In the spring of 2010, while playing with the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat, Tyler Spurgeon took a vicious elbow to the head during a playoff game against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
The former Kelowna Rockets’ captain suffered multiple injuries to the left side of his face, including a broken cheek bone, broken orbital (eye) bone and a collapsed sinus canal.
After major reconstructive plastic surgery, Spurgeon needed several months to fully heal from the ordeal.
Though he may not have known it at the time, the injury would represent a significant change of direction in the Edmonton native’s hockey career.
Spurgeon, who was drafted by his hometown Oilers in the eighth-round of 2004 draft had, like many of his contemporaries, long dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League.
But after four seasons grinding away in the minors, the 5-foot-10 centre didn’t feel like he had moved a whole lot closer to realizing the long-anticipated breakthrough.
Besides, with a demanding schedule and physical nature of the minor pro game in North America, the wear and tear on Spurgeon’s body and mind was beginning to outweigh both the personal and monetary rewards.
Open to exploring other options, Spurgeon accepted an offer to skate and train for a month in the summer of 2010 with the Klagenfurt AC hockey club in Austria’s elite professional league.
Four years later, the Austrian city of 100,000 has become Spurgeon’s annual winter home.
“Obviously I’m like so many guys in that I want to play in the NHL, but I also want to be healthy and get something back from the game, and all the years I’ve put into it,” said Spurgeon, 27, currently in his fourth season with Klagenfurt. “There was an opportunity to come here and I liked it right away. I love playing the game, the money and lifestyle is good here, and it’s a chance to build up a nest-egg and ensure your future a little bit. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do that back home.”
Spurgeon is one of a growing number of former Kelowna Rockets—and many WHL players—who have taken their careers to Europe over the last five years. Justin Keller is also playing in Austria, while Brett Palin, Colin Long, Carsen Germyn and Mike Card are in Germany, Cody Almond is starring for a team in Switzerland, and Kyle Cumiskey is in Sweden.
So why is Europe such an attractive alternative for so many who grew up playing the North American game ?
For starters, players can expect to make at least two to three times more money than in the AHL, while also having their accommodations and a personal vehicle paid for by the hockey club.
Factor in fewer games and a generally less physical brand of hockey on the larger ice surface, and typically players can enjoy longer careers in Europe.
Few ex-players are more familiar with the pro hockey life on the other side of the Atlantic than Kelowna Rockets’ assistant coach Dan Lambert.
After nine seasons in the pro game in North America, including 29 games in the NHL, the former defenceman from St. Boniface, Man., went on to play 10 seasons in Germany.
While he concedes it’s not for everyone, Europe was a move Lambert wishes he had made years earlier in his career.
Lambert said because not all players coming out of junior are the calibre of ex-Rockets like Jamie Benn or Tyler Myers, not all are shoo-ins to play in the NHL. That’s where the European option comes in.
“You know, some guys get to a crossroads in their careers, that if they’re still in the minors at 24, 25, 26, they have a decision to make,” said Lambert. “Typically what happens is they’re on the bubble and aren’t sure if making the NHL is a possibility anymore. If guys want to prolong their careers and make as good a money and often better, Europe is a great option.
“I think going to Europe prolonged my career six or seven years, and I loved it. If I had it to do again, I would have gone sooner.”
Because there is more space on the European ice, there are fewer collisions and, in turn, Lambert says, fewer concussions—another important factor in the extension of a player’s longevity.
As for the quality of the European game, Tyler Spurgeon says it’s helped him become a better, more well-rounded player.
“It isn’t as physical here as some other leagues, but it’s very fast and you have guys making a lot of skilled plays,” said Spurgeon. “The knock on me was always my skating. Since I’ve come here my skating is better and my skill set has improved. There are ways to grow your game when you’re not playing on the third or fourth line in North America. To be able to say I’m still improving at 27 is pretty encouraging.”
While Spurgeon hasn’t completely closed the door on the NHL, he admits he would be content to play out his career in Europe if the right opportunities continue to come his way.
Besides, Tyler’s younger brother, Jared, is in the process of living out the Spurgeon family’s NHL dream as a member of the Minnesota Wild.
Tyler said Jared could have just as easily ended up in Europe or at a Canadian university if not for some breaks, good timing and a little determination.
