Perhaps Tom Petty said it best in one of his classic songs when he said, “The waiting is the hardest part...”
Whether it is the result of the salary cap era or the possibility of another economic downturn, a new hockey season is set to begin and several notable NHL players are still available on the free agent market. Teams are delaying their spending decisions and this is having an effect on several unsigned players in the AHL.
Winchester native Bryan Helmer and Will Colbert of Arnprior are two of the players still waiting for word on where they will suit up this season.
Colbert, the former captain of the Ottawa 67’s, began his pro career last season after attending St. Francis Xavier University and earning a degree in Kinesiology. After splitting the year between San Jose’s AHL affiliate in Worcester and the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings, he is ready to display his talents full-time at the AHL level.
“From University to pro, it’s two very different worlds - pro hockey is a business,” said Colbert. “There is some talk now, and there are a few offers that I have to choose from.”
“I would be hesitant to sign a two-way AHL contract (AHL and ECHL) because of the situation last year. Too often, the contract you are on determines the opportunity that you get with the organization, and I don’t want to be in this exact same situation next year.”
For Helmer, the contract delay creates a different set of problems. As the father of two school age children, he must consider the needs of his family and providing a stable environment for them while he finds a spot on a roster.
“This is something new,” Helmer explained. “Usually, I have been able to get a deal done at the end of July; this is the longest I have ever been without a contract. The hardest thing for me is obviously my family. The kids are asking where they will be going to school and where we are going to be. It’s hard when you hear them asking questions like that, it gets a little stressful.”
Complicating his situation, the AHL caps the number of veterans on each team, and Helmer is heading into his 17th season. Eighteen more games in the league and he will reach the 1,000 game plateau; six more points and he becomes the all-time scoring leader for defencemen in the league. When his career does conclude, a place in the AHL Hall of Fame will be waiting for the three-time Calder Cup champion.
“It’s definitely on my mind,” said Helmer. “It would be quite a milestone for myself, and maybe if I wasn’t so close I would think about giving Europe a try, but I want to play at least another year or two in the AHL. It would be really nice to reach those two goals.”
Regardless of whether they have a contract or not, it is full-speed ahead for Colbert and Helmer as they continue their off-season workouts, preparing for the upcoming season. Both remain positive, but as September begins, they realize that teams are making the final decisions for their rosters.
“From talking with some of the guys, I gather that it is kind of a rough year for free agents,” said Colbert. “I don’t know if it has been the same in other years because I haven’t been through this before, but it certainly is getting close to training camp and the time for making a decision.”
“Sometimes it goes through your head that it’s not going to happen,” confided Helmer. “You’re sitting there and your mind starts racing, what if I don’t get anything. I’m a big believer that if you stay positive something is going to happen. Having my wife’s support is really important too, she obviously understands and is my biggest fan.”
With the success of NHL teams like the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, organizations in both leagues are experiencing a youth movement, but Helmer believes there will always be the need for a veteran presence in the dressing room.
“It just seems that the GM’s want to go younger in the American League,” said Helmer. “Maybe they will get to rookie camp and they’ll look at the players and say, ‘we need a veteran defenceman here to help out our team.’ That’s what I am hoping will happen and then they come calling for me.”
While both players expect to finalize a deal before training camps begin, they are eager to know what uniform they will be wearing. For second year pro Colbert and a seasoned veteran like Helmer, waiting until September for a contract is a new experience, one they hope to avoid in the future.