For the Rookies

Jeff Ulmer NYR

For the Rookies

Everyone is watching you. Most coaches, GMs and even a few of your older teammates will know whether you have a future in hockey or not during the first few times that they see you on the ice. And in some cases, just by having a conversation with you. Can you prove them right or wrong? Sure. But that’s up to you.

Some players are stars from their first few seasons of playing hockey as kids and translate that into solid careers. Others are so used to having easy success that they can’t take some adversity and may be out of hockey after a year or two of playing professionally. I’ve played alongside both.

Some are late bloomers that decide that they want to take hockey seriously and do whatever they can to make a living out of the sport. They may have been cut from several teams but simply won’t take no for an answer. Meeting adversity head on may have given them the strength to translate failures into new opportunities and learn what it takes to be a professional hockey player. I’ve seen plenty of these as well.

Whether you play your 4-5 years of junior or your 4 years of college hockey, you will end up in the same place as several other players. On a hockey team, or trying out for a hockey team, and then it is entirely up to you. Talent will earn you a shot at being a professional hockey player but it is the passion that you show in wanting to improve that will keep you in hockey.

Set your path. You will be given an opportunity to showcase yourself in different situations at first. If you are successful, then congratulations. If not, you may not be written off yet. Most organizations will give you a few years to establish yourself as a player. And if they see you as a player that doesn’t fit in their organization? Then another team may give you the chance that you need.

Most players fail to make a team at some point. Very few are blue chip prospects, World Junior stars and then full-time NHLers for 15-20 years. Yet, every NHL team has to carry 20-22 players on their roster, with several prospects ready to be called up. Also, as I can attest to, there are plenty of opportunities in Europe to make a successful living in hockey.

Over the beginning of your career you may be immediately projected as a “powerplay guy”, “checker”, “grinder” or even “defensive D-man”. Coaches, scouts and others are not always right, however. Being a grinder isn’t sexy but if you have some offensive skills and are willing to play a “200 foot game”, any coach will find a spot for you. So do what you can to learn to do both.

Use your strengths to help you get to a certain level of hockey but improve your weaknesses to stay there or move higher. If you know your shot is weak but you can skate like the wind, then keep skating but work on your shot. A “powerplay guy” can become a very effective penalty killer and a “defensive D-man” can learn to be more offensive. Watch the veterans, learn some tendencies and try your best to grow as a player and a teammate.

The people that make decisions for a hockey team are not looking to see whether you can score a fancy goal on a shootout attempt, although that may help. They are looking to see how you react when your teammate didn’t pass to you on a 2 on 1 chance or whether you will give a defenceman on your team a pat on the shin pads after he was beaten for a goal, telling him to forget about it and that he will “get him next time“. They will read your effort in practice, whether you skate until the end of a drill or stop in front of the net after a shot attempt.

Are you a good teammate? Being angry if you don’t record a point when your team wins or showing your frustration if you get called off of the ice are a few examples of poor teammates. A reputation for having characteristics like that will stay with you for your career. You will learn that doing your part to help your team win games is the most important and that personal statistics will soon become forgotten by others. Your teammates will notice if you don’t backcheck, intentionally move out of the way instead of blocking a shot or seem jealous of a teammate having success. However, they will remember how you invited everyone when you went for lunch after practice, consoled a teammate in a slump or maybe even helped some of the equipment workers carry some bags in from the bus after a long trip.

Learn the names of the people that work for the team, whether they are volunteer equipment people or working in the office for your team and remember them. Ask veterans for advice, as they were rookies at one point as well, and if they tell you something that you really don’t believe is right, thank them anyways. Respect for your organization, coaching staff and teammates is important. You, however, are also important and a key member of the organization. Know that in your mind but don’t act like it. Your attitude will contribute to your value within the organization.

If a coach tells you something that you don’t believe is right, don’t argue. Acknowledge it and don’t give him another reason to doubt you. Most coaches can live with mistakes if an honest effort is put in. So don’t worry about making a mistake. We all do, and you will. Learn from them and trust that you will learn over time, because you will do that also.

Just as most players do, I have failed at several points in my career. I still fail myself or my team occasionally. Am I scared to fail? Hell no. I wasn’t drafted. I wasn’t handed an NHL contract after graduating from College. I had to prove myself in my first year of pro hockey that I deserved to be given a chance. And by doing that, I was given another chance, and then another. I know that I have earned those chances and I want the puck in tough situations. If I fail, I will want it again next game. In my nearly 1,000 career games I’m almost positive that I have just as many failures as successes, I just have learned to take them as a lesson and clear my mind for the next shift. At first, that wasn’t as easy to do.

“You have an NHL-calibre shot and you skate well. Most teams already have their top 6-8 forwards set for the next few years though. If you would play like more of a pest, I think you could be a regular in the NHL.” I heard that from a coach in the AHL during my second pro season. I played that way in the AHL for a while but then went to Europe and had scoring success. I came back to the AHL the next season and scored more so I did less of the “pest” stuff. That was my best, albeit last, season in North America. Maybe he was right. Maybe not. But who knows? There were several opportunities waiting in Europe nonetheless and I have no regrets.

