A phone, a computer, a tireless work ethic and the ability to accept rejection are all Alex Loh, or any ECHL coach, needs to build a roster.
From that standpoint, life during a global pandemic hasn’t changed much. The offseason has gone longer than usual. It extended past Halloween and is now speeding toward Thanksgiving. The good news is the available list of players is better.
Beyond that, it’s the same deal. Loh has spent most of the past eight months hunkered down in his house making calls, sending texts and trying to turn the Adirondack Thunder into a contender.
“It’s certainly a change of pace,” Loh said. “There’s no question. We’ve taken this pretty seriously. We haven’t gone out a whole lot. In some ways it felt really nice to just hang out with the family. Just almost relax.”
There’s a word that doesn’t enter an ECHL coach’s lexicon too often. Suddenly, there’s no pressure to get two points. No worry that he might have to dress eight forwards or scramble to find an emergency backup goaltender.
The most hectic and fluid job in hockey has become strangely static.
“Everybody’s world is sort of upside-down,” Loh said. “I think for me it’s trying to stay as positive as I can. Obviously circumstances could be a million times worse. I think it’s more about being appreciative of that side of things and not feeling forced to put yourself or your family at risk.”
Thirteen ECHL teams are planning to begin their seasons around Dec. 11. The rest, including the Thunder, are waiting until Jan. 15.
The split schedule combined with the American Hockey League’s decision to wait until Feb. 1 has put so much in flux.
Loh said he has already lost four or five players to teams that hope to start earlier. They want a quicker path to the ice and to earn a paycheck sooner.
The flip side is more players are accepting calls. Fewer are choosing to head overseas for more money because of the health crisis that is escalating worldwide.
“I think you’ve seen more guys come back,” Loh said. “Guys are looking to stay a little closer to home. Otherwise, it’s the same as always. Keeping your ear out for guys that can come in and help. Being a little bit more patient because the American League is so different with their delay and the uncertainty there.”
There’s a possibility, maybe even a likelihood, ECHL teams will begin their seasons without any players on NHL or AHL contracts. For those starting on Dec. 11, it could be seven weeks until there’s support from the higher levels.
No one knows exactly how it’ll play out and the start dates certainly aren’t etched in stone. It’s possible more teams could opt out, like Atlanta and Norfolk did, or the pandemic could get worse and the openers get pushed back even further.
Loh realizes all the work he has put into building his team could be fruitless. If Adirondack doesn’t play, those players become free agents. He has to block that out of his mind and operate on the presumption that the schedule will go on as constructed.
“That’s certainly a concern,” Loh said. “Jan. 15 is a target date. No promises are made. We’re trying to do everything we can talking to the local government to keep as updated as possible to figure out a way to make it happen.”
It has been a difficult eight months for minor league teams in all sports and the financial ramifications of losing so many games hasn’t been fully realized.
This is the time of year Loh and his team should be grinding through a 3-in-3 or coping with an overnight trip in a sleeper bus to somewhere like Worcester.
“You tend to look at that stuff negatively and you take it for granted,” Loh said. ”This throws all that in stark relief. You just have to be thankful when we get started again, whether it’s in January or if we have to wait until next October in a worst-case scenario. This whole thing has put everything into perspective pretty quickly.”
ECHL coaches probably wouldn't mind if things were hectic again. That'd mean hockey was ready to return to normal.
Jason Guarente has covered the Reading Royals and ECHL for 10 seasons. He can be found on Twitter @JasonGuarente.