Paul Kariya … Brett Hull … Chris Chelios.
College hockey fans can point with pride to alums such as these who have made their mark in the National Hockey League. The success of these players is obvious to anyone with a TV or a newspaper box score.
But for every college hockey alum in The Big Show, there are many more plying their trade in more obscure venues. These may or may not feature packed houses and local media attention, and fans from Orono to Oahu might be hard-pressed to keep track of their favorite player’s progress.
One such venue is Europe, where several leagues offer opportunities that many players consider an ideal mix of skilled hockey on larger ice surfaces, fewer games and a comfortable lifestyle.
Three former Maine Black Bears — Kent Salfi (89-93), Jean-Yves Roy (89-92) and Chris Imes (90-95) — provide a window into the sport as it is experienced at outposts like Villach, Austria, and Ljubljana (pronounced Loob-liana), Slovenia.
Professional hockey is, of course, a game played for money. The love of the sport runs through every player’s veins, but with a pro lifespan that pretty much maxes out at 15 years, an athlete must pay attention to the dollar signs, too.
“I had an offer in Sweden right away right at the end of my senior year,” says Salfi. “I was a free agent and, for me, it just didn’t make sense to go to a camp and try to earn a contract that way when I already had a decent contract on the table.”
The forward, who is now in his sixth season of European hockey, played two years in Sweden and another in Germany before moving up to the Austrian Elite League, where he now plays for Villach.
“Sweden had a very high skill level,” he says, “but wasn’t as physical. Germany was more North Americanized, but the skill level probably wasn’t as high as it was in Sweden.
“Now in Austria, this is the best of all the leagues. There are so many good players, so many Canadians, Swedes, Finns and Russians now in the league. It’s a real combination of skill and grit.”
Villach is one of five Austrian teams that play in the Elite League and the Alpenliga — the Alpen League — which also consists of nine Italian teams and three Slovenian teams. Although team strength fluctuates from year to year, Villach is typically a powerhouse, while the Italian teams tend to be the league’s weaker sisters.
For Salfi, the moves from Sweden to Germany to Austria were part of climbing the European hockey ladder.
“I was just trying to work my way up, taking advantage of better opportunities and better contracts,” he says.
Financially, the stronger European leagues are an attractive alternative to their North American counterparts other than the NHL.
“There’s no way I would do as well [back in the United States] as I do here in my situation,” says Salfi.
“You’re going to get your car and your apartment, that’s standard. And your money is all tax-free. The team will pay the taxes to the government on your behalf.
“The average [North American] guys in this league playing for a top team — and we’re one of the top teams — are probably looking to make somewhere between $60,000 and $100,000 after bonuses.”
The base salary — paid to Americans and Canadians alike in U.S. dollars — is augmented by bonus money that is dependent on the team’s performance.
“You have a structure where most of the guys are going to get something like 200 to 250 U.S. dollars extra per team point,” says Salfi. “So if you pick up a win, that’s two team points or something like $500 U.S.
“Which is nice. If you win 30 games, that’s an extra 15 grand.”
American citizens like Salfi still have to file tax returns in the U.S. unless they are out of the country more than 330 days in a year, but the European taxes paid on their behalf by the team become a Federal tax credit. As a result, players tend to owe more to their state’s Department of Revenue than the IRS.
The European leagues do place restrictions on how many foreign-born athletes — known as imports — any one team can have. While this limits the opportunities for North American players, it prevents the local talent base from being drowned in a sea of Canadians.
A court case brought by a soccer player three years ago, however, lifted this restriction for Salfi.
Since his father’s parents had both emigrated from Italy, he has played in Europe under an Italian passport. This has meant that he could play as a national for Italian teams, but an import for all others.
The court case, however, contended that the adoption of the one-nation, open-borders, open-trade concept known as the European Community should translate to the sports world as well.
“When that guy won his lawsuit, that changed everything,” says Salfi. “I played as an import my first three years, but now a guy like myself who has an Italian passport can play in any European Community country as a national. So I’m in Austria now and it’s as if I have an Austrian passport because they’re both part of the European Community.
“That lawsuit ended my days as an import and made me a lot more marketable. It’s so much easier to get a job at the higher levels when you’re not an import.
“In our league, each team is only allowed four imports, but they’re allowed unlimited numbers of guys with passports like myself. That’s how they end up with more Canadians and Swedes. Those players have passports.”
Unlike Salfi, Roy and Imes remain imports, but are doing quite nicely, thank you.
