Nate Kiser of the South Carolina Stingrays is sweating.
Not because it’s 96 degrees in the shade. Or because he wonders whether he’ll make next year’s cut. Or because the air conditioner is busted at his new home in Hanahan. Nope.
Kiser is sweating because, for the last month, he’s been out of work. He was “laid off” on May 17 when the Stingrays were eliminated from the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) Conference Finals. The temporary pink slip is an annual event for every player in the ECHL.
“Sitting around in your house doing nothing for about a week is cool, but after about a week and those bills start rolling in and everyone is out working and you’re doing nothing…” he says. In the meantime, Kiser keeps one eye on the classifieds.
While most of the National Hockey League world is probably jetting off to some tropical location to sip little umbrella drinks and lounge around a pool soaking up the sun, their understudies in the ECHL are scrambling to find second jobs to fill in their summer schedules and supplement their modest hockey incomes.
As a newlywed and new homeowner, Kiser is ready for a steady paycheck. “I have a house now, a mortgage, the whole nine,” the hockey player and Michigan transplant says. “My wife works and we save up money during the season, but you don’t want to just live off that for the summer.
“Last summer was the hardest for me because the economy in Michigan is terrible,” says Kiser. “I was looking for work for a while, and, unfortunately, there wasn’t much floating around. I was finally able to land a construction job.”
Since signing his first professional contract in 2003 with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey league (AHL), Kiser has moved and moved and moved again.
“We have packed and moved our stuff over 10 times throughout my pro career,” he says. “It’s not like I’m a single guy, and I can just throw everything in my car and go. We have to pack up a U-Haul, take it home, then unpack everything, every single year.”
Kiser and his wife grew tired of the 700-mile off-season odyssey to and from Charleston and Michigan, and, despite the rocky economy and the instability of a career as a professional athlete at the minor league level, the couple purchased a home in Hanahan.
In hockey circles, the ECHL is referred to as a “developmental league.” It is two notches below the NHL. In between is the AHL, the next step up for an ECHL player.
According to the ECHL official website, in 2007-2008 a team’s salary cap per week was $11,200. According to Jared Bednar, head coach and vice president of hockey operations for the Stingrays, the team paid $11,000 per week in player salaries (or $550 per player on average).
To put that in perspective, the NHL league minimum salary for a player last season was $475,000. (By 2011-2012 it will be $525,000.) Based on those numbers, the entire roster of the Stingrays — one of the most respected organizations in the league — earned less than any one NHL player last year.
“I have kids ask me all of the time, ‘How much money do you make?'” says Stingray defenseman Scott Romfo. “I always tell them, ‘Enough to pay the bills.’
“We don’t make millions. If you’re a single guy with no expenses, you’ll do fine. I went to a four-year college. I didn’t have a full scholarship. I have to pay student loans.”
For professional athletes, everything is temporary when you’re chasing the dream in the minor league system. Nothing is nailed down, including contracts. Some ECHL contracts are non-guaranteed, meaning the team can waive a contract with one week’s severance pay, making it an even more daunting way to earn a living.
Kiser, a native of Southgate, Mich., (population 30,316, according to 2000 Census figures), grew up with small-town values and a blue-collar work ethic. His off-the-ice work experience includes past stints as a commercial carpenter, construction worker, general laborer, and one summer at the local Michigan police impound lot.
“I was the guy out there when people would come to get their car out of impound, I would have to take them out to their vehicle. Or, if they claimed they needed to get something out of their vehicle, make sure they were taking what they were supposed to,” Kiser says. “Some people wouldn’t think the vehicle was worth getting out of impound, so they would try to take their stereo and subwoofers and leave the car.”
According to Kiser, working a summer job has an uncanny way of putting things in perspective. “At the end of the week, after working your 40 hours a week, you’re doing whatever everybody else does that’s not what a professional athlete does, that’s work extremely hard to support your family and pay the bills,” Kiser says. “I definitely get a greater appreciation for hockey and being able to do what I do.”
Meanwhile, teammate Scott Romfo is living with his brother Brian in Hanahan.
Romfo parlayed his academic and athletic abilities into a successful four-year collegiate career as a student-athlete at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (R.P.I.), the legendary Division I ice hockey program in Troy, N.Y.
