All seemed normal as two young hockey players in their twenties hung out near their car in the parking lot of an Oaks, Pa. ice rink in between workout sessions. The owner of the car, Joe Lyle, a native of Rutland, Vt. and former Castleton State College hockey player, and a fellow teammate sat in lawn chairs watching a movie on a portable DVD player plugged into the cigarette lighter of Lyle’s Volvo. To the average eye, it was a scene of a couple of hockey players just killing some time during a break from preseason practices for the single-A Valley Forge Freedom of the Mid-Atlantic Professional Hockey League.
However, things were far from normal. This site would become home for Lyle for the next two weeks as he and his teammates awaited money from struggling league and team owners to pay for housing, meals, and transportation.
According to Lyle, the beginning was very tough.
“They (the owners) put us up in a grungy hotel for a week, but ran out of money so we were forced to find our own places to stay,” he said. “Being a rookie with no connections in the area, I ended up sleeping in my car in the parking lot at the rink. I just threw all of my clothes and stuff into the two front seats and curled up on the back seat.”
Just a few months earlier, Lyle had completed his first year of college at Castleton State. Now he was basically living the life of a homeless man, sleeping in parking lots and showering at the rink, all in an effort to make it is a professional athlete.
Lyle’s experiences are shared by hundreds of other aspiring athletes all looking for a break into the “next level.”
But is it worth it? For Lyle, the answer is a quick yes.
“You are just trying to get to the next level and you will do whatever it takes to get there,” Lyle said in a recent telephone interview. “I think that in order to really stick in pro hockey you have to remain level-headed and not get too high or too low when certain things happen. Also, it was important for me to have a good bond with my teammates because we all went through tough times together.”
Another professional athlete with Vermont ties and an understanding of Lyle’s hardships is West Rutland resident and Alaska native Chad Bentz. Bentz, a professional baseball player and only the second one-handed player to make it to the Major Leagues, has seen the roller coast ride that is semi-pro sports. While the experiences of Bentz are a little bit different from those of Lyle, there is a commonality in the struggles and hardships that both have faced on their paths through professional sports.
For Bentz, a former California State Long Beach student-athlete for two years and later a member of five different MLB organizations including Montreal, Florida, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati, and Colorado, adversity came not through the financial battles that plagued Lyle, but rather the constant mental and emotional drain of career highs and lows. He remembers vividly his greatest day in baseball when Montreal manager and baseball hall of famer Frank Robinson came up to him at spring training in 2004 and said, “congratulations son, you’re a big leaguer.”
“I just got chills right now telling you about that day,” said Bentz during a recent interview
This moment in Bentz’ career was the culmination of years of hard work and dedication to the game of baseball. However, Bentz pointed out that there were many days that were the complete opposite of this one. When asked what his worst day in baseball was, Bentz replied, “I don’t think there was one specific day that was the worst, but the biggest low was each and every time I got sent down to the minors.
“The toughest part was knowing that I belonged at the highest level and that sometimes being sent down wasn’t based on performance but rather on things like numbers of roster spots. Those days were the worst.”
Although Bentz is different from Lyle in that he has solidified himself as a big-league player while Lyle is just beginning his journey of adversity and triumph, the two share a connection in the battle to become the best player that they can be and to forge a legitimate career in professional sports.
For Bentz, his career has allowed him to raise a family and live a comfortable life, but the future is still very uncertain for the 29-year old veteran pitcher. When the question arose about whether not he has ever had the feeling that he couldn’t make it anywhere in sports, Bentz quickly answered, “Yea. Right now. I’m not currently playing, but I am working on going to either the Cardinals or the Mets for next year. If things don’t work out then I will have to find something else to do. I might end up coaching or going back to school to get a bachelors degree, which is something that would be a personal achievement and a fulfillment of a life goal for me.”
One of Lyle’s former teammates at Castleton, Travis Martell, is also beginning his road into professional sports. While he has yet to play a full season in the pros, Martell understands the uncertainty that lies ahead as well as just how fragile the privilege of playing for a living can be. Martell, a 6-foot-5-inch defenseman who started his first pro training camp with the Alaska Aces of the East Coast Hockey League (one of two major feeder leagues to the NHL) in October. But he was recently sent down to Knoxville of the Southern Professional Hockey League and is already well aware of the struggles involved with becoming a professional athlete.
“As a player, you never want to know that the end is near. I mean I want to play as long as I can because I love the game so much. Going out every night and battling with 20 other guys who all have the same goal is what it is really about. But I also know the realities of pro hockey and that for me, because I am a new player who needs to prove himself, opportunities like my tryout with the Aces don’t come along everyday.”
As for Lyle, an MAHL All-Star selection, his inaugural season in the pro ranks with the Valley Forge Freedom in 2007-2008 turned out to be a tough learning experience highlighted by broken down team buses, $10 dollar a day meal tickets to local buffets, poor living arrangements, no health insurance, injuries, and a $250 a week allowance that he was forced to live on. In an all too familiar fashion, Lyle did get the break he had waited for when he was called up to the Richmond Renegades of the Southern Pro League for an end of the season stint – just to be told that a concussion he had suffered just weeks earlier had caused him to fail his team physical and meant his dreaded return to Valley Forge.
“That day when I got called up gave justification for all of the tough times in Valley Forge. Just to get a taste of the next level in Richmond – a great facility, veteran players, and a sold out arena – that’s what it’s all about,” said Lyle who is currently on the injured reserve list for the Hudson Valley Bears of the newly formed Eastern Pro League.
According to online documents from the Mid-Atlantic Hockey League, 47 players were called up to either the Central Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League, or the Southern Pro League during the 2007-2008 season, with six coming from Lyle’s Valley Forge Freedom.
While the life of a semi-pro athlete as explained by Lyle, Bentz, and Martell is far from glamorous, all three keep a tight grip on their love for the game as they ride the roller-coaster of highs and lows in the pro ranks. For these three athletes, parallels can surely be made between experiences – struggles and triumphs, but the true commonality between them and what keeps them firing, is the constant possibility of making it to the next level.