This is the first of a three-part series that looks at players with local connections trying to carve out a career in professional hockey.
This was the dream – hearing your name called, hugging your mother and pulling on an NHL sweater.
The experience was sweeter for Justin Bailey, the Williamsville native who was a second-round draft choice of his hometown Buffalo Sabres in 2013.
He beamed for photos in his blue and gold jersey, taking in all the majesty of the moment in New Jersey’s Prudential Center. Draft day was the culmination of years of work, of going all-in with the hopes of a hockey career.
There are many roads to a professional hockey career, some which end at the NHL level, others in the minor leagues, and still others across the ocean and paychecks overseas.
Not all draft picks enter the NHL immediately, and being selected on draft day doesn’t guarantee success.
For many players, such as Bailey, the summer day is just a single step in the journey.
“Being drafted by your hometown team, that’s not something a lot of guys get to experience,” said the 19-year old Bailey. “It all happens so quickly. You work your whole draft year to get drafted. As soon as you’re drafted, it’s a great day for you and your family, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t do anything with it.”
Life as an NHL draft pick isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. It’s one step in the process. Perhaps the bigger day for Bailey was Nov. 2, 2014, when he signed his first professional contract – a three-year entry level deal with the Sabres. He received a signing bonus but his pro paycheck won’t start until the upcoming season, when he leaves major junior after turning 20 on July 1. Then his two-way contract salary depends upon if he’s playing in the AHL or the NHL.
But that’s still a step ahead of the game for Bailey. Step Two in the process was signing with the Sabres and gaining three years of contract stability as he developed his game and worked toward his NHL goal.
“It’s a stepping stone for me,” he said. “Being drafted to signing a contract to playing my first pro game to my first NHL game, it’s all little steps in the right direction. Signing that contract was a special day, just like the draft, but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t continue.”
The draft represents both an ending and a beginning.
Draft day was the culmination of years of work and validation of his decision to go all-in with hockey by opting to play major juniors instead of college. Bailey had been planning on attending Michigan State, when he was invited to see what the Ontario Hockey League had to offer. He said it was one of the toughest decisions he’s made – juniors over college – but the choice helped establish him as a pro prospect during his draft year in 2013.
“Something felt right about it,” Bailey said of his visit to the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. “I had thought about the draft, but I didn’t know too much about it. I think making that choice to go to the OHL was the deciding factor for me. I was 100 percent in. Hockey was no longer a hobby.”
It was a difficult decision for Bailey. He had made a verbal commitment to his dream school in Michigan State and passing that up came with its share of doubtful moments.
“I took a lot of time to look at the pros and cons and talking to my family was a major factor,” Bailey said. “At 16, 17 you have to grow up a little bit. There were a lot of emotions, a lot crossing my mind.”
Those thoughts, and a few doubtful moments, continued during his rookie year with Kitchener, also his NHL Draft year.
“There were some questions and the first few games definitely weren’t easy,” Bailey said. “I had a good coach who really helped me learn what it would take to succeed in the OHL and a lot of little things that prepare you for going pro. I was on a veteran team so I had the chance to see what first and second-round draft picks were doing, how they went about preparing. I learned a lot.”
He learned little things about being a hockey player off the ice, things like taking care of your body, along with the attention to detail on the ice in order to play well against bigger, older players. He also learned quickly what it meant to be in your NHL draft year.
“I wasn’t the kid who was staying up and watching the draft every year,” Bailey said. “I loved going to games. I was a big Sabres fan. I know a lot about the game but not a whole lot about the development process. That first year I learned how difficult it is to actually sign a contract and how much work it is to be a top player in the OHL.”
His work paid off on that eventful day in 2013. His draft journey was over. His professional hockey journey, however, was just beginning.
Bailey went to his first NHL training camp and returned to Kitchener for his second year of major juniors.
He went to his second NHL training camp with more confidence and hopes of getting in a preseason pro game. It didn’t happen.
“Anytime you come into training camp the goal is to make the team,” Bailey said. “For me, I wanted to make the team and maybe get a few exhibition games in but that didn’t happen. They kept me there for a while and I missed a couple of games in juniors. It was a great experience.”
He spent this season, his last year of eligibility in the OHL, with Kitchener and Sault St. Marie. In 57 games he tallied 69 points (34 goals, 35 assists) and had seven goals and seven assists in 14 playoff games. And through it all he kept in touch with the Sabres player development staff.
“You hear from them a few times every couple of weeks, but it’s not a whole lot about the game,” Bailey said. “It’s all about taking care of your body and little things that help you become a pro.”
Becoming a pro hockey player is a process. Being a second-round draft choice doesn’t afford a young player guarantees.
“People see guys drafted in the second round of other sports, like basketball and the NFL, and those guys are playing the next year,” Bailey said. “They don’t see it’s a long process and that you more than likely have to pay dues in the American Hockey League before you get a chance.”
Next: The AHL route.