. All the bus rides, all the hard work in the summers – it was something I’ll look back on fondly,” Bushee told ECHL.com. “I really just tried to enjoy it. It was unique in the fact that my wife could come, my family actually made it down, and I had never been to one, as a spectator or as a player. So I just wanted to take it all in. It was fun because playing in the League for so long, you know of guys, or see familiar faces, but to have the chance to actually have a conversation with them and get to know them more personally, to me it was probably one of my favorite parts.”
Though just in his second season with the K-Wings, Bushee seems to have settled in nicely with the team. Perhaps, because, in joining the squad, he has the unique privilege of playing for the team which he grew up supporting. He has already surpassed his previous highest point total in a season attaining 36 points (9G, 27A) through 50 games this season. His previous personal high came during the 2012-13 season, when he notched 9 goals and 23 assists in 63 games with the Elmira Jackals. A native of Otsego, MI, just twenty minutes outside of Kalamazoo, Bushee last played in the area for two seasons, 2003-04 and 2004-05 at Western Michigan University. It took over a decade before hockey would bring him back to the place he grew up.
“The 2015-16 season, I split between Toledo (Walleye) and Elmira (Jackals). I had always spent summers in Kalamazoo, and obviously my family still lives there. So I was looking for a new trainer, and I came across the strength coach for the K-Wings – Mark Olson at Athletic Mentors. Our goalie Joel (Martin) trains there. So, we worked out there a couple weeks together and he asked ‘What are you doing next year?’ and I was like, ‘I haven’t really signed anywhere.’ Then I got in contact with Booter (Head Coach Nick Bootland) and before you know it, I signed a contract with Kalamazoo.”
Putting on the Wings sweater carries extra significance – and memories – for Bushee, who entered the 2017-18 season with 524 ECHL games played – good for the #30 spot on the all-time list in League history.
“It’s unique – I grew up going to games and playing between periods as a kid for the old K-Wings when they were in the IHL. To be able to play for them, it’s awesome. I live in my hometown, I get to do what I love in my hometown, all my family can come to games. It’s really just a perfect scenario for me.”
Though he’s the one putting in the work on the ice and in the gym, Bushee is quick to cite his family’s support as an integral part of his success for so many years.
“I try and take care of myself, I do what I need to do to be successful on the ice. But I know there are a lot of things that need to fall into place to play this long. And without the support of my family throughout the years, I probably wouldn’t be able to do this. I would have probably financially made a decision to get a ‘real job,’ but they’ve supported me through everything.”
With his 50 games played to date in the 2017-18 season, he’s climbed to 16th all time on the League history leaderboard for most games played.
“It’s an honor to play in this League, and that’s what I tell people. The hockey here is really good hockey and there’s a reason why so many guys from this League have gone on to the NHL. I’m very fortunate and proud to have played in this League,”
For Bushee and his teammates, their loss to Toledo in Game 7 of the 2017 Kelly Cup Playoffs Central Division Semifinals is still a fresh wound. They currently sit third in the Central Division, and if the 2018 Kelly Cup Playoffs started tomorrow, would meet the second ranked Walleye once again in the Central Division Semifinals. For Bushee, the chance to lead his team to a Kelly Cup championship and bring the hardware to his hometown is a unique one.
“Every day is a chance for us to prove that we deserve to have one of those four spots in the playoffs. For us now, it’s obviously, one, get in the playoffs, and two, we would like to have home ice, but three, let’s start winning some rounds.”