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RAPID CITY JOURNAL EXCLUSIVE

Monday, April 3rd
RAPID CITY JOURNAL EXCLUSIVE

*Article written by Geoff Preston of the Rapid City Journal*

Most college students spend time outside of class talking about schoolwork or their weekend plans.

T.J. Sarcona and Vinny Muto are not most college students.

Two weeks ago Sarcona and Muto, both 24, were student-athletes at Niagara University, playing hockey and taking classes in western New York.

Now they are members of the Rapid City Rush. Their schoolwork isn’t finished — both have to complete their final semesters at Niagara University while playing for the Rush — but the two are living out their dream of playing professional hockey.

“It’s not every day you get to play professional hockey," Sarcona said. "It’s a change of pace from playing four years of college, so it was exciting to get out there and experience something new.”

After Niagara lost in a playoff series to Canisius College on March 12, Sarcona and Muto had to pack up and catch a plane to Boise, Idaho. The Rush were playing the Steelheads on March 15 and needed reinforcements.

“It was a quick turnaround,” Muto said. “We had literally two days to figure our stuff out. We hopped on a plane to Idaho and met them in Boise.”

Sarcona is a marketing major and Muto a finance major. Muto is taking three courses while he is in Rapid City, and Sarcona said most of his schoolwork is project-based and can be done remotely.

“I’ve had papers to do that I’ll send to one of my friends and they have to hand it in for me,” Muto said. “It’s a lot like playing college hockey, except you don’t have to go to class, which is nice.”

Uncertain future

Change is a constant in the lives of many minor league hockey players. Players are being always being called up, called down or traded.

The younger players, like Rush goalie Adam Morrison, don’t seem to mind the lifestyle. Morrison, 26, started his career in the Boston Bruins minor league system. He played in South Carolina, Providence, R.I., and Reading, Pa., before joining the Rush this season in a trade.

All of the travel has opened the Vancouver native’s eyes to parts of the United States he never thought he’d see. “I’m young enough that I’m not settled down anywhere that I have to worry about a mortgage," he said.

Logan Nelson has been a pro for three years and has played for the Rush, Quad City Mallards, Wichita Thunder and is now back with the Rush.

He’s already learned that you can’t get too attached to teammates in this line of work.

“It’s tough. It seems like guys come in for a couple of days and get called up, but that’s the way it goes,” he said. “You try not to get too attached to people because you don’t know how long you’re going to be in one place or they’re going to be here. I think everyone that plays in this league knows that side of the game and tries not to get too attached to places or teams.”

Family support

For members of the Rush who have a wife or kids, the constant moving and team changes can be stressful.

Triston Grant has been a professional for 12 seasons, and during his career he’s played in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Rochester, Grand Rapids, Oklahoma City and Wichita.

Now that his fiancée is pregnant, Grant, 33, has more than just himself to think about. Life on the road — trips to places as far away as Alaska and being away from his fiancée for over a week — can be tough on a family man.

“That’s the stuff, the kind of sacrifices we have to make. It’s tough like that,” he said. “She’s a strong woman. A lot of the girls who stick it out and live this lifestyle are the best of the best. They definitely don’t get enough credit.”

Nelson lives with his girlfriend of seven years in Rapid City. “She had a job in Wichita, a really good job that she had to leave to come here with me,” he said. “That’s just part of the sacrifice, and she knows that, too. It sucks, but it’s part of the game.”

Having support from wives and girlfriends is an essential part of a player being able to live out their dreams, according to Grant.

“It’s very important that you have a partner who is willing to make the sacrifices with you,” he said. “It’s not easy going city to city, and they’re trying to make a living as well. A lot of guys wouldn’t have the success without the wives and girlfriends, so that’s a big part of the partnership as well.”

Offseason homes

The ECHL regular season lasts from October to April, and the postseason can stretch into June. Being a professional hockey player, however, is a year-round job.

While Sarcona and Muto will head back to Niagara to finish their degrees when the season ends, Morrison will return to his home in Vancouver.

“My trainer is there as well as my parents and family, so it’s easy for me,” he said. “It’s not a bad place to call home in the summer. That’s where I spend most of my time, and that’s probably where I will spend my summers, but we’ll see what the future holds.”

Morrison said every player is different, but he said most go home during the offseason.

However, British Columbia has become a popular offseason training ground for players. “One of the great things is, there’s a lot of ice, so it’s easy to accommodate skaters,” he said. “It really is personal preference. You go where you think you can get the best results.”

Making it to the show

No one dreams of staying in the minor leagues for their whole career, but that’s what happens to most players. And they certainly don't hang around the minor leagues for the money.

The average salary for a player in the ECHL is $600 per week, with a few veterans making close to $1,000 per week. Rookie players are required to be paid at least $445 a week, and the returning player minimum is $500.

Players in the NHL earn far more, but getting there is difficult. The American Hockey League, which is one level above the ECHL, is the next stop for many. The Rush are affiliated with AHL's Tucson Roadrunners.

Some players who have been in the minor leagues for many years eventually realize that they'll never make it to the NHL.

Grant, for example, has played more than 600 games in the AHL and a few games for the Philadelphia Flyers and the Nashville Predators in the NHL. He knows his career will probably end in the minor leagues.

“I’ve had my chance. The game has changed a lot and I haven’t stayed healthy enough,” he said. “I could keel over tomorrow and be proud that I had my chance. Whatever I’ve done hasn’t been something incredible, but when I look back it’s been a lot of fun and I’ve had a lot of success. I’m very blessed, to say the least.”

Although the crowds are smaller, Grant said readjusting to the minor league lifestyle wasn't difficult after being in the NHL.

“You always expect a high level of professionalism wherever you play, whether it’s here, the NHL or the AHL,” he said. “Down here you bus a little more than you fly, but that’s really not a big deal. It’s part of the game, and at the end of the day you’re playing hockey for a living. That’s what it’s all about.”

At 23, Nelson is one of the guys who still has time to make it to the NHL. He admitted, however, that it's frustrating to watch peers get called up while he waits his turn.

“You see guys in the NHL who are younger than you or you played against, you know it’s possible, but it seems so far away,” he said. “It takes a toll on you a little bit, but I think as long as you’re playing hockey you’re happy.

"I would say it’s tough for me mentally, but playing the game is enough. I still love it very much and the goal is the NHL, but it’s not an easy thing to do so you have to take it one game at a time.”

You can click to Geoff's article here: http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/for-rush-players-life-in-the-minors-no-easy-thing/article_c73629f5-395c-5d65-9cf6-b8b64a524548.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=email&utm_campaign=user-share

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