Life in the Minors: A Conversation with Retired Defenseman Jeff Winchester
Despite a lifetime of hard work and dedication, sadly not every player makes it to the NHL—but that doesn't mean they can't be competitive professionals at other levels. Today we bring you a conversation with Dalhousie, New Brunswick native and career minor leaguer Jeff Winchester, who offer
In the fall of 1998, the Nashville Predators embarked on their inaugural campaign. Little did I know, as I sat in Mr. Callahan's American history class at the Berkshire School during that same fall of 1998, I was sitting next to a young Canadian hockey player who would one day play for the Cincinnati Cyclones, the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) affiliate of the Nashville Predators and Milwaukee Admirals.
A Canadian destined to play in the American south?
Although Jeff attended high school in the very southwestern corner of Massachusetts, that wasn't where he gained notoriety as a player. He played two years of junior hockey in Canada before heading to college. "After my first year [in junior] I started getting scholarship offers. After my second year, I had a lot of options and decided to accept a full athletic scholarship to the University of Alabama in Huntsville," he said.
That may seem curious to some of our neighbors to the north, but it made perfect sense to Winchester. "The junior league I played in had sent a few players to UAH. I was really attracted to the fact that they were a relatively young Division I program, and they offered me a great opportunity to play a role from the beginning," he told us.
But it wasn't just the hockey that drew Winchester southward. He recalled an adventurous streak, saying "The south was a part of the United States I had never seen, and it was a great place to start fresh and begin my collegiate career." Incidentally, Jeff's roommate at UAH was a close family friend of former Nashville Predators goaltender Chris Mason.
And so began Jeff Winchester's playing career as an adult. He would eventually travel all over the southeastern United States with the Huntsville Havoc and Mississippi Surge of the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL).
His travels also brought him to the Nashville area on numerous occasions, where he would volunteer as a pro at youth hockey camps at the A-Game Sportsplex in Franklin, Tennessee.
"The facility itself was very nice," he said when we asked him how A-Game Sportsplex compared to some of the places he played in his youth. "I was very impressed with the double ice sheet, as well as the full fitness center. The program was very well run, and it was nice to see a lot of old university and pro players giving back, running this camp for the kids."
What we really wanted to know, though, is what all Preds fans want to know from visitors from the north: what he thought of Bridgestone Arena.
"That barn is unreal," he said, praising Bridgestone Arena. "I was lucky enough to see the Predators play the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs, and the atmosphere was amazing," he recounted. That was, for the record, the year this happened:
Hockey's entrenchment in Nashville as the Predators continue to be near-perennial playoff contenders, Winchester thinks, reflects a broader trend of growing hockey popularity in the south, something we might otherwise be wont to hear from some corners of the hockey community.
"I think that there is a lot of potential for the sport to grow even more, and be [in the southern U.S.] for many years to come," he proffered. "Having seen the program in Huntsville, and also in Franklin, it's evident that they are going in the right direction and are definitely getting recognition," he said, referring to the number of students in the south playing scholastic hockey on scholarships.
Blake Geoffrion, too, was the first player to grow up playing hockey in middle Tennessee to be drafted into the NHL. Blake's brother Sebastian attended Nashville Predators training camp this past fall on a tryout agreement. The younger Geoffrion was eventually released.
"I've been to a few hockey games [in Nashville], as well as a football game, and have always enjoyed my time," said Winchester as we finished talking about his life in the south. "Nashville is a great, clean city and every time I have been there I have had a lot of fun." That's very high praise coming from a man who grew up in a stunningly scenic resort town.
A promising young pro career stunted by misfortune
"My first pro game in the ECHL with the San Diego Gulls," now a club in the Western States Hockey League, "is something I will never forget," said Winchester, who logged 5 regular season games and 3 playoff games with the Gulls during his senior year at UAH. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, the beginning of Winchester's path to the National Hockey League. Winchester actually left UAH to finish the season in San Diego, including their playoff run that year, although he did later return and finish his studies. "Every young Canadian hockey player dreams of one day playing in the NHL and scoring the Stanley Cup winner in overtime. I was no different," he recalled.
Winchester's outlook couldn't have been brighter as he began his ascent up hockey's career ladder, beginning his first full year as a pro on a two-way contract between the Dayton Bombers (ECHL) and the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League (AHL). He even dressed for two exhibition games with the Crunch.
Fate, it seems, had other plans for Jeff Winchester.
"My first full year in the ECHL, I was reassigned to the Columbia Inferno [of the ECHL], and was given the opportunity as a rookie to play on the power play and log some very big minutes," he recalled. Then, just five games into the season, Winchester blew out his knee, an injury that required surgery. He missed 20 games that year due to injury.
