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Toe Drags in the Trenches

Every single pro player hockey player has a story: about adversity, about perseverance and sacrifice. That’s what it takes to make it. For almost all pros, it wasn’t a natural order of god given talent that got them there. Everyone knows it takes hard work. But once you reach the pro ranks and you take time to reflect back on your story, you realize that the goal of being aPaul Bradley pro was equally as important as the story of how you got there. It was your story that mattered, what taught you the most about yourself and life, and what you will remember and be proudest of. Jeff Ovens asked me to write a blog about how memorable it was to play professional hockey. It was, and I wish it for all young aspiring players. As I began writing about my brief pro experiences, this turned into how memorable it was to fight to get to pro hockey and overcome all the adversity and naysayers along the way. That’s what shapes you: how you react when the going gets tough.

For many of you who were cut from a team this year, or who are battling through your own adversity this season, I hope my story offers you one thing: if you want something bad enough, you will accept the decision, learn from the challenges and fight through them without question or excuse. For me, I never thought once of giving up because I loved it and that is the single reason I became a pro hockey player. If you want it bad enough, I’m proof you can get it as long as you are willing to practice your toe drags in the trenches. Here’s my story…

The Easy Days

My minor hockey days were like most young highly touted players days were. I received a lot of attention for being gifted on the ice, and I lived and breathed hockey. I have a scrapbooks of newspaper headlines and shelves full of trophies and medals to prove it, most of which I don’t remember earning now and mean very little. These were, no doubt, times to be proud of. I moved through from team to team, season to season with ease and glory for my gifts in hockey. While it was all fun and I relished in being a naturally offensive player, none of it prepared me for my first bump in the road: getting cut from Midget AAA.

Getting Cut

I remember getting cut from Midget AAA like it was yesterday. I remember looking at the coaches face and reading his body language as I sat down in front of him. I remember what he said and I remember being crushed. I can picture who was in the line in front of me and behind. Most of us have been there. After I got the news, I didn’t know if I should cry, scream or punch a wall. Instead, I shook all of their hands, thanked them and walked out and waited for my mom in the parking lot. I didn’t chirp guys under my breath who made the team, I didn’t make excuses, I didn’t blame anyone and I didn’t consider quitting. I accepted the decision and moved forward with it. I received a call minutes later from the Midget AA coach and went on to have an extremely beneficial year because I chose to make it one. Getting cut was the best thing to happen to me. It made me understand that gifts only go so far. It takes blood, sweat and tears to reach your goals and you have to earn them, nothing is given. I needed to work harder on other parts of my game. I embraced Midget AA, I began working harder and realized strength comes from struggle. And that hard work was the best kind of pain there was. If you get cut, don’t look for answers and excuses. Work hard, get better and find the solutions. They are out there.

Junior A

I went on to play junior in the AJHL and began my second bout of adversity dealing with a coach who thought I was too soft to play junior hockey. Long story short: I was on and off the trade wire through my time there. Not once did I ask for a trade, I wanted to play there and prove him wrong. Tough love was what I received and at times it was hard to deal with. Truth be told, I was soft and needed to be taught some skills that would help me be more well-rounded as a player. I just kept fighting and learning through it, and learning about myself. In the end, I was one of the highest scoring forwards during my years of Junior hockey to NOT get the NCAA scholarship I was hoping for. Many below me on the stats sheets accepted full rides, some role players on my team signed scholarships but me, I got passed over for NCAA. I realize now that not once did I say I deserved a scholarship through that time. What good would that have done to dwell on the what if? I could have developed a chip on my shoulder, got resentful. But instead there was no other option: I never once thought of quitting. I took training even more serious and worked with Doug Crashley who helped me understand what strength training and the off season really meant. In my 20 year old season, a Canadian school called Royal Military College approached me. I hadn’t even heard of them when they did, but what seemed like moments later I committed to attend there to go to school and play hockey….oh, and be in the military. They told me I had to head to Petawawa, Ontario for the summer and do basic military training if I wanted to play hockey next season. And so I did.

Toe Drags in the Trenches

At 4:30am, I remember some trumpet going off in my ear, I remember a short skinny guy I didn’t respect yelling at me for missing a spot shaving, and I remember hours of polishing boots, making beds, carrying rucksacks, and doing all of the things you see in the movies. I remember two young men crying and quitting on day one.  I couldn’t believe I was doing this. I grew up in a house that banned toy guns and now I was carrying and firing all sorts of weapons. I threw grenades, practiced gas attacks, and rappelled out of helicopters and all to continue playing hockey and continue my dream. I never once thought of quitting. I sat in trenches in the woods through the night with little to no sleep with complete strangers and worked out specific to hockey in my free time, if we had any. It was here I learned about sacrifice, humility, hard work, perseverance and most importantly leadership. I learned that leadership was earned, not commanded.

So, I had just spent months in uniform away from everything considered normal to me before, all in the name of continuing my hockey career. Those days continued. My college hockey career began, and the season preview for our team a called our men’s hockey team the perennial basement dweller. I will always remember those words. No one wants to be on a losing team, not especially after dealing with all I had to in the military to play here. Rather than accept this as a truth, making it an excuse for future losses, I was told by my coach to treat it as an opportunity to get on the ice, develop my skills and help change the culture of the program with my teammates. It was the hardest and greatest four years of my life. But we did change the culture there even if for a brief moment. I remember coming in for a game with twenty minutes to puck drop because half our team was in the field covered in camouflage paint practicing military exercises. My opposing centreman, a former OHL all star asking me why I had paint all over my face. I remember going out to Remembrance Day parades in the rain for hours and then playing a big game in the evening. I remember living in a tent of a parking lot in Meaford for months just so I could keep playing hockey. I wanted to play professional hockey, and nothing was going to stop me. If you want it, you will do anything to get it.

I signed two pro contracts shortly after the end of my CIS career. It wasn’t the NHL knocking but it was enough for me. All my hard work, all of the adversity I had faced resulted in my goal and I had the opportunity to see new parts of the world, meet some incredible people and play hockey for a salary. I was now the 1% of hockey players. I sent messages to all those who had helped me along the way, I should have sent messages to all the naysayers as well because they were equally as important. All of it was enough for me. In the end, I chose to leave pro early, partially because of opportunities I had created at home because of this unique path I had chosen, and partly because I had accomplished what I set out to do. I realize my story is no greater or more important than any other out there, many have endured much more to get where they are in hockey and life. But I ask all you young players who are facing adversity, how willing are you to go into the trenches to practice your toe drags and consider that for some like me, it was literally what it took to become a pro.



Dream big and enjoy the best game in the world.

Paul Bradley - Manager of STIX Operations