McKenna: What it’s like to be a free agent awaiting a deal in August

What’s it like for a professional hockey player to be in the middle of the offseason and not have a contract?

Terrible, that’s how it is.

It’s happened several times in my career. And while each case was different, the feelings were the same. Nervousness. Fear. Despair. All come in waves.

It’s something depth players experience to a much greater degree than hockey superstars. Big dogs are bound by long-term contracts and large sums of money. But for third goalies like me, or veterans who spend time shuttling between the AHL and the NHL, the offseason can be tough.

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This is why signing on day one of free agency is so important. You don’t want to be left without a seat. Because the longer it lasts, the harder it is to get a spot on the list.

I discovered this first hand when I joined the New Jersey Devils organization in 2009. The previous year, I spent the first two-thirds of the season with the Norfolk Admirals as part of a contract with the AHL. The parent club was the Tampa Bay Lightning, and I wasn’t even invited to training camp. That’s how far I was in the depth chart.

But at the end of January, the Lightning found themselves with goalie injury problems, and I had dominated my partner, Karri Ramo, in the minors. So Tampa Bay signed me to the NHL on Feb. 1, 2009, and I spent the rest of the season with the Lightning. I started 13 games, won four, and posted an .887 save percentage.

I knew I wouldn’t be coming back to Tampa the following year. Dustin Tokarski was coming in and the Lightning wanted him to play in the AHL – which is the league I knew I belonged to. I wasn’t really ready for NHL minutes at that point in my career.

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My numbers weren’t good with the Lightning. But at the start of the offseason, I thought other NHL clubs would take notice of how poor our team was in Tampa Bay during my time there. Especially down the stretch when the Lightning traded as many plays as possible and we were plagued with injuries.

I didn’t help much with my on-ice performance. But I had some good starts, which gave me hope for the following season.

My best guess was that I would sign either a two-sided NHL contract or a one-sided AHL contract for 2009-10. The AHL seemed to be my destiny. And that was fine with me, knowing that I still needed time to develop.

But to my surprise, there were no offers. I had just beaten a coveted AHL prospect for most of the year and ended the season playing some major NHL minutes. Yet no one wanted me.

Maybe it shows my own naivety at this point in my career. But I was shocked to learn that my best option for the 2009-10 season was to attend Devils training camp on a pro trial deal. No contract. Just a chance to prove my worth.

New Jersey told me to come to camp, do my best and if everyone was happy they would offer me a proper contract. The Devils had Martin Brodeur, and Yann Danis had been signed as a free agent to back him up. Only Jeff Frazee returned to the AHL level. So for me, there was a clear opportunity to land a spot in the AHL.

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Being assigned to the Devils AHL branch in Lowell, Massachusetts seemed like a foregone conclusion. But by the time I got to New Jersey, things took a turn for the worse. The Devils placed me — a 26-year-old veteran with four seasons of professional hockey and 15 NHL games — in their development camp with the franchise’s junior and minor pro prospects.

When official training camp opened, I was assigned to a locker room away from the NHL regulars. New Jersey preferred to have two groups in training camp: the NHL players. And the rest of us.

I never skated with the NHL group.

Just over a week into training camp, I was among the first cuts. Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello offered me a two-way contract in the AHL, then explained that the organization’s plan was to eventually send me to their ECHL team, the Devils of Trenton. But first, I would attend AHL training camp at Lowell.

It was as if all the blood had instantly drained from my body. It never occurred to me that after finishing the year in the NHL, New Jersey would even consider sending me to ECHL. Especially with a spot in the AHL seemingly up for grabs and the conversations that took place during the offseason.

But what really stuck with me was that I never got the chance to skate with the NHL squad and show the Devils what I was capable of. And I said that in my exit meeting with Lamoriello and David Conte, who at the time were executive vice president of hockey operations for New Jersey.

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It was pretty obvious that – from the start – my fate was sealed, no matter how well I performed in training camp. I really didn’t want to play for Trenton if I was going back to the ECHL. I started calling, trying to find a better solution. But by then most teams – even at ECHL level – had all their goalkeeper spots.

I was stuck.

With no better option, I accepted the AHL’s two-way contract offer and went to Lowell, knowing full well I was on probation. During AHL training camp, Frazee suffered a frightening neck laceration from a skate blade. And with him out of the game for over a month, it kept me at Lowell.

Then I played some of my best hockey in the early months of the 2009 season. I was so mad at the whole situation that it fueled me. For some reason, I always played my best when I was angry.

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My mom used to say it all the time, “Don’t fuck with her. He will just play better. And she was right.

It would be easy to look back on the ordeal and resent the Devils for the way they described my opportunity to come into camp. I was told that I would have every chance to fight for a place in the lineup, whether in the NHL or the AHL. This does not happen.

But the interesting part of the story is that in the end, Lamoriello and the Devils rewarded my good play. When Frazee returned to action, New Jersey kept me at Lowell. And at the beginning of 2010, the Devils offered me a two-way contract in the NHL for the rest of the year as well as for the upcoming 2010-11 season.

I ended up playing two NHL games for New Jersey in my second year with the franchise. What started as a strained relationship ended with another chance to play in the best league in the world. I’m grateful for those NHL minutes. And I also appreciate how Lamoriello was willing to reward a player like me who came from outside the organization.

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But the months leading up to that training camp in New Jersey have been torturous. I had no idea where my career was headed, other than down. Or so it seemed.

Finally, everything worked. But even those first few months at Lowell were not easy. I was constantly on pins and needles thinking I was going to be called into the office the next day and sent to Trenton. I can’t tell you how happy I was to get a housing letter from the Devils, asking me to get a play to stay at Lowell for the rest of the season.

Stability is sometimes an elusive target for hockey players. We all know what we are getting into. And things can change very quickly. But signing a contract at the start of the offseason is a temporary relief. There is no uncertainty.

I’m thankful that as my career progressed, I usually had a deal done on the first or second day of free agency. Because another summer like 2009 could have knocked me out for good.

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