Why we work in the ECHL

David Fine/Glens Falls, NY: It’s an unseasonably “warm” evening in late November two hours south of the Canadian border, and Royals equipment manager Jason “J Bird” MacDonald looks at me and says, “you’re seeing history today, Dave.”

The circumstances are extraordinary. Nick Niedert, who hasn’t started an ECHL game in 1032 days, is getting the call in net for the Reading Royals. Goaltender Angus Redmond suffered an upper-body injury in the final five minutes of Reading’s game the previous night vs. Adirondack. Niedert was supposed to be signed as an emergency back-up goaltender (EBUG) that day, but due to Redmond’s injury, Niedert has been thrust into starting duty. The night before, Redmond was shelled for 8 goals in an 8-3 loss to Adirondack in Reading.

Goaltenders are normally “off limits” to chat with on game days, but because of the unusual situation, I have one quick question for Niedert. The 36-year-old gives me a sympathetic look when I ask him if he started for Carolina in the Federal Hockey League (a lower-level professional league) the season before. He played two games, one of 27 teams he has played for in his career. His HockeyDB page looks like a complicated spreadsheet.

“Yep! Filled in. It’s a Saturday here, good crowds.”

His composure is superb, his “game face” molding into form at 4:30 p.m. He is ready to win this game. It got me fired up. I laugh and whisper, “this is going to be a good one.”

That was my first laugh of the day in a sport and league that breeds hundreds a season. It was also a “free laugh.” Longtime minor league defenseman and former Royals assistant coach Pat Wellar, one of the best human beings on the planet, was the first I heard to use the term. “In this league, the laughs are always free.”

And they are numerous.

This Niedert story is worthy of a free laugh, if only because the odds are so heavily stacked against Reading to pull this upset. The guy is 5-foot-8 and hasn’t played in this league in four seasons. Yet, he’s trying to prevent the Royals from losing for the eighth time in nine games.  Reading hasn’t beaten Adirondack in 330 days.

Head Coach Kirk MacDonald and assistant Mike Marcou, both fairly easy-going guys, are curious of what the team’s reaction will be when they see that Niedert gets the call. They each chuckle a little when they explain the situation to me a few hours before puck drop.

Marcou and MacDonald had sent the players the lineup earlier in the day, with Redmond slotted as the starting goaltender. However, at 1:30 p.m., the coaches found out Redmond was unable to start because of his injury sustained Friday had worsened. The coaches were prepared for Redmond to play, so the news throws off Reading's game plan. It's a game day's afternoon, so it's too late to find a replacement for Redmond. Niedert will have to play. 

It’s about 2 hours until game time.

------

Professional sports breeds laughter for those fortunate enough to work in it. In the “ever-changing hockey league” (what sarcastic lifers call the ECHL), stories are so ridiculous that most outsiders with a knowledge of the sport wonder how this league functions. Why arrive into cities at 4:00 a.m., sleep for a few hours, go to the rink, play a game and then return the next morning at 4:00, or later? Why sleep on busses that travel on winter interstates and through brutal travel conditions?

My answer, in part, is the laughs.

Players and coaches laugh on the bus, at each other. They serenade each other with sarcastic boos and chuckles when someone says something silly. There’s a million stories on these busses, with more than 20 players sharing their life stories. Being a fly on the wall is a privilege. It is also a responsibility. The bus is a sacred place. Sharing a smile with a player on the bus and learning about them as a person is a joy. There’s a bond built in locker rooms and on these busses that brings out the best in humanity. We share our love of movies, Netflix, Instagram and women. Everyone has a crazy travel anecdote and some weird conversation worth sharing. Rinks range from Boise, Idaho to St. John’s, Newfoundland. 

Most stories start with, “we were in [insert road city] and this happened.”

There are laughs after victories, when the boys sit around and enjoy a relaxing beer.

There are laughs on seemingly-endless bus rides, like the one four days earlier to Wheeling, WV, where traffic and construction caused three hours worth of driving delays, causing the team to arrive at 8:00 p.m. at the team hotel instead of 4:30.

Even the team bus driver was impatient, as we were forced to stop behind a car filled with a mom, dad and two children trying to look at Christmas lights in Wheeling. The hotel parking lot entrance was fewer than 10 feet away, but we could not get around them. Our bus driver laid on the horn. The car moves, with the family of four inside thinking we’re the biggest jerks ever.

We just needed to go to bed and eat something.

The next day, Reading snaps a six-game losing streak with a 5-1 stomping over former Royals goaltender John Muse. Happy Thanksgiving.

-----

Now two days after Thanksgiving, the Niedert story encapsulates what it means to play, coach and work in the ECHL. The league is so close to the “AHL standard,” with dozens of players recalled and sent down each month. Yet, from a player movement, organizational structure and NHL-affiliation standpoint, it feels foreign. The top players in this league are qualified to play in the AHL and NHL, but it feels so far removed. Anything is possible, but most of these stories are not worth gambling on.

It makes it that much more satisfying when players are called up, getting the chance to prove themselves at higher levels.

