Cliff Loya is a member of the Wheeling Nailers (ECHL) and will be blogging for Faceoff-Factor outlining life as a professional hockey player.

He runs hockey camps and small ice 3-on-3 leagues in the Pittsburgh area during the summers.

His web site is:
nelitehockey.com.
     

When I last left you, I was in the midst of Wheeling Nailers (ECHL) training camp. Well, camp is over, and we have three games under our belt. So, this entry will cover the time between then and now.

Bad economy, but better talent

This year the talent level in the ECHL may be the highest that it has ever been. During training camp, I found myself checking the transaction page on the ECHL website and was shocked at the amount of quality players who were released from camps across the league.

This is because many of the teams that competed over the last couple of years have folded.

As you all know the floundering economy is hitting businesses everywhere. Minor pro sports teams are no different.

Over the last two years, the ECHL has lost franchises in Dayton, Mississippi, Fresno, Columbia, Phoenix and Pensacola. These teams were replaced by Kalamazoo and Toledo. If you do the math, that’s a net loss of four teams, which means there are just 20 teams in the league this year.

That’s the fewest since I have been playing, and that means jobs are at a premium.

So, with fewer ECHL teams, AHL teams have fewer options for reassigning their players. Now, instead of having three or four players on an ECHL roster playing with an NHL or AHL contracts, there are seven or eight.

Basically, these players who normally would be spaced out over a larger number of teams are taking jobs from other players who don’t have NHL or AHL contracts.

Add in the fact that the European leagues are not ponying up the coin for imports and you have a lot of good hockey players playing in the “Coast.”

Needless to say, our team in Wheeling is very talented.

For you Pens fans, we have three prospects who were sent down from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL). They are Alex Grant, Joey Haddad and Casey Pierro-Zabotel. All of these kids have tons of talent and I am sure that they will be contributing to Wilkes-Barre’s roster very soon.

The start of the season

After another hard training camp, the regular season finally started last weekend. We started the year with a nice roadie down South, where w had a three games in three nights (one against South Carolina and two versus Gwinnett, Georgia).

The road is always a good place to have some team bonding because you are constantly around the guys. At home, you see the boys at practice for a couple of hours and then everybody goes their separate ways.

On the road it is a different story. First off, you are together for hours on the bus. In those close quarters, you learn a lot about your teammates. Our bus in Wheeling is a sleeper bus with bunks for some of the players. If you are an older guy, like myself, you get a bunk. If you are a rook, you fight for space on the floor.

Once you get to the destination, nobody knows the area, so everyone rolls together for meals and entertainment. You can use your imagination with the word “entertainment.”

The first game was versus the defending ECHL champs, the South Carolina Stingrays. We came out pretty flat in the first period and faced a 4-1 deficit. Not really the way you want to start off the year. After a better third period, we came up a bit short, losing 5-4.

The next game was against the Gwinnett Gladiators. I will sum up this game with one word: garbage. We played with no emotion, made stupid plays with the puck and had a horrible work ethic. If it were not for our goalie, Jordan Alford, we would have lost 10-1. Instead, it was a 4-1 loss.

Before our last game on Sunday, our coach, Greg Puhalski, ripped into everyone. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. He basically went around the room and individually let every player have it. I got an earful, which was fully deserved.

I’ve been a part of some coaching rants in my day, but this one was a first ballot Hall of Famer.

We pretty much knew to get our act together or some of us would be looking for another place to play.

So, for the third game, it was no surprise, we finally played like a hockey team. We moved our feet, finished our checks, made intelligent plays with the puck, fought, and won one-on-one battles. We won the game 3-1, with the only goal-against coming with two of our men in the box (five-on-three).

If we play like we did in the third game, I like our chances against anyone.

Hockey is a game of emotion. If any individual is not emotionally invested in every shift, you will not be successful as a team.

I am hoping this past weekend will serve as a lesson. We can be a very good team, but we have to earn it.

Like the old adage, “will beats skill.”

Until next time…