"At that stage of my career," he recalled, "this was by far the toughest thing mentally I had ever had to deal with. I never fully recovered [physically] that year, and struggled with confidence after that for a long time. After that season, I knew that my dreams were going to remain dreams."
But injury wouldn't deter Winchester from playing.
In fact, many opportunities came along for Jeff to play professionally, even if they weren't from the sport's highest level -- and that was just fine by him. "I played sports my whole life, and always loved the competition," he said. "So as long as I was getting offers to play, I decided to play a few more years.... I was able to support myself from playing, and have never held another job during a season."
Winchester played an additional six seasons before hanging up the skates after last spring, but not before he made some interesting observations about the game at different levels.
Hockey is hockey, except when it isn't
Although playing at the NHL level is the dream of every young Canadian hockey player, Winchester says that the way the game is managed as one progresses through competitive levels can be incredibly frustrating.
"When I first played at the single-A level," he said, "I think we might have traded 3 or 4 players all season." That type of roster consistency makes for good chemistry, said Winchester. "Guys are much more comfortable" being able to know who they're playing with on a given night. "At the AA level you see guys coming in and out all season long. It wears on you mentally, and some guys really struggle with that instability," he continued.
Winchester himself struggled with that dynamic his first year of play, but eventually developed as a professional. "It's something you just have to accept and try not to let it get to you," he said. "No matter what league you're in, or what level you're at, guys are always excited to play," he said, which makes the situation more manageable.
Such is the nature of competition; the stronger or more skilled a minor leaguer becomes, the more likely it is that a scout will come along and try to bring him to a higher level.
"Playing in the minors definitely takes a toll on the body," said Winchester when we asked him how preparation compares across levels of play he experienced. "My body has held up pretty good," he added, despite his first year knee surgery. "I have had a few surgeries, in fact, and a bunch of stitches, but for the most part I was fortunate to not suffer any serious injuries."
Winchester's biggest complaint about the physicality of playing in the minors had actually zero to do with playing.
"Most teams will bus to all their road games, and although most buses are pretty nice, it's still tough to get good rest on a bus," said Jeff. "18-plus hours in a bus is brutal," he chuckled.
Bus travel, too, comes with its own set of perils, particularly during inclement weather. "I was in a bus wreck one season, also," he said. "Luckily, other than a few cuts and bruises, everyone was just fine," he said.
In 2011, shortly after former Nashville Predators enforcer Wade Belak's untimely death, a plane carrying the Kontinental Hockey League team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl en route to its first game of the season in Minsk, Belarus crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 43 of 45 passengers, including former Preds Karlis Skrastins and Josef Vasicek, and former Milwaukee Admiral Robert Dietrich.
Winchester said later that living through the bus wreck made it harder for him to sleep on subsequent road trips.
Jeff also spent parts of two seasons playing in the Netherlands, where he found pretty stark differences between the European style of play and the North American game.
"Europe was different in a few ways," he said. "First and foremost, [they play] on Olympic surfaces, so the game is much more skill-based... skating, long passes... the game is stretched out," he continued. "Most European leagues are a lot less physical than in North America, and we played a 35 game schedule," he recalled. "We got a lot of time off for European breaks, and I got to travel a lot," he said, referring to the wanderlust that had once taken him from New Brunswick to northern Alabama.
"Europe is where I was able to focus on developing my skill game. As you can tell from my stats, once I returned from Europe I really started putting up some decent numbers," he observed. Winchester's offensive production rocketed from 0.21 points per game in North America to 1.23 points per game after his stints in the Netherlands. That kind of offensive transformation could be a positive forecast for Preds defenseman Mattias Ekholm's future on the Nashville blueline. Ekholm made the Opening Day roster at 501 Broadway this fall for the first time since 2011. He played both in Milwaukee and in the Swedish Elite League in the interim.
Reflections and prognostications
Now that he lives in North Dakota, and works for an engineering company in the oil and gas industry (and moonlights as a level 1 crossfit instructor), Winchester thankfully won't have to take any day-long bus rides if he doesn't want to. But his transition into a new career has given Jeff an opportunity to examine his playing days.
"My first championship with the Huntsville Havoc is a memory I will never forget," he said. "I was very lucky to win 3 championships in a row, but that first one is always the best." Winchester won a championship in Huntsville (SPHL) in the 2009-2010 season, the team's first-ever President's Cup, and a championship with the Mississippi Surge (SPHL) in 2010-2011. That was the second consecutive year the Surge won the William B. Coffey Trophy for having the best regular season record.
In 2011-2012, Winchester led the New Jersey Outlaws to a Federal Hockey League championship, earning himself regular season MVP honors.
