VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Ambling out of a hotel elevator at the cartoonishly posh Beverly Wilshire hotel, wearing plush slippers and a fluffy robe, the player chatted with some passers-by, casually mentioning the $120 room-service steak he had eaten the night before. Even as a multi-million-dollar professional athlete, this player — now a former member of the Blackhawks — thought it was a bit exorbitant. No worries, though. He wasn’t paying.
This is the world NHL players live in. They stay in five-star hotels. They eat at classy restaurants in private rooms, or have catered meals at the hotel. They fly charter planes with all first-class seating. They get driven straight on to the tarmac, rarely having to set foot in an airport.
The NHL season is a grueling grind, incredibly taxing on both the body and the mind. But in between all the games, especially on the road, the Hawks — like every NHL player — live a coddled, comfortable lifestyle. Rocky Wirtz spares no expense.
For high draft picks such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, it’s the only professional life they’ve ever known.
“I guess I’ve been spoon-fed my whole career,” Toews said with a laugh.
Scott Darling, Andrew Desjardins and Ryan Garbutt all enjoy that same lifestyle now. But it wasn’t always this way. Darling remembers a 22-hour bus ride from Arizona to Fort Worth to Kansas City on his first day in the now-defunct Central Hockey League. Desjardins remembers getting excited when the bus would stop at a Chili’s so he could spend his meager per diem. Garbutt remembers scraping by on $400 a week, wondering if his hockey career would ever find its way out of Corpus Christi, Texas.
There are only five CHL alumni in the NHL. Three of them play significant roles for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
It’s tough to be a top draft pick — to reach that point in the first place, and to deal with the expectations that come with it. But it’s even tougher to climb your way out of the low-level minor leagues, to catch a scout’s eye in a small, dank rink in the deep south, to get that one big chance and not blow it.
“The NHL life, it’s a little different than Ruby Tuesday and Motel 6,” Darling said. “It keeps me very grounded. It’s very easy to remember, because it wasn’t long ago. If there’s ever a day when I forget how lucky I am to be here, I just think back to those long road trips and minimum wage. The other two guys on this team, I feel like they’re the same way.”
Unlike Darling, Desjardins and Garbutt were never prospects. Garbutt was undrafted after four years at Brown, and latched on with the CHL’s Corpus Christi Icerays in 2009-10. He had 22 goals and 28 assists in 64 games, but without the dogged legwork by ECHL coach Jeff Pyle, Garbutt likely never would have gotten a tryout with the Atlanta Thrashers, never would have scored 10 goals in 10 games with the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators, and never would have reached the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, where he could finally sniff the NHL.
For guys buried three or four leagues deep, it takes a break, a helping hand.
“I was enjoying myself,” Garbutt said. “But I also realized that if I didn’t start working my way up, I wouldn’t be playing hockey forever.”
Desjardins spent four years in the Ontario Hockey League before heading way down south to Texas to join the CHL’s Laredo Bucks in 2007-08. Like Garbutt, he put up big numbers — 22 goals and 37 assists — and like Garbutt, he made just a quick stop in the ECHL before reaching the AHL. These days, while standing in the brand-new Hawks dressing room at the United Center and fiddling with an endless supply of several-hundred-dollar sticks, he can look back fondly on the 20-hour bus rides, the back-to-back-to-back games, the splurges at Chili’s.
“I ate pizza a lot at night, too,” he said. “I always had some ‘Hot-N-Ready’s. I’m not going to lie, we didn’t make a lot of money. I mean, you’re all right. You can live on it. But you have to be smart about it, too.”
For Darling, it was different. He actually was a prospect, a sixth-round pick of the Coyotes in 2007. But his alcohol problem sent him tumbling out of college hockey and all the way down to the Southern Professional Hockey League, a notch below the CHL. When he finally got his life in order, he quickly climbed, making it from the SPHL to the NHL in just three seasons, playing briefly for the CHL’s Wichita Thunder.
While most of his teammates were just delaying adulthood as long as they could, clinging to the idea of professional hockey, Darling was always looking for a way out, a way up.
“I never should have started there,” Darling said. “If I would have been more mature and made the right decisions, I never would have been there. Some guys there are just happy where they’re at, and they’re just having a fun time and not chasing call-ups. And that’s great for them. For me, I was always watching the waiver wires and transactions and goalie injuries in the leagues above me, looking for opportunities. My agent and I did a lot of phone calls, a lot of cold calls. I had to climb my way out.”
Their long and winding road to the NHL shows in their work ethic. Neither Desjardins nor Garbutt has the natural talent that Toews and Kane do. But both have carved out a niche — and have made a lot of money — as gritty grinders, perpetually hard-workers whom coaches love. They take nothing for granted, and rarely take a shift off.
“Those guys, you know they’re going to have a lot of character,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “They’ll find a way to overcome obstacles and hurdles. There’s an intangible about those guys — they’re going to do whatever they can to make it. You can see that, and it’s a good ingredient to have. They may not have as much skill, but they make up for it with desire.”
That said, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman isn’t exactly scouring the lower echelons of pro hockey for talent. But when he does see a guy with that kind of background, he values it.
“Those guys don’t have it easy,” Bowman said. “They’re a long way from the NHL when they’re playing those games. It’s easy for some of those guys to give up hope. So when you get a guy like that and he finally gets [to the NHL], you know you’re going to get consistent effort from them.”
And, hey, maybe they won’t run up the room-service bill quite as much, either.
“I think when you finally get here, it gives you a little perspective,” Desjardins said. “Hopefully, it humbles you a little bit. If you’ve been down there, you can really appreciate it up here.”