“He was almost ready to go to the U of A (Edmonton) when the Wild decided to give him a look at rookie camp (2010),” said Spurgeon. “It was more of a token thing, but he did well and they signed him to play in Houston. By Christmas he was in the NHL and he hasn’t looked back. When we talk (Jared) laughs about it, he says he doesn’t even know how it happened. You can see how it can go either way. Your timing has to be right, but he’s also proving he’s good enough, too.
“Maybe a lot us who are in Europe weren’t good enough,” he added, “but I know I’m happy where I am.”
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Cody Almond hasn’t given up on his dream of one day returning to play in the National Hockey League. But for now, suiting up for one of Switzerland’s most successful pro hockey organizations is a pretty fulfilling alternative.
Almond, whose grandmother grew up in Switzerland, is currently in his second season with Geneve Servette of the Swiss-A league.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound former Kelowna Rockets’ centre leads his team in scoring through 20 games, with 10 goals and 17 points.
After playing in just 25 NHL games with Minnesota over his first three pro seasons, Almond decided to take advantage of his Swiss passport and make the jump across the Atlantic.
“I just felt it was the best thing for my career right now,” said Almond, 24. “I can keep developing as a player, work on parts of my game that need improving and just continue to enjoy playing. Off the ice, I’m well taken care of by the team. Right now, I’m happy with my decision and I’ll just take it a year at a time.”
With the average salary for imports in the Swiss-A league at around $300,000, players like Almond can make a considerably better living than playing in the minors in North America.
After playing the majority of his first three pro seasons with Houston in the American Hockey League, Almond thoroughly welcomed the change.
“The (AHL) is a tough league to play in, you’re not getting paid that well, the schedule and travel is difficult,” said Almond. “It’s more of a younger guys developmental league, guys play so hard, it can really take its toll on you. When you’re 25 or so and still trying to break down the door to the NHL, for a lot of guys Europe is the way to go. The AHL is good hockey, and so is this. They’re just different.”
Away from the rink, Almond continues to enjoy and absorb Swiss culture, even if Geneva happens to be one of Europe’s most expensive cities to inhabit.
“It’s a pretty cool city, but it’s definitely not cheap,” Almond said with a laugh. “It’s very international with a lot of different languages, primarily French, but also Italian and German. Everything is so close here, when we get breaks we can get out see Europe a little. I’ve been to Rome, London and Paris. It’s a pretty nice place to be.”
And how is Almond’s command of the French language progressing ?
“It’s getting better, I’m working on it,” he said. “For the first while I was here when I was ordering food, I would just say ‘la même chose’ (the same thing). I would get whatever the guy in front of me ordered. I would get some nice surprises.”
One of the other perks for Almond will be playing in Geneva’s first ever outdoor pro hockey game, Geneve Servette takes on Lausanne on Jan. 11.
By 2015, Almond will also be eligible to play internationally for Switzerland at the world championship.
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Since being drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 NHL entry draft, Mitchell Callahan has been working towards one goal—cracking the lineup of the Detroit Red Wings.
Now in his third pro season, the former Kelowna Rockets forward is laying the groundwork for a NHL future with the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins.
“It’s awesome because I’m playing pro hockey,” said Callahan, a native of Whittier, Calif. “It’s not the NHL but it’s the next best thing in North America. To be able to get paid while trying to live out a dream, I can’t ask for anything more. I’m going to take it a step at a time, see what happens and hopefully get to my dream.”
As an organization, the Red Wings are known for exercising patience with their young prospects, seldom promoting them to the NHL before they have considerable pro experience under their belts.
Callahan, 22, hopes his opportunity to land in Detroit won’t be too far down the road.
“Detroit grooms their prospects a little longer than most teams, most guys don’t get full-time work before they’re 22 or 23, even 24,” Callahan said. “I’m improving every year, playing my role as an energy guy, so hopefully they’ll like what they see and I’ll soon get a chance to prove myself.”
While Callahan plans to pour all of his energy into making the Red Wings, he knows there are no guarantees. If an NHL future isn’t in the cards, then Callahan said he would entertain thoughts of one day relocating to Europe—like so many other former Rockets have done before him.
“I definitely want to stay in North America and give it everything I have to try and make the NHL,” Callahan said. “If the window to Europe was to open at some time, I’d consider it. The people I’ve talked to that have experienced it say they loved it. I want to stay here, but if the chance came up to better my hockey career, then I would go.”