Tonight, Nick Niedert has perhaps the final opportunity of his playing career to demonstrate he is capable. This isn’t “Rocky,” because even Sylvester Stallone had weeks to prepare to face Apollo Creed. Niedert didn’t even know he was playing when he had breakfast.

------

The unusual circumstance of this game is in part due to the fact this Royals team has started off with the crooked record of 6-5-6 (4 OT losses and 2 shootout losses). Grins are scarce after most games, including the 8-3 loss 24 hours earlier to the Thunder. The teams each traversed 300 miles north and east to Glens Falls, a scenic town of fewer than 20,000 located 10 miles south of Lake George. It is pristine, and one of the best minor league cities in North America. The Royals players get to bed around 4:00 a.m., and most probably aren't asleep until close to 5:00. Sunrise was 6:59 a.m. in Glens Falls.

The day goes by pretty quickly, but Coach MacDonald and Coach Marcou have a wrench thrown at them when they hear Redmond is out. With no options left, they call Niedert and tell him he’s starting. Niedert is in the car, a couple of hours from arriving at Cool Insuring Arena. He has been an emergency back-up  goaltender for the Royals once this season, during a six-game losing streak.

Because of the terrible loss the night before, I am unaware Niedert will get the start until 4:00 p.m. Outside of a five-minute chat with Coach MacDonald and a couple of confirmation questions at 4:30 p.m., I say close to nothing to the staff that day. This, for all intents, is a game the Royals will have to explode offensively to win. And even that seems unlikely. Reading has dropped nine straight to the Thunder. Losses are more painful when a five-hour bus ride awaits after the game. 

Coach MacDonald encourages positive vibes from the press box before I head on air. During our Coaches Corner chat, he delivers a consistent message.

“Make the first save.”

We have no idea what we’re getting into.

Given I’m expecting a tough night and also feel bad for the injured Redmond, I invite Angus to sit in the press box to watch the game from the “best visiting radio booth” in the league, the Dave Strader Press Box.  He obliges. Redmond and I chat a little bit before puck drop as my prep finishes, launching into the pregame show at 6:45 p.m.

In the first period, Niedert makes seven saves and allows a goal halfway through the first. It was a slower shot aimed through traffic at the left point. 1-0 Thunder. My heart sinks slightly, returning to normalcy that this will be a loss and there will in all likelihood be at least 4 more goals like this throughout the game.  By the way, Adirondack is starting Cam Johnson, who is on an NHL contract with the New Jersey Devils. The Devils control his rights and decide where he moves. He has the potential to make hundreds of thousands of more dollars in a season than Niedert. Everything about Johnson makes him Niedert’s opposite. Johnson is a former National Champion at NCAA powerhouse North Dakota that has been targeted as one of the next great Devils netminders.

Minutes after a couple of nice saves by Johnson, momentum shifts. The Royals are gifted a power play and six seconds later, leading scorer Steven Swavely jams in a rebound at the right post with two minutes left in the first.

Redmond fist pumps in the booth. A players’ energy, even an injured one, is infectious. This is a damn game. The Royals are tied at one after 20 minutes and Reading high-fives Niedert as he comes off the ice. The old man has kept the team in it.

The second period is more remarkable. The game stays tied, 1-1, thanks to 14 saves from Niedert, including one that pops his helmet off. The 5-foot-8, 36-year-old denies 14 straight shots in the middle period. The Royals block at least 15 shots in the period as well and kill off three Thunder power plays. Reading has survived Adirondack’s best charge of the game.

My heart flutters a little as the second period ends.

Little do I realize, but MacDonald delivers an impassioned speech to the team in the second intermission, begging the boys to seize this moment in front of Niedert.

His message works. Forward Jack Riley scores two minutes into the third for Reading on a “greasy” goal, finding a pinballing puck inside the left circle and slinging it through Johnson’s five-hole. 2-1 Royals lead.

The final 18 minutes are hell. The Thunder try 15 shots, including 10 in the final half of the frame. Niedert slides for a denial at the left post in the final five minutes. His helmet pops off for the second time on save made by his mask. It causes a whistle among a net-front scramble. The 4,000 fans at Cool Insuring Arena boo Niedert with ferocity.

“He’s a men’s league goalie, the helmet isn’t used to this,” jokes Charlie Vasaturo, fourth-year Reading blue liner, after the game.

The boys sell out to block another ten great scoring opportunities in the final five. This is the most-stunning moment of the league’s season. Time expires and Reading wins, earning its first victory over Adirondack in 11 months. Niedert makes 38 saves, the most he’s ever had in an ECHL game.

About 20 minutes after the game, the team begins to file on the bus and leaves Niedert at the arena, as he drives back to Connecticut. What a league.

We take a picture of Niedert holding the game puck, as the 15-year veteran is awarded the game’s first star. A few minutes later, the bus is on the road, returning home down I-87 with rain pounding on the sleeper bus’ windows for most of the ride home.

The bus is the happiest I’ve ever seen it. The boys are laughing, most in shock of what just happened. It’s the perfect place to be, a celebration of the sport and a man that led them to this spot.

Third-year forward Steven Swavely recalls Niedert’s message to the team after the game.

“Let Saturday be our turning point.”

This is why we work in the ECHL.