It’d be a tall task to find someone who wouldn't trade it all in for an opportunity to tryout with an NHL team.
Unless, of course, that someone is a professional hockey player. In that case, a tryout is a last resort. It typically means a player couldn't convince any team to sign them as a free agent, and they now have to try and break through from the outside.
Going to training camp without a contract is a unique experience and, for 28-year-old forward Brian Gibbons, it was an opportunity to stay in the game.
He may be undersized, coming in at 5’ 8” and a mere 175 pounds, but Gibbons is no slouch. A former star at Boston College, he's shown that he can be an effective bottom-six forward, and even spent time playing on Sidney Crosby's wing with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013-14, as well as spending time with the Columbus Blue Jackets the following season.
His name might also ring a bell thanks to this goal that he scored during the 2014 AHL playoffs.
However, as the opening of NHL training camps began to loom, Gibbons was a man without a team. A professional tryout (PTO) was his only option, and his agent worked tirelessly to get him one.
“As a free agent, you’re looking for a contract or any sort of mutual interest from teams,” Gibbons said. “If that doesn’t work out, the next step is to look at a PTO to give a team another look at you and to prove yourself to them or to another team. You want to show that you can still play.”
Fortunately, the New Jersey Devils gave him a shot at redemption. It might not have been the ideal situation for Gibbons, but it was a worthwhile pursuit.
The Devils paid a stipend for meals, transportation and lodging, so at least Gibbons wasn't there on his own dime—though he did spend his energy and time on an unknown, compared to most of the players at camp, who were able to take comfort in the fact they had contracts and some sense of stability.
One might’ve thought that Gibbons would have a tough time interacting with those other players in the locker room, but he insisted that it wasn’t an issue at all. “There are a lot of good guys in the game of hockey and they make you feel comfortable,” he explained. “The hockey community is good like that.”
For Gibbons, the key was to stay focused. “It’s different than if you have a contract,” he said. “There’s a little uncertainty. Away from the ice, you find yourself wondering. On the ice, it’s just about hockey. You put your best foot forward and hopefully that impresses someone.”
It’s much easier said than done, but Gibbons attributes his levelheaded mindset to a piece of advice his father gave him.
"He said to just go out and play your game. Show what you bring to the table. You can’t always control everything—you can only control how hard you work."
When asked if he ever thought about jumping across the pond to play in Europe for that reason, Gibbons responded with the same open-minded approach that brought him to Devils training camp in the first place.
“It’s different for everyone,” he said. “Different situations and family can affect your decision of whether to go overseas or stay here. I think that one day, if that’s where it goes, Europe is a great place to play. I have buddies over there that love it. So, that’s definitely an option in the future if things don’t work out, but I would like to be here as long as I can and be around friends and family.”
For now, Gibbons doesn’t have to worry about learning Swedish or Russian. He was rewarded for his effort in training camp with a contract to play with the Devils’ AHL affiliate in Albany. It probably won’t be long before he’s called up to fill a void in Newark, given his pedigree and work ethic.
Gibbons's story has a happy ending, but not everyone else's does. Veteran forward Maxim Lapierre was on a PTO with the Rangers and was released this week, as were several others that attended NHL training camps.
It’s a career, there’s a lot of stress,” he said. “You’re just trying to be the best player you can be.”