When NHL players get sent down, it’s like going from steak to chicken fingers

Andrew Mangiapane was given a set of instructions when he landed in Stockton, Calif., home of the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate at the time.

They weren’t instructions about fitting into his new team’s system and playing style. They weren’t instructions about handling the mental grind of a demotion, his new role, or adjusting to a totally new league.

They were instructions from Stockton police officials, who had been invited to give the team a presentation on how to stay safe in the city.

Rule No. 1: Don’t venture anywhere besides the rink, the hotel across the street where some of the players lived, and the movie theater next door.

Rule No. 2: Don’t wear blue or red clothes because the colors are associated with gangs.

Rule No. 3: “If you’re driving at night and you’re at a stop light and you see people coming up to you, just run the red,” Mangiapane said.

It was a stark reminder that the AHL is a far cry from the NHL in so many ways. 

We don’t often contemplate the human side of an NHL demotion. Here’s a look at what that experience is like, from the players’ perspective.

Players usually find out they’re being sent down via a phone call or in-person meeting with the GM. 

Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens: It was just a normal day, I went to the rink and got let into (then-Canadiens GM Marc) Bergevin’s office and they just told me what their plan was. It’s obviously tough to hear, (but) the team wasn’t doing well, I wasn’t performing.

Mangiapane: You want those meetings to go by quick (laughs).

Tyson Barrie, Nashville Predators: They told me to get a place (because they thought I’d stay in the NHL). We had a new coach come in and through six games, I don’t think he thought very highly of me as a player. That was a bit more prickly of a conversation for sure. I wasn’t thrilled with that.

Kyle Burroughs, San Jose Sharks: When it’s in a training camp setting, you know it’s a Grim Reaper day. You just get called in and they say what you need to improve on, what the situation’s going to be whether it’s good, bad or ugly.

Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues: I was in year six so I didn’t think I was supposed to go in the end meeting. In training camp, I got one period with the Blues that year. I was done, I thought it was over with the Blues (as an organization).

Burroughs: You find out what kind of mustard you’re made out of. You might have your tail between your legs, you might have a belly full of fire that you want to be back. 

Luke Schenn, Nashville Predators: You’re thinking this is the end. You just cleared waivers and all 30 teams pass up on you. I remember coaches asked me, “Are you even going to go to the minors? Are you going to retire?”

Curtis Lazar, New Jersey Devils: (In Calgary), I actually went and talked to (then GM) Brad Treliving the day I got put on waivers and said, “I wanna go down. Leave me down there to work on my game.” I knew that’s what I needed at that point in my career.

Brian Boyle, former 14-year NHL veteran: I got called up once my first year. Had a great time, played well. And then they told me I’m going down and I was like, “I don’t know why I’m getting sent down.”

Ken Gernander, former AHL head coach: Some people take it really hard because they have so much invested in it and are maybe given the wrong message or don’t see the big picture. It’s all on perception and some of that is on us as the organization to make sure they’re getting the right messages.

Burroughs: You have to look at yourself in the mirror and go, “Hey, if I’m not performing, I don’t deserve it,” and if you don’t deserve it, then you can’t be pissed. 

The constant moving, lifestyle downgrade, salary cut and off-ice adjustments present major challenges.

Boyle: I was called up/sent down seven or eight different times (one year) so I was flying across the country (each time). New Year’s Eve was one of the flights and we had a big party planned in the American (Hockey) League. There’s (also) a big party going on in the National League and I’m just flying through the air.  I land at 11 p.m. in L.A. (and miss both). I just kind of go and hang out by myself and I felt like somebody without a home.

Lazar: You go from flying on the (private) plane and eating steak to pieces of pizza on the bus. You get handed $25 on the way to the game and you’re like, “What’s this for?” 

You get to the room and you’re going through the pamphlet of picks for your postgame meal — anything from a quesadilla to chicken fingers and fries.

Claudia Tersigni, Andrew Mangiapane’s fiancée: The Stockton thing was absolutely crazy. The city shut down by 9 or 10 o’clock. You could not find a store to go to or a McDonalds or anything.

Lazar: It was a hard-fought game, you’re busing home, it’s late at night in a not-so-pleasant area (near Stockton) and your bus pulls up and there’s a (dead) body on the road. There’s more motivation to put your head down and work to get out of that place.

Ryan Graves, Pittsburgh Penguins: It’s a weird dynamic in the American League where the guys that are teammates are also who you’re competing with to get called up. We had a team party and it’s weird, you’re talking to guys you get called up over, or vice versa when guys come back down and you’re talking to them and it’s tough.

Sometimes it’s your roommate. I’ve had that happen to me before where my roommate’s another defenseman and we’re sitting in our two beds beside each other and they get the call — they’re getting called up and you’re sitting there like, “Ah sh–, that could have been me.”

