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Living on the Road

November 18, 2011 General No Comments

Living on the road
By Sam Laskaris
Nov 6, 2001, 20:00

 

Daniel Cleary, Greg Smyth and Rick Vaive probably don’t have a lot in common. Cleary is a highly-touted teenage hockey prospect, Smyth is a journeyman pro defenseman, while Vaive—a former NHL star—is now in charge of a minor pro franchise in South Carolina.

All three, however, are willing to make plenty of sacrifices to continue their hockey careers. These sacrifices include leaving home and loved ones behind to frequently spend a good chunk of their time on the road.

Cleary, a native of Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, left home at age 14 to further his career. He played one year of Tier II Junior A hockey in Kingston, Ontario, before moving up to the higher-caliber Ontario Hockey League. Cleary, who’s now in his second year with the Belleville Bulls, is projected to be one of the top picks at the 1997 NHL Entry Draft.

Cleary, who turns 17 on December 18, felt he didn’t have much of a choice but to leave Newfoundland, Canada’s easternmost province, in order to get noticed.

“You just don’t get much publicity in Newfoundland,” he says. “I always played just for fun, nothing serious. But then I decided there’s really no way I can lose out. I’ll just go somewhere where the competition is better and see what I can do. People were telling me I’ve got a chance to do something, and why not take the chance and see what happens?”

Cleary more than held his own during his first year in the Junior ranks. He collected 46 points, including 18 goals, in 41 contests with the Kingston Voyag-eurs. Those stats aren’t too shabby considering he was playing in a league which had an age limit of 20.

 

Dirty nose and big bills

“I wasn’t afraid to get my nose dirty,” Cleary says. “But when you sit down and look at it, there were players (in my league) up to six years older. That’s a big difference.”

It was also a huge adjustment for Cleary having to live with billets instead of his parents, older brother and younger sister. His current billet is a single mother who has a 15-year-old son. But it’s not as if he doesn’t keep in touch with his family and friends back home.

“I’ve got a phone bill big enough to knock you down,” notes Cleary, who racked up $750 in calls during a recent two-month stretch.

Even now, his third season away from home, Cleary, a 6’, 200-pound left winger, admits he occasionally still gets homesick. This season’s yearning for home has been further fueled by the fact that he now has a girlfriend back in Newfoundland.

But having a certain amount of freedom while pursuing a hockey dream also has its advantages. “I love it, man,” Cleary says of life away from home. “You need a break once in a while. It makes going home more enjoyable.

”And he probably would have just as much fun if he had the same competition closer to home.“Sometimes I wonder why there can’t be a league like this in Newfoundland,” says Cleary, who had 81 points (26 goals, 55 assists) in 62 games with the Bulls last season. “If most of the other guys on the team want to go home for a little while, they just have a one- or two-hour drive. But for me, it’s a four-hour plane ride. I realize, though, it’s just part of the game. This is just one sacrifice of many I’ll have to make.”

Other Newfoundlanders who left home and made it in pro hockey include John Slaney and Dwayne Norris, both of whom are in the Colorado Avalanche organization. Cleary believes many other players from his home province could be making the jump but simply aren’t.

“There’s a lot of talent going to waste down there,” he says. “Not everybody can do it. But if you go to the right town and play for the right team, you never know how far you can make it.”

 

Spell “journeyman” S-M-Y-T-H

Smyth, who began this season with the Chicago Wolves of the International Hockey League, is one player who has logged his share of miles—and that’s just moving from team to team. Since turning pro in 1986, Smyth, who is nicknamed “Suitcase,” has had stints in the NHL with Philadelphia, Quebec, Calgary, Florida, Toronto and Chicago. He’s also toiled in the American Hockey League with Hershey and Halifax and in the IHL with Salt Lake City and Indianapolis.

“I’ve been all over North America,” he says. “I’ve been able to travel from the east coast to the west coast and meet a bunch of neat people, and also play with some of the best hockey players in the world.”

His nomadic lifestyle does create obvious problems. “Having to move all my furniture and change my address so much is something that is a pain in the butt,” admits Smyth, who was born in Oakville, Ontario, located 20 miles west of Toronto.

