The last installment of a three-part series that looks at players with local connections trying to carve out a career in professional hockey examines life overseas.
By Amy Moritz
News Sports Reporter
Dan Sullivan’s collegiate hockey career ended with Niagara’s overtime tie with Alabama-Huntsville in the consolation game of the 2009 College Hockey America tournament.
Like many seniors, he prolonged his season by turning pro, then signing an amateur tryout contract with the Reading Royals of the ECHL, for whom the defenseman played five games before heading back to school.
“To be honest, after the East Coast I came to Niagara to finish school and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Sullivan said. “I got introduced to a guy through a friend who asked if I had my Italian passport and if I ever thought about playing in Europe. I said, ‘No, I hadn’t thought about that.’ I knew I wanted to keep playing but I didn’t know where.
“I thought this might be a really good opportunity. I’m still young and I can go kind of make a name for myself so to speak in my first year and go from there. … So now six years later, and hopefully more, I don’t think I’m going to be coming back to North America to play.”
Playing overseas has become a popular option for North Americans who want to continue their hockey careers. For some it’s about better job security, for others it’s an opportunity to live and work and see Europe. In some rare cases, it’s a chance to hone your game and keep your NHL dream alive.
“You’re still playing the game you love coupled with the fact that it’s a great experience,” Rochester-based hockey agent Steve Bartlett said. “It’s a little bit like a paid vacation in that you have your housing, a car and enough to live on. You’re not going to bring home a ton of money, but you can do well. … Sometimes the European game is a better fit for good college or junior players who were never going to go far in North America. You can be a professional over there for 10 or 15 years with good careers.”
Sullivan, a native of Scarborough, Ont., is a dual citizen with both a Canadian and Italian passport. That allowed him to play on Italian teams and not count against the league’s “import” rules. The number of North Americans allowed per team varies from league to league, country to country and even season to season. But when Sullivan first arrived in Italy, he was surprised how many players he knew, including former Niagara teammates Sean Bentivoglio and Paul and Mark Zanette. All played with him for the team in Asiago.
“I didn’t realize there were so many North Americans over here,” Sullivan said, while Skyping from his apartment in Asiago. “And there are a lot of guys with a lot of NHL experience and guys with very good resumes. You don’t realize it when you sign because you don’t look at other team’s rosters like that.”
But players do talk amongst themselves. And last year when Canisius alums Ben Danford and Preston Shupe were looking for overseas opportunities with their agents, they were able to land on the same team in France – Etoile Noire de Strasbourg in Ligue Magnus.
When Danford’s senior season ended with the Golden Griffins, he signed in the American Hockey League with the Manchester Monarchs, playing three games before an injury sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Instead of slugging it out for a job in North America, Danford decided his hockey career was best suited for Europe.
“I just figured it was a better fit for me personally and just the benefits of playing in Europe and seeing a different part or the world, of being with teammates that don’t speak English,” Danford said. “Preston and I were talking and we had a couple of Canadians and Americans, a couple of Slovakians and the rest of the team was French. At points during practice, you’d have guys speaking English, Slovakian and French. We’d look around and say ‘This is really weird.’ That experience was appealing to me.
“The opportunities in Europe can be really good as far as your career if you make it to those big leagues and that’s what I wanted to pursue, instead of pursing a dream in the NHL which I personally thought was not likely for me to accomplish. That’s why I decided to go.”
There is opportunity to see the world while playing hockey in Europe, but there also is opportunity to play high-level hockey. The teams play on Olympic-size ice, forcing North American players to make adjustments.
“Because of the big sheet, there’s more emphasis on skating and puck possession,” Shupe said. “The first few games, I’d dump the puck in and everyone would say, ‘No!’ ”
“Playing on the bigger sheet, you have to be more patient,” said Danford, who has signed to play in Sweden next season. “Everything slows down a little bit. College hockey is north-south and fast; it’s more of a strategy game in Europe. You take your space, take your time. I thought it took me the first two months to get adjusted to the big sheet to where I felt I was playing pretty good hockey.”
For Vinny Scarsella, his two years in Germany and Sweden were a time to grow up. The Lackawanna native and Canisius College grad had always wanted to see the continent.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to basically get a free trip to Europe,” Scarsella said. “I got to see Germany and Sweden. I had to grow up pretty quickly living in a country where I didn’t speak the language. It made me grow up. I’d do it all over again.”
Scarsella ended up in good situations, although there are some horror stories from players who went to financially strapped teams in low-level leagues and didn’t get paid on time or the full amount of their contract. “I was part lucky and part was trusting my agent not to throw me in a bad situation,” Scarsella said.
After two years, he moved back to North America ready to try his game in the ECHL. In 2013-14 he played for Utah and at was the team’s rookie of the year (at age 24) with 39 points in 66 games.
He started this year with Utah and was traded to Stockton, a franchise which is moving to Glens Falls next season. That’s considered a fairly stable ECHL career in a league known for roster volatility.
“I wanted to prove to myself I could play in the U.S.,” Scarsella said of his decision to leave Europe for the ECHL. “It’s nice to be closer to family and friends and not have such a big change in August and September when you’re taking long flights to Europe.
“In the ECHL there are so many skilled guys you really can’t make a mistake. If you do, it will be in the back of your net. On every line the forwards are unreal, there are good D-men and all the goalies have been drafted in the NHL. In the East Coast league, you’ve got to play simple. You can’t do too much or you’ll be on your butt pretty quick.”