Teachers, landscapers, farmers -- these are the people Tulsa Oilers head coach Bruce Ramsay spends a majority of his time with.
No, Ramsay hasn't shelved his skates and clipboard for a career with an employment agency; he's merely explaining the realities of life as a professional hockey player in the Central Hockey League.
Contrary to popular belief, the seemingly glamorous life of a professional athlete isn't always what it seems. Instead of signing lucrative deals and cashing six-figure paychecks like their NHL counterparts, Ramsey's bunch is consumed with chasing dreams and struggling to endure reality.
"It isn't easy," Ramsay said. "In order to survive you have to have two careers."
If anyone would know, it's Ramsay. His 15-year career as a player saw him spending winter months guiding pucks toward opponents' nets and summer months guiding fishermen around the numerous lakes in his native Canadian province of Ontario.
Essentially, while their NHL equivalents enjoy a relatively relaxing 4-month break following their 82-game schedule, players in smaller leagues like the CHL must find a way to supplement the already meager $400 - $500 weekly salaries they receive during their 26-week season.
"In the summer, players aren't getting paid," Ramsay said. "Once their contracts are over, they're done getting paid.
"There's a good gap of about six months where the players are not getting paid, and obviously in the summer time they're busy doing all sorts of jobs," Ramsay added.
Don't be misled in thinking the compensation players receive during that six-month stretch is lucrative. The Oilers play an average of three to four games per week, practice frequently, and partake in film sessions and team meetings almost every day. Let's not forget they compete in one of the most grueling and physical sports in the world -- one that has gained much of its popularity from the black and blue reputation it holds.
Ask any casual hockey fan what they enjoy most about the sport and odds are they'll mention fighting.
"In hockey, the most popular player is usually the toughest player," Ramsay said. "It's probably the only sport left in the world where two guys will fight bare-knuckled."
And being involved in a sport with such high tendencies for violence, often the effects on players can be detrimental. Just last season, the Oilers lost two players for the season after a series of fights in a single game, crippling the team and leaving injured players' careers and long-term health in jeopardy.
Engaging in such punishment on a nightly basis seems ludicrous when the reward is a salary not much higher than minimum wage.
Even when the players aren't on the ice or in the film room, much of their downtime is spent travelling around the Midwest. Often, the team is faced with playing games in multiple cities on consecutive nights, and occasionally required to squeeze as many as three games in three different cities into as little as 48 hours.
On one particular occasion last year, the Oilers hosted the Quad City Mallards for a 7pm game at the BOK Center, then drove nine hours Quad City again in Moline, Ill., and again journeyed into the wee hours of the morning for a 4 pm home game the next day. So much time on a bus could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, but for teams like the Oilers, it just comes with the territory.
"A lot of [the players] sleep," Ramsay said. "Guys play cards; a lot of guys read. We're in a technological age and we have computers and iPads and all those things they can take advantage of. We do have Wi-Fi on the bus, so a lot of guys take advantage of that."
One bright spot surrounding travel, as far as the Oilers are concerned, is that hotel accommodations are usually decent in remote cities. Ramsay says that, for the most part, the team enjoys the amenities their opponents provide them. Of course, there's always an exception.
"We have had a few hotels that weren't so great," Ramsay said. "In Amarillo one of the hotels had doors like an old saloon that swung back and forth."
"But for the most part, the hotels are really nice and decent," he added.
Housing in Tulsa isn't much of a concern for Oilers players either. As part of their contractual agreements, many players receive rent-free housing. The organization houses its players in the Vista at Shadow Mountain community, and though their apartments may pale in comparison to the mansions and high-rise condos of some NHL stars, free housing is a definite benefit, especially considering the unpredictability of being a minor league professional athlete.
Ramsay is one of the only personalities within the Oilers organization who enjoys consistent, year-round employment. His winter months are spent teaching, mentoring, and guiding his roster of 20 as they pursue league championships, and his summer months are spent scouting and recruiting new players.
But while NHL coaches may enjoy a great deal of support personnel, Ramsay's duties extend well beyond the typical head coach's job description. Scheduling, travel logistics, providing his players with housing, and handling immigration issues are all Ramsay's responsibility. Though this season he's enjoyed having the first assistant coach in his coaching career, the responsibilities Ramsay has make for many a long workday.
"Most American league teams have one or two assistant coaches; they'll have video guys, people that do the recruiting, general managers," Ramsay said. "For coaches in the CHL, one guy does the work of about 10 in the NHL."
So why do these gluttons for punishment continue to suffer the consequences of physical punishment and near poverty?
Mostly because they refuse to abandon dreams they've had since childhood.
Make no mistake: the players in leagues like the CHL are still among the best hockey players in the world. They may sometimes be forced to moonlight as farmers or landscapers in order to make ends meet, and odds are most of them may never see the light of signing bonuses, clothing endorsements, or digitized characters in a video game. But they possess something that makes them heroic every time they lace up their skates: undying perseverance.
They simply refuse to settle for a life short of what they so desperately desire.
It's a shame such an admirable quality isn't better rewarded.
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