Mangiapane: It stings when you think you were kind of next and somebody else is getting called up instead of you.

Graves: I spent 120 nights in the hotel that year. It was my first year, my girlfriend lived with me, so she just moved back home to live where our families are from because it was just too hectic, a one-bedroom hotel is just not good enough.

I ate out every night so stuff like that’s tough. The hotel had a little kitchenette, but you’re not cooking salmon three feet from my bed. It just grossed me out.

Barrie: I was staying out at the Residence Inn in Englewood, Colo. It felt like I was there for two years.

Graves: The first little bit it’s like fun to go out to eat, but a few weeks into eating out at restaurants every night you’re like, “God, I’d kill for a home-cooked meal right now.”

Tersigni: I feel like the financial component is overlooked, especially if you’re a little older as a player. That AHL salary for the most part — Andrew’s was $70,000 — in the event that you’re riding that number for a while, that’s a hard number to move (around) on.

Jack Studnicka, Vancouver Canucks: I started the year up in Boston. I was told to get a place, so I signed an eight-month lease. Fast forward a couple months, I got sent down and that (COVID) year if you were on a two-way contract, you only get 42 percent of your AHL salary ($29,400). My monthly income was less than my rent payment (in Boston) so that was kind of a funny thing. 

Andrew Mangiapane survived his stint in Stockton and has been a mainstay in Calgary’s lineup for the past four-plus seasons. (Jacob Snow / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Toiling in the AHL, especially if you’ve already tasted the NHL, can be tough.

Mangiapane: I remember my first two games down there, I didn’t even play good because I was still pissed off and angry at the fact that I was sent down.

Binnington: I got suspended (for one game) and (Ville) Husso and (Pheonix) Copley went on an eight-game win streak (in the minors) and I was not even in the (AHL) lineup. It happened fast and (I’m wondering) what’s gonna happen next? Am I going to Europe, or do I stay here and grind this out and all this stuff? 

Lazar: The play’s a little scramblier. I remember I didn’t get a point in my first 10 games at five-on-five. I sat down with the coach and said, “Do you want me to play an NHL style where I’m in position all the time or do you want me to chase the puck?”

Boyle: You’re constantly being critiqued. When you get sent down to the American League, sometimes you might think, “Well, all right, this might be fun. I’ll have the puck more, I’ll be able to make some plays.” But you forget that those coaches are tasked with fixing some of the growing pains you might have had on the big club and they’re going to harp on you about all those things too, even if you’re the most talented guy on that roster.

One of the biggest challenges is staying positive.

Graves: (When I was with the Rangers’ organization) we had six defensemen on the American League team all on NHL (one-way) deals and five of the six get called up that year and I was the sixth who didn’t. I was like, that means I’m the 13th D in the organization or something and you just think it’s never going to happen.

Burroughs: Anyone would be lying if they told you they hadn’t had (those thoughts).

Binnington: (It’s like being) in the middle of the tornado, there’s chaos all around you — you’re in the middle — and you gotta find your way through it. One of the things that has really hit me over the years (and helped me keep believing in my NHL dream) is really realizing how much time I’ve devoted in my life to get to that point. From the age of 7, countless hours of summer training, missing some parties.  It can kind of cloud your mind, you forget what you sacrificed to get there. It’s your right to be at the best level you can be.

Boyle: My parents would reinforce the fact that I’m getting paid to play hockey and then you don’t feel sorry for yourself anymore.

Mangiapane: I’ve had a lot of people tell me you’re too small, you’re never going to make it, just all those scenarios helped me when getting sent down to the minors. 

Binnington: I would be frustrated sometimes. You’re on the bus, your body’s sore, you have a long ride (ahead). My dad once texted me saying, “Use it as motivation where you can remember the feeling you have right now.”

Jordan Binnington said he used his time in the AHL as motivation. (Matt Blewett / USA Today Sports)

Lazar:  It took that full season and a change of scenery in Buffalo (to get back to the NHL). You start in Rochester, have a great start to the season down there and all of a sudden, in my first game called up, you’re against (Anze) Kopitar. It’s cool seeing the hard work you put in a non-ideal situation (pay off).

J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks: You wanna play in the NHL so bad and it feels like slow-motion. (I was) 20, you’re not going to question whether you’re going to quit but it’s like a full test on you. With the temper (I had) and playing on kind of a double-edged sword and sharp edges, you have a lot of volatility like that. The goods are really good and the bads are really bad. That’s where I think I just learned so much going through the hard times. 

Caufield: Confidence is something that’s huge in this game. It can stick with you for a long time and then any second it can leave you. Trying to learn through that and stay positive through tough times and adversity is something that I learned from that experience. I’ll take it with me for the rest of my career.

(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic. Photos: iStock)