Roughly three days before it actually rears its ugly head, ‘Cut Day’ embeds itself in the stomach of bubble players in the form of a knot. A knot made out of butterflies.
The build-up to Cut Day, for me anyway, was filled with self-loathing. I’m sure there’s a few of you out there who know the routine - undervalue the things you did well, overvalue the things you messed up and in general, call yourself a slew of names that, coming from another person’s mouth, would almost certainly start a fight.
The sad reality of tryouts, which most intelligent people are aware of, is this: The team is more or less picked. Every team I made, I knew I was going to make. Whether I had been already signed, or simply told directly, I knew. The times I didn’t make teams, I wasn’t sure where I stood. It’s rare that a guy who isn’t in the plan sticks, so to all you unsure players at camp right now, in your hotel room, reading THN on your laptop to kill time: You’re getting cut. If you aren’t sure…it’s happening, bud. That doesn’t mean don’t try; you still need to make a good impression.
Cut Day was almost never the same on any team I tried out for. In New York with the Islanders, they called me to the front of the plane where I sat in the front row between Garth Snow and Ted Nolan. And, like the Seinfeld episode about sitting three-abreast at the counter, there I was, fully turning to the guy who was speaking, back and forth, while they tried to see around me when they were talking to each other. I then did the walk of shame back to my seat past the rest of the people on the plane.
(Tangent: I’m told that when someone is told they have a life-threatening condition, they tend to not remember anything after that in the meeting with their doctor. I swear, I remember nothing from that conversation. I remember it being “positive without promises” as a general feel, but that’s all I got on that one.)
In Bridgeport, they called guys down to the dressing room five or six at a time, where the players (who had inevitably car-pooled from the hotel) would sit and talk about how bad they suck at hockey and how their careers were headed down the toilet, while the first person marched towards execution in the coach’s office. The others just sat on the couches, predicting the unchanging, standard cut lines they’d be hearing in mere moments:
We really thought you played great, we’re impressed. It’s just a numbers game. We’ll be keeping an eye on you down there. Thought you worked very hard.
After practice in junior, our coach would bring the guys in for a group chat, then mention a few who were supposed to come down to the office that night. It was horrific, because not everyone was cut when they went to the office. Sometimes he just wanted to ask a few questions or put a guy on notice, but since the majority of guys were getting axed, everybody got to feel that stress. For those who haven’t experienced the “come down to the office tonight at 7 p.m.” feeling, it’s directly comparable to the married couple’s “we need to talk tonight” - it might not be horrible, but it probably is.
Formulaic and insincere, the cut conversation with the coaching staff begins. Nobody in the room enjoys themselves (the pink-slip-in-your-locker thing sounds like a much better arrangement. Just write the reason down and let’s avoid the face-to-face. We weren’t dating). And worst of all, as is standard for me, I’d start sweating like we’re halfway through the first period or something. My moustache and forehead first, followed by having to wipe off the sweat, which means they notice, which means I start sweating more. Chaos.
And when you’re finally beheaded in that guillotine, there’s almost a feeling of relief – you’ve been stressing and stressing about it, so you’re somewhat prepared. There are the phone calls: mom, dad, girlfriend, brother, agent, texts to friends and teammates, etc. There’s the packing. And then there’s some freedom, if only for the one evening.
Depending on your journey, the cycle is usually about to start over again: New team in a new (lower) league; the arena’s not quite as nice; the dressing rooms aren’t quite as nice; they don’t have quite as much staff. But the guys are just as great, the coaches are just as serious about winning and you adjust pretty quickly.
It’s just another rung on the ladder - a step down you didn’t want to take, but what choices do you have? All you can hope for is when the next team’s Cut Day rolls around, the blade of the guillotine stays suspended in the air.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.