Ex-Bengal Durham adjusts to life without hockey

Last spring, former Bengal James Durham was living his dream as a professional hockey player. Six months later, he’s out of hockey, living the same arduous life as most recent college graduates searching for a job.

On the ride home from Buffalo State’s heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Plattsburgh in the State University of New York Athletic Conference semifinals back in February, Durham struggled with the dilemma most Division III seniors face at the end of their collegiate playing careers: Finish school or turn pro.

Two weeks later, the Bengals’ captain of two seasons accepted an offer to join the Columbus (Ga.) Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League for the team’s postseason run. For a few weeks, Durham was getting paid to play the game he loves, no longer bound to the everyday demands of life as a student-athlete. He had one goal and three points in six games for the Cottonmouths, playing a key role while helping his new team to its first championship in five years.

“It was kind of surreal,” Durham said. “Once we started playing the first game I told myself, ‘I belong down here.’ I just wanted to play well and see what happens. … I knew a lot of guys, older guys, who finished schooling. I saw them going off to play professionally. They took a chance and it worked out for them, so I thought, ‘Why not me?’ There were a lot of familiar faces and coaches I knew in the pros, so that was my plan.”

As the summer months came, the 25-year-old trained in preparation for his first full season as a pro. His plan was to stick with the team for a season or two and make a few bucks fulfilling a lifetime dream. His health and wellness degree could wait; the opportunity to play hockey wouldn’t.

Durham returned to Columbus a few weeks before training camp in August certain hockey would be there waiting for him, only to find that we would be unemployed this season. Thanks in part to the effects of the National Hockey League’s lockout, Durham went from the climax of his career to the ultimate low in a matter of months as the Cottonmouths no longer had room on their 18-man roster.

“That was pretty disheartening,” Durham said. “I’ve played hockey my whole life and that was the first time I ever didn’t make a team. … I didn’t really know what was going on. I had all the hopes in the world. I obviously knew I might not make it, but I didn’t really make any plans for if I didn’t.”

Durham’s case is hardly unusual. The bumpy roads of professional hockey’s minor leagues are a common path for recent Division III athletes unsure of what their future holds.

The men’s hockey team at Buffalo State alone has seen a number of varsity athletes choose the pro route after hanging up their orange and black sweaters.

Over recent years, head coach Nick Carriere said he’s noticed a trend among recent grads like Kevin Kozlowski (‘09), Paul Gagnon (‘08) and Travis Whitehead (‘09), who have each struggled to find work in pro hockey after Buffalo State, settling for a hard knocks career overseas.

“It’s a rude awakening,” the Bengals’ coach of eight years said.

Before getting into coaching, Carriere tried the pros out for himself, playing in leagues like the East Coast Hockey League, United Hockey League as well as in Europe.

“You get guys like JD [Durham], who showed, at this level, he can produce against some of the top D-III programs and do it at the same rate as some Division I players,” Carriere said, “But that’s the thing. It takes the four years of growth and competing and learning how things operate to get to that point where you say okay, do I get a degree or do I go play for minimum money, heavy travel and that sort of thing. And then you throw the NHL lockout into the mix and now you have just way too many experienced professional players who need jobs.”

Often times the adjustment period from college to the pros is enough to slash the dreams of some of the best Division III players.

Even Nick Petriello, the Bengals’ all-time leading scorer, has struggled to find consistent work, bouncing around a number of leagues across North America since his graduation in 2011. Petriello, 26, currently plays for the Dayton (Ohio) Demonz of the Federal Hockey League, where he has 13 points in 14 games. He’s joined by former Bengal teammate Jason Hill, 28, who leads the Demonz in scoring in his fifth season as a pro.

“It’s not an easy lifestyle,” Petriello said by phone Monday from Dayton, as he and his team prepare to travel nearly 900 miles to Cape Cod, Mass., for a pair of games this weekend. “You do it for the love of the game. It’s not the paychecks. It’s for the road trips, camaraderie, all the little stuff.”

Over time, somewhere between the $300 weekly paychecks and thousands of miles of travel, Carriere said living life as a commodity in the pros eventually loses its luster,

“Here [Buff State], you have the support of coaches and trainers and it’s their full time jobs to take care of you and look out for your best interests,” Carriere said. “Well, at the pro level, you’re a commodity and that’s it. … Sometimes it takes guys time to figure that out.”

Though the lifestyle may not be glamorous, Durham isn’t planning on giving up on his pro career just yet. The Western New York native now bides his time working and training back home at Leisure Rinks in Orchard Park, hopeful for another shot at the professional game as soon as the NHL’s labor dispute subsides.

He said if a team doesn’t come calling within a year or so, then he’ll consider hanging up his skates and returning to Buffalo State to finish his degree, something he admits he sometimes wishes he had.

Still, Durham said he doesn’t regret a thing.

“Not at all,” he said. “I’m young and I know how much a college education means. I knew I had plenty of time to finish school, but I’m not going to have my whole life to play hockey.

“Even if I never play again, I’ll still have a championship ring to show for everything. That alone I think is worth it.”