Dear Nine-Year-Old Chris,
As you stand at your mailbox, holding the letter from the Madison Capitols AAA Hockey Organization that contains your invitation to play for their squirt winter team, take a moment to feel the raw excitement, nervousness, and fear that has left your entire body shaking…these same emotions will coincide with every aspect of your hockey career from this day forward.
Many players have a story like this, the moment that jumpstarted an incredibly successful, lucrative career of being highly scouted, committed, and drafted in rapid succession…well, unfortunately yours is not one of these stories. Yours is much more a story of “How the Other Half Lives” to borrow a title of an insightful, but in no way content related novel by Jacob Riis.
Five years, a whirlwind of travel, and thousands of hours at cold rinks as a Capitol later, you will come to the first of many crossroads. In what will turn out to be the most influential “casual lunch conversation” of your life, Ryan Suter, a family friend and then Nashville Predator, will outline it best to you and your brother, Dan. He will say, “you can either be ‘the man’ and play for your high school team in front of hundreds of screaming fans, or you can play in front of thirty, maybe forty people in AAA, where twenty-five are parents and the rest are junior A, Division I, and NHL scouts.” You will realize later that this is not a matter of where you play, every player takes a different path, it is about whether you are happy with normalcy or you are willing to take Robert Frost’s proverbial “Road Less Traveled” and commit every minute of your life to chasing down a dream.
Fueled by this invaluable insight, you will try out for the U16 Capitols team with a burning belief that nothing can stop you…until you do not make the team…and you face the sobering reality, “what do you do when only you and God believe you can make it?” Your answer will be that you are a fighter, so slightly disheartened, you will join your high school team, hoping to catch the next break. This break will come two weeks later when one of the U16 goalies gives into the temptation of being “the man” and returns to his high school, landing you his spot on the U16 Caps. Then, half way through the season, the other goalie will quit after being pulled during a game. You will watch as your team, which you are the youngest member of, will vote not to add another goalie for the rest of the season.
The next number of years will seem like a blink of an eye. Suddenly you will be playing and will notice an increasing number of men in black CCM or Bauer jackets, with logos that you cannot make out on them, standing along the glass or sitting in a section by themselves during your games. Next you will see players conversing with these men as you carry your bag out to your dad’s Envoy and wonder if they represent teams at higher levels. You will soon find out for yourself! After a game against the perennial powerhouse Shattuck St. Mary’s, your coach will call you out to speak with someone. You will walk out, nervously shake the man’s hand, and he will say, “Hi Chris, I’m here with the Lightning.” Your mind will race, you will tell yourself, “be cool, act like you’ve done this before, impress him with how much you know.” You will say, “The lightning, is that NAHL, USHL, or major junior?” …nailed it…Your coach and the scout will look at you quizzically, and after what feels like an eternity, the scout will break the silence and say, “um, the Tampa Bay Lightning…in the NHL?” …nailed it alright…thankfully, this awkward encounter will be over soon and your painful embarrassment can begin.
Over the next two years you will have many more meetings like this, each going more smoothly than the first, nightmarish conversation. You will learn to stand up straight, look scouts in the eyes, and to smile and thank them for their time, their comments and their help.
Finally, as a 17-year-old, you will meet Max Giese, who at the time will be an up-and-coming scout for the Janesville Jets. Side note, you will only meet a handful of people like this outside your family, who genuinely and selflessly will advise you and help you throughout the entirety of your career, so realize this early and never stop showing your appreciation.
The next will be Jeff Boston, your advisor, who possibly out of pure folly will not give up on you no matter how far off the beaten path you end up over the next six or seven years. Max will offer you a tender to play for the Jets. This will only be the second time that you will be offered a spot on a team, the first being when you will get called up to the Dubuque Fighting Saints during your junior year for about the length of time that the milk in your fridge could last without spoiling. You will feel like everything is going your way. The Jets play a mere forty minutes from your hometown, so you will be able to finish out your high school career at your local high school. As soon as you think you have it all figured out, it will all fall apart when you will get released a few days after your eighteenth birthday. Again, you will be faced with the increasingly common question, “what do you do now?” I can tell you that you will find another way.
Remember what I said about making a good impression with scouts and other coaches? Thankfully you will make a good impression with a coach from Chicago that has taken over coaching a junior team in Sault Ste. Marie, and he will offer you a spot as soon as he hears about Janesville.
So, 96 hours after your run at Janesville ends, you will have packed your belongings, taken yourself out of your high school, and driven eight hours north to your new home, Sault Ste. Marie.
You will play for the Soo Eagles of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League for the rest of your senior year, and will play your games in little towns so far north and east into Ontario that they will sing the Canadian national anthem in French.