“In my case, I’ll always be an import,” says Roy, who is a teammate of Salfi’s once again after the two shared three years at Maine. “I’m a Canadian and there’s no way for me to get European passport like Kent.
“But the guys here don’t treat me like an import. They treat me just like one of the boys. That’s one of the beauties of the team here. Everybody makes you feel right at home.”
Roy’s path to Villach ran almost exactly counter to Salfi’s. Following his junior year at Maine, the three-time All-American signed a contract with the New York Rangers. After 23 games with the Canadian national team, he joined the Rangers’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Binghamton.
In his first two full seasons at Binghamton, he posted impressive scoring lines of 41-24–65 and 41-36–77 in 65 and 67 games, respectively. Despite his great numbers, however, he got little more than the proverbial cup of coffee — three games — with the parent club.
“I really thought I deserved a chance to play,” says Roy. “But there’s a lot more to professional hockey than just talent and hard work. There’s a lot of politics and a lot of economic reasons. At that point, I had signed a four-year deal with the Rangers that was a two-way deal all the way.”
A two-way contract results in a significant salary if the player makes the NHL team, but a much smaller amount if he does not.
“The money I was making in the minors was relatively low,” he says. “With my production in the minors, I was a cheap hire for them to have there. And they had one-way players in New York. They just couldn’t justify having me there.”
Roy was then traded to Ottawa and joined its AHL affiliate, but soon got the call to the parent club. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter the coach and general manager were fired and in the resulting shuffle Roy returned to the AHL, with the two-way contract perhaps again a factor.
The following year, he signed a one-year deal with the Bruins and got his first significant opportunity. In 52 games, he scored 10 goals with 15 assists.
“That was great,” says Roy. “I felt I had a chance to show what I could do. I think I did okay.”
After that season, he re-signed with the Bruins — a two-way contract — but another coaching change and a push to go with younger players again left him in the AHL.
“When they signed me to a two-way deal after my first year in Boston, I wasn’t too happy with that, but that was the business side of it,” he says. “Last year, when I was negotiating with different teams, I told my agent that if I didn’t get a big guarantee or a lot of money in the minors, I wasn’t going to bother. I was going to go over to Europe.
“There are many aspects of professional hockey. You play to show what you can do. You try to play in the NHL. That’s everybody’s ultimate goal.
“But then there are also money reasons. This is our job. It’s how we earn money. You always want to try to make as much money as you can because it’s a job that isn’t going to last forever.”
Midway through just his first year of European hockey, Roy is already doubtful that he’ll try an NHL comeback. Only the new opportunities that may beckon with continued expansion — into Atlanta next year and Columbus and Minnesota the following season — are likely to tempt him.
“I can’t say it’s absolutely out of the question,” he says. “I signed a one-year deal here and I’m sure I’ll be in close contact with my agent when summer comes around.
“If there is interest out there, I’m always willing to listen, but it would take almost a miracle for me to go back there.”
Like Salfi and Roy, Imes plays in the Alpen League, but unlike his former teammates, he’s a member of the Ljubljana, Slovenia, team.
After earning Hockey East Player of the Year honors in 1994-95, Imes returned to his boyhood stomping grounds and signed with the Minnesota Moose, a team in the International Hockey League (IHL). After just one year with the Moose — “a bad, bad year” — he packed his bags for Slovenia.
While Villach has tended to consistently be one of the Alpen League powers, Ljubljana has had its ups and downs. And usually because of ker-ching, ker-ching.
“Sometimes we can be really good, but sometimes we’ll be pretty bad,” says Imes. “My first year, we lost to Feldkirch [Austria] in the Alpen League finals. It just depends on the sponsors.
“Everything is on sponsorship here. Sometimes the sponsors will pull out or they don’t want to give as much money. Then, obviously, you can’t have a good team.
“But last year, they hosted the Ice Hockey World B Championships, and they came in second and just packed the house. Then they hosted the qualification for the A tournament here and they packed the house again, so they have quite a bit of money this year.
“But it’ll be interesting to see what happens next year. You never really know.”
The Life: Language, Travel and the Games
For the three former Black Bears, language hasn’t been a big problem. For the most part, the younger generation in all the European countries speak English reasonably well, since it is part of the standard school curriculum. And since the coaches at Villach and Ljubljana are Canadians, English is the language of choice in the locker room and on the bench.
Even so, the three have, to varying degrees, assimilated enough of the native tongue to at least get by.