Winchester's on-ice performance earned him the respect of his teammates and the trust of his coaches. He held leadership roles with many of the squads with whom he played. "I was an assistant captain in junior, an assistant captain in university, an assistant captain with the Havoc, a captain [of the 1000 Islands Privateers], and an assistant captain in Williamsport," he said. Winchester was also an assistant captain, we discovered, with the Zoetermeer Panthers in the Netherlands.
Moving around a lot as a minor leaguer isn't always about playing ability, development, or scouting. Sometimes pure dollars and cents drive where a player plays, and not in the player contract sense. The Williamsport Outlaws, who had moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania from New Jersey in the offseason after Winchester won a championship and was regular season league MVP, folded earlier this year, despite its recent on-ice successes:
Williamsport mayor Gabriel J. Campana sounded extremely optimistic in July when he greeted media and fans at Bowman Field to announce the arrival of Williamsport's newest professional franchise.
Now, the city sits on the brink of having to swallow a $36,000 bill left by the defunct Williamsport Outlaws franchise. And the on-ice product failed to live up to the expected attendance numbers almost immediately....
The franchise and mayor's biggest downfall was buying into the "Field of Dreams" belief. Build a rink, put in a hockey team, and the fans will come, particularly since this sport in Williamsport was a new idea. The problem with the logic was simply building an outdoor rink and adding a team didn't mean fans were going to come.
But minor league sports are all about marketing. And it's something the Outlaws missed completely in their time representing Williamsport.
There were no community skates that actually involved the team. No promoted pack the rink nights. A dearth of incentives to come out and watch the team.
Because the business side of minor league hockey is volatile and unpredictable, and despite his dashed NHL dreams, Winchester never stopped trying to improve as a player. "Getting back to the ECHL this past season was also something I was very proud of," he said.
Though he wasn't ever known as an enforcer, Winchester did drop the mitts a few times as a pro. Given our own discussion here at OTF recently, against the backdrop of a broader conversation in the NHL about fighting's place in the game, we asked Jeff to share his thoughts on hockey pugilism with us.
"I have never been a real big fan of staged fights," he said, "but I definitely feel like there is a time and a place, and fighting definitely belongs in the pro game.... Most NHL fighters have been doing it their whole life or career, so I think they are fully aware of the potential dangers every time they drop the gloves." The frequency of fighting, said Winchester, is "just about the same" at every level of professional hockey. "I'm sure there are stats available to show the exact numbers, but for the most part I think it's about the same."
When we asked him to elaborate on why he believes fighting belongs in the pro game, Winchester delivered. "I think ultimately the decision should be made in the locker rooms and on the ice," he said. "I have only been in a handful of professional fights myself. It would be one thing if all the pro fighters were saying they wanted it out, but they know exactly what they signed up for and are well aware of the possible consequences," he continued.
Winchester opposes "gooning it up," but is no fan of the finger-wags on their soapboxes, either. "There are way too many people chiming in right now, people who have never laced up a pair of skates in their life, let alone been in a hockey fight," he fumed. "Because of this social media world we live in, everyone and their mother are piping up." When I played intramural hockey in high school, we had to wear a cage attached to our helmets, and fighting was taboo. Winchester's criticism then, unfortunately, applies to yours truly, too.
Although he never dressed for an NHL club, Jeff Winchester earned the respect of his teammates, opponents, and coaches, and he won the loyalties of fans in some of hockey's more unconventional venues. When you listen to him tell his story, he sounds no different than any recently retired NHL player who just stepped off the roller coaster ride of their life. Spending a career playing minor league hockey isn't ideal for anyone who has worked literally their entire life to become competitive at the highest levels. But at the end of the day, the grown men in the leagues downstream from the NHL still get paid to play a boy's game.
"Although my path did not lead me to the NHL, I have no regrets at all and wouldn't change a thing," he insisted. "I have a lot of respect for this game, and will be forever grateful for all of the opportunities that came my way."
So what advice would Jeff Winchester impart to his younger self about the game of hockey if he could go back in time?
"Respect your teammates, respect your coaches, respect the game, and outwork everyone."
That's what Jeff Winchester did in his career, and he wouldn't trade the way things turned out for anything.
Jeff Winchester is @Winch_24 on Twitter -- give him a follow, and don't be shy about asking him your own questions.
On the Forecheck editors and staff would like to thank Jeff Winchester for his time and candor.
Media guide head shot photo credit: Richard Perigo-Huntsville Havoc
Cincinnati Cyclones vs. Toledo Walleye game photo credit: Tony Bailey-Cincinnati Cyclones
Netherlands photos credit: Fintan Planting-9PM Media/Flickr