By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey writer)
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — It may be the best phrase a young NHL player can hear, even better than being told he has made the team.
Get a place.
Making the opening night roster is certainly an accomplishment, though it can be fleeting. The time-honored tradition of a coach or general manager giving a player permission to check out of the hotel and find a place to live means he is sticking around for a long time, if not the entire season.
”When you’re at the hotel for a couple months, you’re always wondering, ‘When are they going to tell me?”’ former player and current Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said not long after giving goaltender Scott Wedgewood the green light to get a place in Arizona. ”You’re comfortable. You’re not just in a hotel. It really helps you.”
Some young players live with older teammates as a way to learn about the pro lifestyle. Even some who are called up from the minors or earn a roster spot out of training camp get a hotel room because nothing is certain.
The collective bargaining agreement requires teams to pay for 28 days of a player’s hotel stay that can be extended up to 56, at which point he can get a permanent place without seeking permission.
There’s value in getting that message from an organization well before the 28-day mark, as New York Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal found out.
”That kind of just made me comfortable, just knowing I have an opportunity to be here for a little while or they like what I’ve been doing so far,” said Barzal, who has 14 points in 17 games. ”That’s just a confidence thing. That’s just nice having that kind of stress off, just another thing you can check off the list.”
During his 15 seasons as coach of the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals, Barry Trotz has gotten to tell plenty of players to get a place. Because of the CBA rules and how tenuous a player’s grip on a job is, it’s not always an easy call.
”In the past I’ve had it where we went the distance, we went the 28 days and then we have to make a decision,” Trotz said. ”Other times you knew that a player was going to be on your team and he had to be on your team and you said, ‘Hey, go get a place,’ right or wrong. … Usually I check with management on that just because I don’t want to be paying their rent.”
After telling Barzal he can find a place to live, Islanders coach Doug Weight called it ”a great reward.”
”It means a lot: obviously that we have a confidence that he’s an NHL player,” Weight said. ”The more confident, the more comfortable you are within the room, within the system, within the coaching staff, the better you’re going to play.”
Capitals veteran Brooks Orpik remembers his own experience in 2003-04 when he and several other Pittsburgh Penguins rookies played the waiting game.
”I think we had like eight guys in the hotel until like Thanksgiving,” Orpik said. ”I think there were like eight of us that were rookies, so we weren’t going to dare complain. We were just happy to be there.”
Barzal is happy about his status, but he knows nothing is truly permanent.
”Anything can really happen,” Barzal said. ”I’m a young guy. I’ve got to prove myself every night. Whether I have the housing letter or not, I’ve still got to prove myself every day.”