“I speak Slovene pretty well now,” says Imes. “I’m not fluent, but I’ve taken classes and it’s my third year here. It’s not really a problem at all.
“Besides, there are only two million people in Slovenia, so you get American movies that are just subtitled and American TV.”
Salfi, as would be expected from his veteran European status, is the most linguistically advanced.
“I’m trilingual now,” he says. “But even when I first got to Sweden, the English was excellent there, as good as in any European country.
“And Austria is obviously a German-speaking country, so now I’ve had four years of German. So I speak it well. For me, there are certain people I speak German with; there are certain people I speak English with.”
Salfi’s fluency proved to be invaluable to Roy when the first-timer arrived in Villach this past fall.
“Kent was a big factor in my transition when I got here,” says Roy. “I spoke pretty much zero German, but Kent is very much fluent. He showed me all the stuff around town, told me a few words here and there and just helped tremendously.
“But I’ve learned a lot in just a short time. I can go into a restaurant and order all by myself now.”
More than compensating for any residual language difficulties, however, is a lighter schedule and less travel than players in North America would expect.
“We have 48 regular season games, and in the IHL and the AHL they have 80,” says Salfi. “And with smaller rinks back home, you get bumped and are grinding more.
“The game is physical over here, but with the size of the ice surface itself being bigger, it isn’t as possible to finish your checks as much you would back home. So the wear-and-tear factor is less, plus you’re playing fewer games.”
By itself, that could add an extra year or two to a typical player’s career.
Or even more for one like Imes, who has a type of rheumatoid arthritis in his back that might become even more problematic if subjected to the rigors of North American hockey.
Additionally, the travel is less of a grind.
“You don’t have the two- or three-week road swings that you would back home,” says Salfi. “Here, we’re centrally located [as is Imes in Slovenia], so the furthest trip is about seven hours by bus.
“So if we’re playing some town, we’ll most likely leave the day before and stay over, go play the game the next night and come back on the bus right after through the night. So you just don’t have the long road swings.”
In other words, the furthest road game isn’t much different than a Black Bear trip to Providence.
Not all European leagues, however, are quite as travel-friendly as the Alpen League. In Sweden, for example, the longest road trip is a long one, indeed.
“The travel there is self-contained in the country, but top to bottom in the country is about 25 hours by bus,” recalls Salfi. “The northern part of Sweden is 30 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. It’s a long way up there.
“I played a game up in Kirin, which is where Borje Salming is from. We had to fly there. Our team was in central Sweden and it was still a two-hour flight because Kirin is 14 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.
“There are about three hours of sunlight there a day in the winter. It was unbelievable.
“Where I lived, it was six or seven hours of sunlight a day, so it wasn’t a huge adjustment. But you can imagine that it would be brutal if you were way up in Kirin.”
The European game itself also differs from its North American counterpart, in large part because of the larger ice surfaces. Olympic sheets similar to the 200-by-100 one at the University of New Hampshire are the standard rather than the exception.
“You’re going to have a lot more time with the puck, so you have to be a little smarter,” says Imes. “Defensively, you can’t go chasing guys around as much. You have to play in the guts of the ice — the middle of the ice — a lot more.
“A lot of the times they’ll give you the outside and they’ll let you skate around with it, just as long as you can’t go to the center.
“And the rink size affects the forecheck. You have to use something like a trapping 1-4 forecheck a lot more.”
The stylistic differences have put the fun back into hockey for Roy.
“Here, they focus more on skills — passing, skating, shooting and stickhandling,” he says. “Back home, the game had gotten to the point where I really didn’t like it anymore.
“I don’t mind the physical play, but all the clutching and grabbing, tripping and holding — that gets old after a while.
“And the players are much bigger back home. It’s gotten to the point where it’s ridiculous. That’s fine. That’s the way hockey is going. But over here, I’m right in the average size of the players and I can use my speed and my skills. It’s a lot more fun when you play that way.
“If all the other factors were the same, as far as money and travel and everything, I’d still come here just for the fun part of it. Once you stop having fun when you play hockey, you might as well quit. I’ve got to say that my last year in the AHL, I wasn’t having any fun at all. This year, I’m really having fun.”
Roy will also be adding a little extra bit of fun this month. His wife is expecting their first child, who will be born on Austrian soil.
With a smile that you can hear over the phone lines, he says, “We’re going to have a Canadian father, a U.S. mother and an Austrian baby.”
Having fun, indeed.
This article first appeared in a slightly altered form in the Friends of Maine Hockey Newsletter.