If hockey were theatre, it would be a little like going from headlining on Broadway to treading the boards in Rosebud, Alta.
This is not a dig at the Rosebud Theatre (one of the largest rural professional theatres in the country and a place where this scribbler has sat in the audience).
It's an imperfect comparison, but Montreal Canadiens winger Colby Armstrong refuses to belittle his stint with the Utah Grizzlies of the East Coast Hockey League - in fact, he treasures pretty much every minute of it.
From the interminable bus travel, to the skimpy financial means, to the long talks with players - a group that includes his little brother Riley - about the rigours of toiling on the lowest rung in the minors and having to work real jobs in the summer.
It was a refreshing and authentic experience.
“Guys down there are playing because they love the game,” said Armstrong, who moved over from the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent last summer.
Case in point: when one of the Grizzlies’ goalies went down with an injury, the team buffaloed their video co-ordinator Ian Greenwald - a non-goalie with skating skills that are best described as, er, rustic - into filling in as the emergency backup until a suitable replacement could be dug up.
“Great guy, but he’s like 300 pounds,” Armstrong laughed, pulling out his phone to provide video evidence to a small clutch of reporters. “Guys had to help him put the equipment on.”
But there was also another issue - teams in the ECHL operate under a salary cap, and in order to sign their new backup goalie, the Grizzlies players had to do some impromptu contract re-negotiations.
In the dressing room.
“It was,” Armstrong says, “the most hockey thing ever.”
Many players in the ECHL are on contracts as short as a week or two, which makes such matters a little less formal than in other circuits.
“I was thinking: this is hockey. Guys were saying ‘okay, I’ll take $100 less, I just want to play',” Armstrong said.
The ECHL is an eye-opener on several other levels as well; teams play with three forward lines, which means ample ice time when you play three games in 60 hours over a weekend.
In one game, Utah was down to three defencemen, forcing several forwards to play two positions.
"If there was a five-minute power play my brother would stay out there for the whole time, and then go back out and play a shift," he said. "Guys were coming back to the bench just gasping."
It’s easy to pan NHL players for slumming it in the minors, or taking a more marginal player’s job in Europe or Russia.
But some go for more understandable reasons.
Utah native Trevor Lewis of the L.A. Kings signed up for 10 days with the Grizzlies earlier this season just to be able to play in front of friends and family - having a bona fide, homegrown Stanley Cup champion in the lineup provided the team with it’s season-high attendance of over 8,200.
Armstrong travelled west to hang out with his brother - who played two NHL games for the San Jose Sharks in 2008-09 - and, mostly, just to be around a team.
He signed a contract but didn’t actually play in any games, and largely paid his own way, including shelling out for insurance.
“I definitely lost money,” he laughed.
But it was all worth it to be part of a proper hockey squad, Armstrong added, and to benefit from the camaraderie and structure that comes with practising on a daily basis (often at altitude, which he said had its moments).
“I find it's easier than skating on my own, doing my own thing,” he said.
He helped break down video and draw up game plans, and even stepped behind the bench for a few games - including his first meeting with the Grizzlies in Alaska, where he coached against Habs teammate Scott Gomez.
“He was giving me a little grief, saying I should be playing,” Armstrong laughed.
The experience was altogether happier and more rewarding than his earlier coaching forays - with kids at the power-skating school his mother runs in Saskatoon.
“It was definitely cool to see things from the other side of the door, and watch some of the tricks coaches use to get the most of out guys,” he said.
Armstrong, a 30-year-old veteran, turned pro a couple of years before the 2004-05 lockout, and is the first to say labour disruptions are no fun.
This one has been made more bearable, he said, by of a series of back-to-the-roots experiences.
Before heading to Utah, Armstrong played in several charity games around the province of Quebec (arranged by Philadelphia Flyers pair Max Talbot and Bruno Gervais).
“The fans were great, and I got to go to a bunch of places I might not have seen otherwise,” he said.
But the last few months haven't only been about training and hockey.
Armstrong and his wife, who have a son, are expecting their second child later this year.
“Lockout baby,” he smiled.Report Typo/Error