Like most people, James Durham sees nothing but losers in the NHL labor fight. Players, owners, businesses and workers are all sustaining significant losses.
Unlike most people, Durham can trace his slide out of professional hockey directly to the lockout.
Durham was Buffalo State’s captain last year. When the season ended, the former St. Francis and Junior Sabres forward signed with the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League. The team in Georgia was in the midst of a playoff run, and things went extremely well. Durham had one goal and three points in six games to help the Cottonmouths win their first championship in five years.
The 25-year-old trained all summer and traveled back to Columbus a few weeks before training camp last month, eager to start his first full season as a pro. Instead, he fell victim to the lockout trickledown.
Players who should be in the NHL, like the Sabres’ Cody Hodgson and Marcus Foligno, are instead stuck in the American Hockey League during the work stoppage. That, in turn, forced Rochester to send regulars from last year’s team to lower leagues. The Amerks placed three players in the East Coast Hockey League and two in the Central Hockey League. Once those players claimed roster spots, guys who should have been in the ECHL and CHL had to find work in the SPHL.
That sent Durham home to Marilla as one of the Cottonmouths’ final cuts. He’s working and skating at Leisure Rinks in Orchard Park while waiting for jobs to open if the lockout ends.
“They said I looked really good, it just pretty much came down to a numbers thing is what [coach and General Manager Jerome Bechard] told me,” Durham said. “Nearing the end of the camp, guys got sent down from higher camps, so honestly they were going to stay over me.”
Alex McLeod, a Michigan Tech grad who started in camp with South Carolina of the ECHL, earned one of the forward spots in Columbus instead of Durham.
“That was probably the toughest cut I had,” Bechard said this week by phone. “He comes in last year, fills a role that we needed and was part of a championship. I had him penciled in, and it’s just unfortunate.
“A lot of guys that were going to the East Coast League or wherever are just not sticking because American League guys signed down there. It’s a pretty good little trickledown.”
Bechard played parts of 16 seasons in the minors and has been coach and GM of the Cottonmouths since 2004-05. He said there is unprecedented competition for jobs at the lower levels of hockey.
“I had a free agent camp, which I’d never done before, and I had 23 people come for that,” Bechard said. “Our training camp, I usually have only 22 guys here, and we ended up having 26. It’s just more of an abundance.”
It’s a league-wide trend in the SPHL, which has a roster limit of 18 players, including goaltenders. Bechard, who kept his title-winning team mostly intact, figures three of his five new skaters could be at a higher level. The Fayetteville (N.C.) FireAntz boast six players who spent last year in the ECHL or CHL. There are nine teams in the SPHL, so there are dozens of roster spots being eaten up by the lockout.
So while the NHL and NHL Players’ Association are turning their backs on $3.3 billion in annual revenue, the trickledown effect they’ve caused is costing minor-league hopefuls like Durham their jobs and paychecks of $320 per week.
“It’s just hurting so many people, people that are working the stadiums, that work parking lots, people that own restaurants in the cities that have teams,” Durham said. “It’s doing nothing but hurting them and the economy. You hate to see that.”