Camaraderie, passion help Californians excel in overlooked minor-league markets
Once hockey grabs ahold of you, there is no telling where it might take you.
Players from California are no different than anywhere else – everyone would love to play at the highest level possible. There isn’t one template for that, but there are patterns – play AAA hockey and then juniors. For some, the path leads to college. A handful are drafted, learn the pro game in the American Hockey League and eventually get a chance to play in the NHL.
But what about the dozens of Californians who play pro hockey in outposts such as Macon, Ga., Evansville, Ind., Winston-Salem, N.C., Fayetteville, Ark., or Birmingham, Ala., to name a few? They play in leagues named Southern Pro or Federal with dreams of reaching the ECHL, or “The Coast” – two steps from the NHL.
Who are these players and what motivates them to continue playing, often for salaries barely more than $1,000 per month?
California Rubber Magazine spoke with six players from the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) and Federal Hockey League (FHL), including four from the defending SPHL champion Macon Mayhem, and a fifth who was traded from the team earlier this season.
Their stories speak to the innate competitive spirit of hockey players, an unbridled passion for the sport, and a matter-of-fact approach to overcoming adversity and inconvenience.
NO TWO WAYS ABOUT IT
The Mayhem’s run to the SPHL’s President’s Cup last spring epitomized a rags-to-riches story. The second-year franchise rose from the ashes of a second-to-last-place finish as an expansion team in 2015-16 to league champion (losing only 13 games in regulation in the process). The Mayhem rolled through the playoffs with a 6-1 record.
A pivotal player in the Mayhem’s success is its captain, Daniel Gentzler, simply known as “Gudge.”
The Manhattan Beach native was one of Macon’s leading scorers. The 1990 birth year was part of a cohort of California players who grew up playing ice and roller hockey. His club resume includes the El Segundo Regents, Long Beach Ice Dogs and Anaheim Wildcats before finishing his Midget days playing AAA for the Los Angeles Jr. Kings. A tough and willing player, he had two seasons of 40-plus points in Junior A hockey before playing four seasons of NCAA Division I hockey at Colgate University.
The third-year pro has made a few cameos in the ECHL, but largely has been a fixture in Macon since the franchise’s inception.
“I’m still having fun playing, and the goal is to play until I’m no longer having fun,” Gentzler said. “I thought seriously about (retiring) last summer. The longer I waited, the more it pulled me back. I had a couple of job interviews, but I wasn’t ready to commit to a 9-to-5 work week. I had to come back.”
At another point on the spectrum is Macon defenseman Jeff Sanders. A 1988 birth year, the San Jose native had a similar AAA pedigree with the Jr. Sharks, but the comparison ends there.
After brief stints in the Manitoba and Superior International Junior Leagues in Canada, he returned home to briefly play club hockey for San Jose State before joining a friend at Utah State and playing three more years of ACHA hockey.
Sanders, however, had to deal with a detour that dwarfed hockey. Over a period of time, he become increasingly reliant on prescription pills.
“I needed to take some time off,” he said. “I ended up in a three-month outpatient rehab. From there, I got back in hockey as a coach in the San Jose area. That helped turn things around.”
From 2012-14, Sanders coached youth teams and played with his buddies. Then, as he says, “I got the itch to play again.”
He found an opportunity in New Zealand, then another in Germany. Upon his return to the United States, a friend told him of a team in the FHL that needed a defenseman. Sanders mostly had played forward to that point, but went to the tryout and made the expansion Berkshire Battalion and also served as an assistant coach for part of the season. He ended up being selected the league’s Defenseman of the Year and made another expansion team – Macon – in 2015-16.
“I’ve gotten to see some pretty cool places,” Sanders said.
The California contingent in Macon doubled last season two more players from Southern California joined the team.
John Siemer (Baldwin Park) is one of the state’s more accomplished inline hockey players, and he represented Team USA at the IIHF World Inline Championships in 2013. The 1992 birth year is a regular on the summer inline tournament series. He also played some AAA hockey with the California Stars and Jr. Kings before playing for four junior teams in three leagues over three seasons and landing at Northern Michigan University. He played primarily for Macon last season, though he did have three ECHL call-ups, and scored nearly a point per game for the Mayhem.
“From Northern, I didn’t even know if I was going to keep playing,” the forward said. “I decided in June when I talked to Greenville in the ECHL. I started in Greenville, later got called up Wheeling, and Quad Cities. I was in Macon for the rest of the season.”
A longtime friend, Eric Shand, had just finished a sterling NCAA Division III career at Wisconsin-Superior when the defenseman received a call from Siemer.
“After my last game, John gave me a call – we’d played with and against each other growing up. We hadn’t spoken for a few years,” said Shand, a ’92 from San Dimas who recently earned a call-up to the ECHL’s Rapid City Rush. “He was the one who was the advocate to come to Macon.
“Thank goodness I picked this place. I’ve had a great time playing with these guys. It seemed like a good fit.”
A fifth Californian, Tomas Sholl, started this season in Macon before getting traded to Evansville.
“It was pretty cool being with ‘Gudge’ and ‘Siems’ a little bit,” the 1994 birth year from Hermosa Beach said. “They were a big part of the reason why I landed in Macon.”
A long-time Jr. King, Sholl graduated from Bowling Green University last spring and actually attended the LA Kings’ prospect and rookie camps. He wasn’t quite ready to hang up his goalie gear.
“Hockey’s been a big part of my life and it’s still a passion,” he said. “I thought when I graduated if I played for a few years there will still be a job. It doesn’t work the other way. While I can play, I feel like I might as well give it a shot.”
It didn’t take long for Sholl to have a “welcome to the pros” moment, however.
“Right before I got traded, our team in Macon played in Evansville,” he said. “I got traded the next week. So I rode home on the bus, then loaded up my car and drove right back (almost 500 miles) a few days later.”
Then there is Justin Apcar-Blaszak. A 1988 birth year from Valley Village, Apcar-Blaszak grew up playing goalie for a variety of Los Angeles-area clubs – the Burbank Golden Bears, Valencia Express and Sylmar Tigers among them. As a Midget, he transitioned to defense and played for the West Valley Wolves. In between, he played Bantam hockey in the Toronto area.
Apcar-Blaszak won an ACHA national championship with College of the Canyons in 2011.
He also has a roller hockey background and coaches youth hockey every opportunity he can. After school, he spent a few years running the in-house program at Valley Ice Center, coaching a roller hockey team in Pacific Palisades and giving lessons. One of his students happened to be the son of hockey agent Allan Walsh, who noted Apcar-Blaszak’s skating ability and asked him if he wanted to play professionally.
“One thing led to another and I ended up in Sweden (in 2013),” Apcar-Blaszak said. “That transitioned my life. If I didn’t do that, I’d just be coaching. I still have that passion to coach.”
And coach he does. An entrepreneurial spirit, Apcar-Blaszak runs clinics and appears at camps as often as he can.
He’s in his third season in the FHL and first with the Carolina Thunderbirds, who are based in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is also the team’s captain.
“Hockey’s hockey – it’s just hanging out with the boys, doing what you love,” he said. “Being in this situation, I’ve had to work for this. Being a goalie for so long, I’ve had to create everything.
“Being a hockey player has given me so much life experience. I’m so appreciative of what it’s given me.”
PART OF THE COMMUNITY
In areas where hockey is less indigenous, it is vital for teams and players to become immersed in the community. That might be manifest by speaking at schools or groups, it might mean serving as waiters in a restaurant for a night.
“We’re in the community a lot,” Sanders said. “We read to kids and over the holidays, we’re helping with food drives, packing up boxes. We’re trying to build up hockey here. It was in Macon at one time, then it went away.”
It might even mean stepping into the squared circle for some rasslin.’
“We had a promo for a pro wrestling match – there were probably 900 fans,” Apcar-Blaszak recalled. “The team was invited, and the ‘good guy’ was wearing our jersey. Fifteen players were involved, pulling guys between the ropes, messing with the referee.
“Beforehand, the wrestlers told us to entertain. We had six guys in the ring at once. My roommate jumped up and dropped elbows on the bad guy. It was fun.”
There is a strong social component to the game at this level, and the players agree there is an entertainment element to what they’re doing.
“Our fans are hockey fanatics,” Gentzler said. “They enjoy the rough stuff. They’re learning the game every time they come.”
In lands where football is king, the players said attendance usually picks up once the high school and college football seasons end. Hockey’s physical nature can’t be oversold.
“Everybody loves the fighting,” Siemer said. “Everyone feeds off that. Luckily, I play on a line with one of the best fighters in the league. I get a little more room because of him, but I have to keep my head up.”
PLUSES AND MINUSES
When you’re there, you’re family. The teams’ fan clubs are a critical part of life in these minors, where the average salaries start from the low $200s per week and can reach into the $400s. Teams have a weekly salary cap in the low $5,000s and usually carry 17-20 players (two goalies and 15 skaters dress). The team pays for housing and utilities.
“The only thing we have to pay for is our food and cell phones,” Sholl said. “All of the guys live in the same apartment complex. We get treated well. The booster clubs put together events or dinners for the players. Even after practice, we’ll walk into the locker room, and the boosters have made us veggie trays.”
The friendliness of the fans has left an impression on Shand, too.
“All the people around the team are super nice,” he said. “Before road trips, everyone gets their own snack bag. You tell them what you like at the beginning of the season and you’ll find goodie bags in your stall full of Powerade, beef jerky, protein bars or candy, whatever you want. Southern hospitality is no joke.”
One challenge can be finding a place to practice. When other events take over the Macon Coliseum, the Mayhem’s options are drive at least 90 minutes to Columbus, Ga., to the next nearest rink or go to a local gym for a team workout or to take a spin class.
“Monster Jam was in our building one weekend recently,” Shand said. “We didn’t have ice to practice on for a week. There’s ways we keep busy and stay moving, but obviously there are other things that are going on.”
Most teams play in venues with capacities close to – and some significantly more than – 6,000. Some markets have stand-alone ice rinks for practice options.
One thing that isn’t optional is bus travel. It’s OK in the SPHL, which has most of its teams in Southeast, save for Evansville and Peoria, Ill. In the FHL, Carolina is the southern-most outpost, and road trips include jaunts to Southern Ontario, Michigan and Upstate New York.
“Our trips are brutal,” Apcar-Blaszak said. “We lose one day a week when we travel because our shortest trip is 12 hours. If we have a three-game series in Danville, we will leave at midnight Thursday, drive straight through, grab a pregame nap and be at the rink at 5, then play three nights in a row and load up the bus.
“Fortunately, our coach bus is being converted into a sleeper bus.”
Sanders said the trips don’t bother him.
“We have a sleeper bus and it has TVs, plus the boosters always give us a lot of food,” he said. “We find ways to pass time.”
As enjoyable as this hockey life can be, every player wants to get called up. It’s happened for Gentzler, Sanders and Siemer, and it’s in the sights of the others.
“There isn’t a big skill jump from the SP to the Coast,” Siemer said. “I believe it’s the mentality. The biggest (on-ice) difference is the defense. Not only are they a bit more skilled, they’re just bigger.”
Added Gentzler: “I wanted to play at the highest level possible for myself. When I was called up, I enjoyed it and did what I could. I could play stress-free because I knew it was just for a period of time and I didn’t have to worry about getting cut.
“It’s challenging when you go to a new team, but you just try to work hard and fit in, do what they ask you to do. You play a different role. (In Macon), I’m involved in all situations.”
Whether a call-up happens or not, the players agreed it’s a special time in their lives. They’re paid to play a game they love, they’re seeing new places and building friendships.
“Hockey has changed my life,” Sanders said. “If I needed to get out of a tough situation in life, I could always show up and the rink and see my buddies. It always helped.
“Playing with people from all over the place, it gives you goose bumps to hear everyone’s journey. We’re all here for the same reason.
“I’m the happiest guy in the world when I get to the rink.”
Mayhem photos/Bryan Meeks/Orbicular Media
Apcar-Blaszak photo/Carolina Thunderbirds
— Chris Bayee
(Jan. 2, 2018)