As an older player (30) coming off of a high scoring year in Germany’s DEL and then a stint in the Russian KHL, I made my way to the top Swedish league (now the SHL) in Modo. We had several big-named players. Niklas Sundstrom, Mattias Timander, young stud Mats Zuccarrello and even Peter Forsberg for a stretch, as he was attempting a comeback. All of those players were tremendously talented hockey players and great people. However, we also had a young defenceman that was a top prospect. I had come to the team in early December and had played well in my first few games, scoring a hat trick in my second game and showcasing a big slapshot that would put me on the point on the powerplay. The referee would call a penalty and on I would go, giving the young prospect a tap on the shin pads as he skated off, to watch and learn from the bench as the veterans played the powerplay. Not once did he complain that some 30-year old Canadian was getting minutes on the powerplay (that he or someone else could have been playing) in Sweden. He partnered with Timander and would continually ask him questions and emulate what he saw from watching the older players. I would sit next to him on a few bus trips and chat with the prospect about his family or life in Sweden and came away impressed with his maturity for a 17 year old kid. He still remains to this day one of the best skaters that I have played with and I am not surprised with the success that he has had in the NHL. Victor Hedman (the prospect) learned from some of the best leaders in Swedish hockey, grew up in a humble and hard working town (Örnsköldsvik) and never once showed entitlement or bitterness at losing ice time to veterans, despite his popularity and potential. He has turned into arguably one of the top 5 defencemen in the World, and his attitude is a big reason why.

So be prepared to work hard, laugh a lot, gain friendships and ask questions. I’m finishing up my 18th year of hockey in an up and down career that has taken me through 13 countries and I learn something new each and every day. If you can deal with failure now and again but keep grinding to see your successes realized, then you might just have a future in hockey.
Good luck.

Jeff Ulmer

Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer

Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer


Teammates (3)

KHL Hockey Jeff Ulmer

18 years (so far). Hundreds of former teammates. All different personalities. Some are funny, some are serious. Some are quirky, others are as straight as an arrow. Some have left a permanent impression on me. I will feature a few ex-teammates in a short package of stories of past experiences that I hope will help others to see the different personalities and characters that I, and most certainly others, have come across through the game of hockey. Throughout the game of hockey, there are some people that once having met them, you will not forget them. There will be a few from North America and a few from playing overseas. This is the third instalment. Enjoy. 


Alexander “Sasha” Vyukhin

“Russia. Really?” White Russia, to be exact. Belarus’s (literally translated to white Russia) capital city of Minsk would be the next stop in my hockey travels. I had played a few seasons in Germany’s DEL and had a chance to make some big rubles. So I told my agent “Let’s do it. I can always go back to Germany if I hate it.”

I didn’t love it. Our coach, with whom I had chatted about my future role on the team, was fired before training camp began. It was the first year of the new Kontinental Hockey League, and Minsk was buying and selling players (and coaches, apparently) in a desperate attempt to win some games. That would prove to be difficult, as the talent level in the KHL was extremely high, and competing with big money clubs on a lower budget is very tough. But, every season brings optimism and high aspirations, so off we went…

At a pre-season tournament in Cherepovets, our Dynamo Minsk team would meet up with the host team, Severstal. We had played well and had scored a few unconventional goals. It seemed that the little stand-up style goalie could make some highlight reel saves but would then let in a goal right along the ice due to his style. I’m not sure of the score, whether we had won or lost, but the fans were treated to a shoot-out either way. 5 skaters per team would shoot, and give the host fans a little bit of bonus hockey to watch. I was one of the 5 shooters that would shoot against Cherepovets. So, I gathered my thoughts, took a few hard strides and went in on my attempt. A second into that attempt, as I was hitting the blue line, out charged the little goalie! In a crazy attempt to surprise me, he had come charging out of the crease to catch me with a wild poke-check. I calmly deked to the backhand and slid the puck into the open net as he went sliding past the top of the circles. Skating back to the bench I recall looking at him and thinking “Who in the hell is this guy?”

He was Alexander “Sasha” Vyukhin. A legend in the Russian Super League, naturally he would be a starting goalie for a KHL team when the new league was formed. I would not see him much the rest of that year, as after just 13 games in Minsk I collected a buyout and was playing in Switzerland by November. I would go back to Germany the next season to rejoin my former team, the Frankfurt Lions for the 2009/2010. 

Rarely do things go perfectly in hockey but that year seemed to go well for me. I led the DEL in scoring that season, and then parlayed that into a multi-year deal so that my girlfriend (now wife) Robyn and I could finally unpack. As July came and we began to get ready to fly to Frankfurt, I received a phone call that Frankfurt had gone bankrupt. There had been rumours to that effect but none of us thought that it was a serious concern. Now I had no current team and certainly no multi-year deal in the European hub that we had grown to love. So…where to next then???