Oddly enough, your desire to play college hockey will exponentially increase in this frigid border town where the OHL reigns supreme. At the end of the season you will hear great news, the Eagles will be moving to the NAHL! You will not be able to contain your excitement for the opportunity to play juniors in America again, and for a team and town that you will grow to love.
Summer will come, and your mind will be at ease as you will be coming back to Soo in the Fall…until you get a call late in the Summer from a local writer who discovers that the Eagles cannot protect any of their Canadian players because they are inheriting the entire Traverse City Norse Stars roster. So once again, your plans will be dashed and your future will be hazy. To make matters worse, you will not apply to any colleges seeing that you were certain that you would be playing in Sault Ste. Marie for your 19-year-old year.
Speaking of reporters, please learn to feel comfortable talking to them. Many of them will come to genuinely like talking to you and will become some of your biggest fans. You will meet guys named Randy, Steve, Dave, Bernie and Bill who will cover you and your teams over the next half a dozen years.
One of these reporters will call the Johnstown Tomahawks on your behalf, who will ask you to play for them in their inaugural season just a week prior to training camp, so you will pack and drive the ten hours to a new town and a new house immediately. At the first showcase in Blaine, MN, you will get thrown into a game after another goalie gets pulled and will bring the team back to their first ever NAHL win in a shootout. Afterwards you will speak with the coaching staff at Air Force, who will tell you that they want you. You will play often and play well most of the season, and will enjoy hockey here more than you ever have. Eventually, you will choose Air Force over the others, and your future will be sealed…sort of.
Freshmen year at USAFA will be the most challenging, frustrating, empowering, and exhausting year of your life. From basic training, to the rigors of the military, academics, and athletics, you will learn an entirely new definition of hard work. You will earn All-Rookie team and Academic All-Conference honors for your success on and off the ice. You will finally settle in and conclude that you want to graduate from this unbelievable institution and go special operations/forces post-graduation, so an additional element of training will be added to your already sleepless schedule. You will think, “I finally have it all right, I know what I’m going to be when I grow up.” Sophomore year will commence and you will be afforded opportunities that you dreamed of as a kid. You will play against teams like Denver and North Dakota in front of sellout crowds. You will have made the big- time, the pieces of the puzzle will have fallen together, what could possibly go wrong?
You see, the summer before you will have had to survive in the woods in 40-degree weather and hail, evading trained trackers. When you finally come out of the woods, a major part of your body will suffer from frost bite…only later do you realize the consequences. In January of your sophomore campaign, you will find out that you have cold urticaria (hives that develop from exposure to the cold.. a hockey player from Wisconsin with an allergy to the cold….no shortage of irony there), and will fracture and sprain your ankle in a game against Army. You will learn that the injury is supposed to end your season and the allergy disqualifies you from a special operations career…and just like that, every one of your well-designed plans will shatter like glass when you realize that you should abandon your plans to be in the military now that your desired AFSC is impossible to reach. You will play the rest of the season in immense pain and will spend your last months at the Academy in a walking boot trying to cope with the uncertainty of your hockey career and life.
That summer, you will return home to your family and resume training with: Larry Clemens (High Performance Goaltending), Chris Nell, Jake Kupsky, Ryan Wischow, Gavin Nieto, Evan Moyse, and the rest of your gang from the island of misfit toys. In July, you will decide to continue your career at Quinnipiac, and Larry will begin the process of changing your style from what he calls “a wide receiver pretending to be a goalie” to one that may better suit you at higher collegiate and professional levels.
Finally, August will come and you will venture out to Connecticut and see Quinnipiac for the first time the day you move in. This will be your “City Upon a Hill” both figuratively and literally, because the TD Bank Sports Center is nestled at the top of York Hill. You will meet influential goalie coaches like Jared Waimon and Nolan Schaefer, who will help you through a painstakingly long redshirt year and to develop into at least a wide receiver moonlighting as a goalie at this point. At last, your time will come and you will finally get to play for this incredible program. The first few months will bring individual awards, impressive stats, NHL interest, and rejuvenated spirit and love for this beautiful game.
For the umpteenth time, you will believe that nothing can stop you…and then you will return from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where you will collect your first shutout of the season after winning a shoot-out, to meet an old foe, injury. You will herniate two discs in your lower back. The next month will be excruciatingly painful both physically and mentally as the season’s momentum will come to a screeching halt. This will bring you to today, having not been able to help your team for much of the second half of the season, yet still holding onto the belief that you have plenty of hockey left to play before you hang ‘em up.
I write you this letter to inform you that the path to success is ever winding, and even if you are the embodiment of Murphy’s Law, things will find their way into place. However, looking back on my career, I can honestly tell you that I would not have wanted it any other way. As long as you fight through slim odds, deal with the adversity, and have one hell of a sense of humor when you need to, it will be a journey that will make you the person you are today.
All the best,
Follow Chris on Instagram, @ctruehl33.