In the spring of 2006, after graduating with a degree in biomedical engineering, Romfo was sitting on a job offer from General Electric. He turned it down.
Romfo says, “I would have been making three times as much as I make now.”
A stable salary, vacation time, a health insurance plan, and a 401(k) plan — all of it sounded great to Romfo, but there was another passion in his heart, one with no tangible benefits, no substantial salary, and no guarantees.
Like so many others, Romfo decided to chase his dream of one day playing in the NHL. “I thought about it and decided I had to try this,” says Romfo. “I was only two steps away from the NHL. If I didn’t, when I’m 40, I’d be asking myself, ‘What might have happened?'”
“I think he made the right decision,” says former teammate Cail MacLean, who retired from professional hockey last month at the age of 31 years old. “If he wants to get a job he’ll be able to, but he won’t always be able to be a professional athlete.”
Just days before the hockey season came to an end, Romfo accepted an engineering position with Global Aeronautica, which is located at the Charleston International Airport, just a couple of miles from the North Charleston Coliseum. The company, owned in part by Boeing, assembles and integrates the fuselage for the Dreamliner 787.
“It’s not the same line of work I got my degree in, but it will look nice on my resume,” Romfo modestly confesses.
Before accepting the offer at Global Aeronautica, Romfo was employed as an independent sales representative for Carolina Health Connection. He was recruited by former Stingray Jeff McLain. “I liked the sales aspect of the work,” he says. “It’s competitive. It reminds me of hockey.”
Romfo’s local celebrity status didn’t hurt either. “I don’t make a point of using that, but some people recognize me by my name, and it helps, because they feel more comfortable,” he adds.
Saying Goodbye to the Dream
Cail MacLean, a native of Middleton, Nova Scotia, wasn’t dreaming about million-dollar contracts, big houses, and sports cars — he was dreaming of wearing a National Hockey League uniform, skating for thousands of rabid hockey fans in a sold-out arena, while turning each imaginary shot in the family basement into the game-winning goal of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
His career spanned 11 seasons and included 15 different teams, the last three seasons playing for the Stingrays. He reached the American Hockey League, but never the NHL. “It was something I dreamed about since I was 12 years old, lifting weights and shooting pucks in my parents’ basement,” says MacLean, the former Stingrays captain.
His formal retirement was a decision in the making over the last four years. “Finances were a large part of the decision, but money wasn’t a prerequisite, or I wouldn’t have played as long as I have,” says MacLean, who’s attending Trident Technical College full-time this summer as a business administration major.
For most of the last 11 summers, MacLean spent the off-season on the ice training young hockey players. “I was able to kill two birds with one stone,” he says. “I could make extra money in the summer and get my conditioning and fitness training in for the season at the same time.”
In 2004, MacLean, then only 28 years old, was shuffling between the Hershey Bears (AHL) and Reading Royals (ECHL). He knew time was against him and that the NHL was probably no longer “in the cards.”
“I wasn’t getting any younger, and the ECHL is a developmental league with a lot of younger players,” he says. “It was a decision life was making for me.
“After working so hard to play in the AHL, once I realized I was losing my grip and I wasn’t going to be moving up … we decided we were going to get a little more from hockey for our lives. I wanted to decide life for myself and not let hockey dictate my choices.”
His decision to sign a contract with the Stingrays in 2005 was not happenstance. It was all part of a larger plan in the transition from hockey to the real world — not on hockey’s terms but on his own.
MacLean says, “Lifestyle was high on our list. I looked for places where we wanted to live and combined that with finding an organization that had a good reputation. We moved here sight unseen. The only things I knew about Charleston were what I was told,” he says. “My wife Keri and I both love the beach. She surfs, and I’m trying to learn to surf.”
The former Stingrays captain says, “I decided that I was going to stop taking call-ups and live in Charleston and enjoy it.”
No Country for Relatively Older Men
Scott Romfo is 27 years old, single, and has no family to support. For now he is going to enjoy the game as long as he still has the desire to play. Today Romfo is working on a new dream: winning the Kelly Cup, the ECHL equivalent of the Stanley Cup, a goal the Stingrays almost reached last season. It’s a dream that Nate Kiser also shares.