During his pro career, Smyth has never spent a full season with just one team. Though he’s lost official track, he believes he’s spent five full seasons living in a hotel. He’s doing the same thing in the Windy City this year, living in a hotel, which is conveniently located (a two-minute walk) from the Wolves home rink.

“Living in a hotel is not something everybody can do,” Smyth says.

 

“It’s really hard for some people. But I don’t mind it.”

Though his phone number and zip code have changed as often as some people cut their hair, Smyth, 29, prefers to look on the positive side of things. Being single, he doesn’t have to worry about whether his comings and goings will cause inconveniences for others.

“It would be nice to settle down,” he said. “But it would be hard to settle down when you know your life is so erratic. To move a family is hard. I can tell that just by watching and learning what teammates have done.”

Smyth believes even some teammates who have stayed in the same place for lengthy periods have disrupted family lives because of their hockey careers. “Being on the road a lot can be tough,” he points out. “When you go over to different guys’ houses for dinner, you can see what’s going on.”

Smyth added he has not purposely avoided marriage because he’s a hockey player who always seems to be on the go. “Right now I’m having a lot of fun being single,” said the 6’ 3”, 215-pounder who is hoping to play pro for another six years. “I just haven’t met the girl I want to marry yet. Hopefully, it’s in the plans some day.”

Smyth’s many moves have also enabled him to become a bit of a geography buff. “Any city you stay in, you learn a little something about it,” he notes. “I don’t think it’s ever been glamorous for me. But the travel has been fun. And being a single guy, like I said before, I get to do what I want.”

Even executives travel

Vaive, who was born in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, has also been on the go since he was 17. That’s when he left his family, who by that point were living in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to go play Junior A hockey in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

After two years at the Junior level, Vaive turned pro with the Birmingham Bulls of the defunct World Hockey Association. He then spent 13 seasons in the NHL, having stints in Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago and Buffalo. After spending the 1992/93 campaign as a player/assistant coach with the Hamilton Canucks of the AHL, Vaive then took over the coaching duties with the South Carolina Stingrays of the East Coast Hockey League.

“I love hockey,” says Vaive, who, now in his third season with the Stingrays, is also the club’s director of hockey operations. “I couldn’t see myself doing anything but being involved with it. I’ve been in hockey my whole adult life.”

Though he’s no longer involved with the NHL, Vaive—who in the ECHL has to face clubs such as the Jacksonville Lizard Kings, Louisville Riverfrogs and Louisiana Icegators—is hoping for a return to the world’s premier league.

“Ultimately the goal is to get to the NHL,” he says of his coaching/managing career. “But much along the lines of players, sometimes you have to start at the bottom and work your way up.”

Before any moves are made though, Vaive said he’d first have to consult some people; Joyce, his wife of 14 years, and their two sons, Jeffrey, 10, and Justin, 6.

“When you’re a player, you don’t have much of a choice,” Vaive notes. “Now (discussing it) is something I’d do before moving to a higher league or a different city. Now my family has to be a huge consideration when there’s a move. It’s something I’d definitely sit down and talk with them about.”

Vaive admits that when he was jetting from city to city in the NHL, and even now that he’s bussing around ECHL centers, he doesn’t really mind life on the road.

“I enjoy the travel,” he says. “But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy being at home. The thing is, you’re never away more than eight or nine days. It’s not as if you go away for 2-to-3 weeks.”

Vaive adds, however, that his constant travels are not conducive to a perfect family life.

“I’m sure (Joyce) didn’t enjoy me being away and (her) being the only one to take care of the kids and a dog,” he admits. “But no matter what line of work you’re in, when it comes to professional sports, there’s going to be travel involved and your life is going to revolve around that. It just becomes second nature no matter what you do. It’s part of my life and I just have to get adjusted to it.”

Now that he’s coaching, Vaive said there’s really not that much spare time he has to kill; he’s usually busily preparing strategies for his next game.

As for his players, they often have some time to burn, especially on the bus trips that can last as long as 16 hours.

“Some guys sleep, watch movies or play cards,” Vaive says. “And for the most part buses are now equipped with gadgets so guys can play things like SEGA golf. It’s almost like taking a bunch of kids out. Though all of us are over 20, we still act like kids at times.”

Cleary, Smyth and Vaive. All kids at heart who have plenty of roads to travel in pursuit of their pro hockey careers.

This first appeared in the 12/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2001 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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