Hello Siberia!  Specifically, Novokuznetsk, again in Russia’s KHL. I had played alongside defenceman Nick Angell in Frankfurt and he had signed with Novokuznetsk a few weeks prior. When Frankfurt folded, he had put in a good word for me with his team. So off I went, chasing those Russian rubles again. 

Upon arrival (Calgary-Frankfurt, Frankfurt-Moscow, Moscow-Novokuznetsk), I really didn’t know which day it was anymore. Between the hours in the air and a long layover in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport (sweating bullets with the locals while pushing 4 bags) I was physically spent. Most of the players on the hockey team were housed in the same cement apartment building, where we would file down to hop on the team bus to head for practice. Customary morning handshakes and “Dobre utrem” (good morning) were in order for each teammate and coach before loading the bus. A few teammates didn’t live in the same building though, and we would meet them at the arena. 

I didn’t recognize his name or even the face of the little goalie that had played in Cherepovets as I shook his hand, but as soon as we hit the ice for our first skate, I was happy to see Alexander Vyukhin, my new teammate. His playing style and demeanour had no rivals. I would catch myself just watching his weird style in practice, and how it somehow actually worked. In a new era of big, butterfly-style goalies, he was the opposite. If you thought you had him with a shot that would go under the crossbar on a normal goalie, there he was, laughing as he had guessed right and caught your attempt while he remained standing. I games he would save dump-ins with his angled skate blade, not with his goalie stick, deflecting them into the corner of the rink, to the roar of the crowd. All with a smirk on his face. 

We were in Omsk to play a pre-season tournament, where Sasha had played for 10 seasons. Avangard Omsk had a much better team than we did, with Jaromir Jagr and Roman Cervenka as two huge examples of why. Omsk had a nice new building with a large “Jumbotron” high above the ice. Sasha would make a save and then play to the crowd, watching himself on the Jumbotron’s replay, raising his stick or spinning around to get them going. Always the showman. 

Between periods throughout the season, he was the player with the towel around his neck and the beet-red face. He would put his skate guards on or waddle on his pads to a secluded spot, most of the time to the shower or a stall in the bathroom, for a cigarette. Sure, not really a huge deal in the days of Guy Lafleur, but in 2010/2011, smoking in or around the dressing room was not a regular occurrence. 

Our team, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, was named after the huge metal refinery plant in the city. The refinery would leave our white window sills black from the polluted air and leave a slight sulphur-like smell in the air. However, Sasha would be jogging outside and look over at the imports (Nick Angell, Mark Bomersback, Vaclav Nedorost and myself) and in heavily broken English say “Mmmm…breathe it in…tastes like money!”, as he chuckled away….

Once again, I would take the money and make a move back to Europe. Our last-placed team would begin to sell off some players and thus , after just 24 games I packed my bags and went west. Off to Sweden I went, for my second stint there, where I would finish up the season with Linköping in the Swedish Elite League. Vyukhin would also move, to Yaroslavl, to finish up the season with Lokomotiv, and then sign on for one more year with them. 

It was back to Germany yet again for me, this time to Düsseldorf in the DEL, for the next season. Far removed from Russia and happy to be out of Siberia, albeit having met some great people and teammates, I was on the ice for practice when some chilling news came in that I would never forget.

On September 7, 2011, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was travelling to Minsk for its first game of the season when their aircraft would crash shortly after takeoff. 44 of the 45 passengers, including Alexander “Sasha” Vyukhin and all of his teammates, coaches and the team staff would ultimately perish in the disaster. 

There are no words to describe the loss that Sasha’s wife and 3 children have had to deal with. 37 other hockey families also lost a son, husband, father or sibling that tragic day, with 7 of the 8 crew members also passing away. It was truly one of the biggest disasters in the history of sports. 

Alexander Vyukhin was a unique person that loved life. Hockey was a game to him, as it should be to all that play the sport. He was unorthodox, quirky and most of all, unique. He was a special talent, able to play an acrobatic style in the modern age of hockey, with a smile on his face. He would never get the chance to play that one final season (his 19th pro season in Russia) before moving back to Omsk with his young family. At 38, Sasha and his teammates would not get the chance to continue (or begin) their careers in Minsk that day in 2011. 

From the few short months in playing with Alexander Vyukhin, I have learned  to take advantage of the chance to play hockey, to enjoy the good (and bad) days at the rink and to not take for granted the opportunity to play the game that I love. Also, I have learned to be thankful to the loved ones that have sacrificed to allow me to play hockey. Because of them, I have had the pleasure to meet players like Alexander “Sasha” Vyukhin. Lastly, for the members of Lokomotiv that lost their lives that day, I have and will continue to treat hockey, and life, as a gift. 

~Thanks for reading. I will post another article on an ex-teammate in the future. All the best in and outside of hockey.

Jeff Ulmer

Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer

Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer