The Bubble

For guys playing in the NHL, personnel decisions often mean the difference between flying on chartered jets and eating filet mignon or riding the dusty bone-rattler bus and eating chicken parm that’s been steaming in a plastic container on the seat behind the driver. When you live your life on the bubble, it really is feast or famine.

I’m intimately familiar with the NHL/AHL bubble because I spent a lot of my hockey career squarely on it. When I played for the New Jersey Devils organization in 2011, my bubble remained in tact for the first 20 games of the season before it popped and I found myself back on the bus in Albany, inhaling a mixture of diesel fumes and the methane produced by my more flatulent teammates.

This is my first October as a retired hockey player, and as I look back on my career, I have to wonder: Why did my bubble keep popping year after year, while other players floated along to successful careers in the NHL?

A popular excuse for a lot of players is a lack of opportunity. They’re not getting power play time, or they’re not playing on the right line. You hear it all.

Well, believe it or not, coaches and GMs are primarily concerned with winning, and will give an opportunity to any player that they think can help them get two points.

Do certain guys get more opportunities because an organization wants to justify its draft picks and its signing bonus dollars? Absolutely. Can that reality be frustrating and discouraging for the guys who get passed over when the call comes from the big club? I can testify that it is. But does that mean early-round draft picks will always get priority over their undrafted or late-round teammates regardless of performance? Unequivocally, no.

The NHL is a business, and over time, the only thing that matters is how you perform.

As an undrafted free agent, I started my career in the East Coast Hockey League, a step that most draft picks get to skip. After surviving half a season in the “Cheese Toast Hockey League” (to my knowledge this rhyme pays homage to the world-class cheesy garlic bread that road teams enjoyed during pre-game meals at the hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia), I got promoted to the American Hockey League (AHL). Just like that, I was one step away from The Show. But that one step is a big one. I spent three seasons playing in the AHL before I ever appeared in so much as an NHL pre-season game. In that time, I heard about plenty of calls from the big club that weren’t for me.

But I’ll always remember that moment in 2010 when the call I’d been waiting for finally came. As it turns out … I missed it.

I had just played a road game with Albany and drained my cell phone battery on the bus ride home. When we got back around midnight, I plugged in my phone next to my bed and went downstairs to wind down with some TV. Ninety minutes later I retired to my bedroom to discover that I had about 30 text messages, 20 missed calls and 10 voicemails from the general manager and equipment guy. My pulse started pounding. I had a pretty good idea what that meant, and after Chris Lamoriello scolded me for not being easily reachable at 1:30 a.m., he informed me that I had a 7 a.m. flight out of Albany to California, where I’d be in the lineup against the LA Kings that same day.

The first people I called were my mom and dad. If I wasn’t going to get any sleep that night, then neither were they. Imagine the excitement of 28 Christmas Eves combined. By the time my cab pulled up to Staples Center 17 hours later, I was running on four hours of sleep and pure adrenaline.

That first game was a blur: the crowd, the ice girls, Justin Bieber in attendance. It took every shred of focus I had to survive the five minutes I actually spent on the ice.

Two nights later I had a fight in Vancouver and started to find my game. Two days after that I scored a game-winning goal in Chicago against the defending Stanley Cup champions. At that point, I figured I’d done enough to stick around longer. But after the four games, I was sent back to the minors for more development. I’ll admit it was disheartening initially, but Lou Lamoriello’s method had merit. Hearing about The Show is one thing, but getting a small taste of what it’s like to stay in five-star hotels and earn more in one game than you usually make in two weeks is a pretty amazing motivator.

The following season, I beat out two other bubble players on one-way NHL contracts and made the Devils roster out of training camp. When Lou called me into his office, he informed me that although I had made the team — and surprised the hell out of everybody by doing so — I wasn’t off the bubble just yet (he actually used the word “bubble” too, so there wasn’t much room for interpretation). Instead of finding an apartment in nearby Hoboken, I took up residence in the Marriott (and applied for a rewards card).

Elite athletes need to be able to block out all peripheral distractions in order to perform at their best. In retrospect, I think I dwelled far too often on the guillotine hanging over my neck after making it to the NHL. A lot of nights I’d be on grocery stick duty, meaning I was the guy on the bench sitting between the defense and forwards, separating them like the grocery divider you use in the checkout lane. Not really a glamorous role. I was always thinking about that bubble. And because of that, I allowed the joy of achieving a lifelong goal to be swallowed up by my fear of losing it.

So what? Pressure is a part of the game, right? You suck it up, put it out of your mind and get to work. Sounds simple enough, except for the fact that my fear would be reinforced every day at the rink. You’re being evaluated in every rep of every drill in every practice. You know that your shifts are going to be dissected on film by people who determine your fate. For players who are only ever one mistake away from demotion, fear of your bubble popping can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

About 10 games into my season with the Devils, I tweaked my hip flexor and it really started to slow me down. The coaching staff could obviously tell. Head Coach Peter Deboer came up to me after practice one day and asked what was wrong. I told him I was fine, but I knew he was unconvinced.

Fear is the real reason guys play this game hurt. It’s one thing in the playoffs, when players battle through anything for their teammates and a chance at the ultimate prize. But for bubble guys, playing hurt is an everyday occurrence, as prevalent in October as it is in May or June. We play through everything we’re capable of playing through because we feel like we have to. We’re afraid to give another player the opportunity to take our job.

“If you need some rest we can take you out,” Coach Deboer told me explicitly. “The job is yours, you don’t have to worry, but we need you at 100 percent.”

I was so afraid of opening that door of opportunity for someone else that I lied and said I was good to go, even though I was closer to 80 percent. Ten games later I was gone. I worked my entire life to achieve a childhood dream only to discover that the dream was as fragile as my body seemed to be.

Getting cut is gut wrenching. Most often it happens at the end of training camp after an off-season of intense grinding. Three months of grueling preparation, only to be told it wasn’t enough. After being sent down 10 times in seven seasons, you might imagine that I got used to it, but the opposite is true. At first, you fear that you might not have what it takes, but you hold out hope. Then you get older and that hope starts to fray. Each demotion becomes another broken strand on a rope that you cling to until you’re out of chances, and it snaps completely.

The second time Lou sent me down that season stands out in my memory. The previous night I had made a couple mistakes that led to two power play goals for the Penguins in a losing effort. I had stuck around after practice the next morning to get some therapy on a nagging hamstring strain. Coach Deboer found me grabbing a bite to eat in the players’ lounge after everyone else had left for the day.

“How’re you doing after last night?” he asked. I told him I was hanging in, and that I was looking ahead to our next game. “Good, there’s no point dwelling on the negative. It won’t be the last time our penalty kill gives up a goal.”

I thought the interaction had been positive. Shit happened, but we were moving on.

A few hours later, I was standing in line at the New Jersey DMV when my phone rang. “Hi Brad, this is Marie, can you hold for Lou?” I wanted to hang up; I already knew what he was going to say. As if I needed another reason to hate the DMV.

“Hi, Brad? We’re going to get you back to Albany.”

Even reflecting on it, I get the same sick feeling in my stomach. I remember calling my dad during the drive upstate, and both of us venting our frustration with how I was being treated like a yo-yo. Such is the life of a bubble player.

Now I’m retired, and that’s a little scary. The season has started and I haven’t even stepped on the ice in over a month. In years past, I’d be getting to know a new group of teammates on a personal level, as we’d be jockeying for position on the depth chart. I’d be trying to impress the coaching staff with my faceoff acumen, and trying to earn the respect of teammates with pugilistic vigor.

Instead, I’m back home reading books on sales and networking, and trying to find closure amidst all the inevitable shoulda-coulda-woulda musings. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to earn a degree, and I’ve built what I hope will be lifelong friendships with some really intelligent and successful people who have been helping me with the transition to a different life.

I recently secured a new job, a “real” job, and it’s a pretty strange feeling to know that I’ll be a rookie all over again. I’ll definitely miss a lot of things about hockey, but I won’t miss the crutches, I won’t miss the guillotine, and I definitely won’t miss being woken up on the bone-rattler bus at 5 a.m. because I’m choking on Jeremy Morin’s heinous farts. I always knew it was you, Mo. You’re gross.