Romfo’s motivation is his brother Jeff, a former Stingray (1996-2000) who was a member of the 1997 Kelly Cup championship team. “There’s a lot of trash talking between us,” says Romfo. “It would be nice to shut him up.”
He also hasn’t given up on playing in the NHL, but he is aware that his chances are slim, “Most of the guys picked up by NHL teams are either out of junior hockey or Division I college hockey,” Romfo says.
“I still have hope, but I’m not getting any younger.”
Summer Under the Seats
On the outside there are no traces of hockey. The locker room is a shell. Empty stalls bearing the nameplates of last season’s roster linger. No Zamboni. No Cool Ray, the team’s mascot. Even the ice at the North Charleston Coliseum has evaporated.
South Carolina Stingrays head coach Jared Bednar is relaxed — in shorts, flip flops, and a golf shirt — and kicking back in his office, located under Section 129 of the Coliseum seats. He already has a visible summer tan.
Only a few weeks ago, the Coliseum was buzzing with excitement. The Stingrays were hosting the Cincinnati Cyclones in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) Conference Finals. Trailing the series 2-0, Bednar’s team was prepared to regain their momentum and take control of the best-of-seven series.
But, in the immortal words of Robert Burns, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” The weekend and the season came to an abrupt and frustrating end with a pair of heartbreaking overtime losses.
On the inside, Bednar knows the season is over, but he’s not forgotten it.
“What frustrates me and our guys is, we had Game 2 (against Cincinnati), we had the lead 3-0, and we let that slip away,” Bednar says about the past season. “You’re playing a good team at home, they got a little momentum, and we got in penalty trouble.
“Our goal at the start of the year was to compete for a [Kelly] Cup, and I would have liked to get to the Finals. Once you’re in the Finals series, anything can happen. You have to have a lot of things go right. You have to be really lucky. Winning that Cup is a completely different animal.”
No one expected the Stingrays’ success this year, especially after the team’s slow start. Less than one month into the season, in mid-November, the Stingrays started skidding, losing six straight, including four in a row at home. It appeared the team was headed for a second straight season of mediocrity.
“When it was two or three games, I never thought it would hit six,” Bednar says. “At that point, things were looking pretty grim, but the guys stuck with it. We looked like we were on the way to an average season, then the guys all came together and we won 12 in a row.”
The winning streak (Nov. 28-Dec. 31) followed on the heels of the Rays’ skid and couldn’t have come at a better time. “You gotta believe if you’re going to succeed and all our guys felt we had that quality of a team,” Bednar says. The Stingrays outscored their opponents 40-19 during the winning streak.
The Stingrays began playing with a new confidence and Bednar, the rookie coach, was making a noticeable impression on the fans, the league, and the organization.
No team in the league was better. The Stingrays were 20-4 during the stretch from Nov. 28 to Jan. 26, peaking at season’s end with a seven-game winning streak to capture the No. 2 seed in the post-season.
What Bednar wasn’t prepared for was the way in which the work consumed him. “It grabbed a hold of me a lot harder than I thought it would,” he said. “I’d been in the office as an assistant for five years, and I was able to leave the game at the rink. I found myself, as the head guy, that I was — not worrying about it at home — but hockey was all I thought about for eight months.
“Work just found its way home with me more often than I thought it would. I just didn’t want to leave things half finished, so I’d stay longer. It took up more time than I thought it would. There was a learning curve there for my wife and kids and myself.”
It’s all part of the education process for the head coach, a lesson Bednar will carry into next season. Yes, next season. Bednar is already looking ahead to his trip to Augusta on Fri. Oct. 17, opening night of the new season.
But it’s June, and there’s a lot of work to be done before then. Recruiting, signing, training, and practice. Then, with hard work and a lucky break here and there, Bednar and company will survive another eight-month-long season (90-plus games and over 6,000 minutes of ice time) and earn another shot at the Kelly Cup.
Although the Bednar family summer vacation is days away, for the moment, the coach is back in the office making a few last-minute recruiting phone calls. “The further you go, the more you start thinking about that Cup,” said Bednar. “It’s difficult to let that go.”