So often we hear about the stars of the National Hockey League (NHL) and their impressive rise through the ranks. When we see NHL regulars who were drafted in the late rounds, we marvel at how far they’ve come.
But seldom do we hear about the journeymen: the players who fight for every minute of ice time they get throughout their careers. We don’t learn about how hard they work to make a living out of their passion, relying on dedication, commitment and sacrifice to reach their goals. These men are the heart and soul of the hockey world, and their stories remind us that, sometimes, the one who treads the rougher path to success reaps the greater rewards.
In the upcoming weeks, you’ll come to know one such player. His name is Jay Meloff, and like most boys growing up in Canada, the only thing he ever wanted to be was a hockey player. He strapped on his first pair of skates at two, he played on his first team at three, and he scored his first goal in his first season. Never mind that the puck was deflected off his helmet; for Jay, it was the start of a life in hockey.
Growing up in Markham, Ontario, put Jay in good company. He regularly played with guys like Steven Stamkos and Cody Hodgson, players who pushed his development. From ages four to 10, Jay was part of the Markham Waxers, a well-respected organization that continues to produce many NHL and American Hockey League (AHL) caliber players. Jay started out as a forward, but when one of his coaches noted his strong skating ability, he asked Jay to try defense. Right away, Jay knew that was where he wanted to play. "I liked it," he said. "I like the fact that you get the puck more, that you get to control more of the game. It’s my position."
At 10, he joined the Greater Toronto Hockey League to hone his craft. Unfortunately, ill-timed injuries during his draft year kept Jay from performing at his best, causing him to go undrafted by the Ontario Hockey League. It didn’t deter him however, as he turned his attention to the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL), furthering his development over the next five years.
Jay’s first full season with the OJHL started with the Couchiching Terriers. He showed up at camp a nobody, but his play grabbed the attention of the organization’s decision makers. He signed with the team, his confidence soaring because he was playing against guys four to five years older than he was and doing more than just holding his own. His play so impressed the staff and coaches that they told him he was to be one of their go-to guys, logging important minutes and manning the second power play unit. So when he got the news he had been traded, Jay was shocked. This wasn’t about talent. This was about on-ice experience that he simply didn’t have yet, but that knowledge didn’t lessen the sting of the blow.
Making matters worse, Jay was traded to the worst team in the league, an expansion team that was struggling to get on its feet. The following season was quite different, though, as he joined the Bramalea Blues. "It was a really really cool experience playing in the Powerade Centre in Brampton," he said.
Regrettably, the instability of the league forced another trade, but this time it was on his terms. The general manager came to him and other select players and told them the team was going to fold. He said they wanted to give Jay and his teammates a chance to get out while they could. Jay asked to be traded.
Much to his surprise, Jay was one of eight defensemen sent to the Trenton Golden Hawks, a team that already carried four blueliners. So after only four games, Jay was traded for the second time in two weeks, this time to the Peterborough Stars. Like all of his other trades, talent wasn’t an issue. In fact, Trenton received two forwards in return for Jay.
The turn of events was a positive one, nevertheless. The time Jay spent with the Stars was the best of his career thus far in terms of the organization and his teammates. That first season in 2009-2010 was a solid one on the ice, as well. But once again he faced injuries and another trade, this time to the Pickering Panthers midway through the 2010-2011 season.
Rather than feeling defeated, Jay became even more intent on making it. Early on in his life, he recognized that, at this level, hockey is a profession. "I realized that if I really wanted to do this, I’ve got to work hard. It’s not just a fun game anymore." That attitude propelled him over the next season, taking his game to a higher level. His final year in the OJHL was his best, recording two goals and nine assists in 30 games. Moreover, he was named Alternate Captain of the Panthers and awarded the Ray Shearer Leadership Award, which is given to the player who best exhibits leadership as a teammate and member of the community.
Jay decided to try his hand at the college level, choosing to play for Brockport State in New York because of the strong reputation of its hockey program. But policies on financial aid for Canadian athletes changed, and he found himself having to foot an $11,000 tuition bill for each semester. It forced him to make a hard choice: stay and exhaust his entire life savings or move on to another league. He chose to move on.
Again, Jay hit a roadblock. Finding teams that would take him on a student visa was difficult. It’s an expensive process to change that status, and many organizations simply won’t deal with it. Because of his skill level and dedication, though, teams began expressing interest. Jay chose to skate with the Danbury Whalers for the remainder of the 2011-2012 season as he felt the team would offer him the best chance to bring him closer to his goals of playing in AHL and, after that, the NHL. He finished strong in Danbury, scoring three goals and five assists in 17 games.
This past spring, he learned that the Central Hockey League (CHL) was expanding to Denver, Colorado. Seeing this as a prime opportunity to push his career forward, he set out to train for a free agent camp the Denver Cutthroats was hosting in August. Yet again, fate had a different plan, and he was struck with mononucleosis in April. For two weeks, he was bed-ridden, losing nearly 20 pounds in the process. With less than four months until the tryouts, he knew he had an incredible challenge ahead of him in order to get to the compete level he knew he’d need.
Many people would feel so discouraged at this point as to quit. But that’s not in Jay’s nature. Instead, he trained. He forced his body to gain back that strength the sickness stole. He began taking supplements and using protein shakes to refuel his body, and he relied on will power to get back to form. As he continued to put the pounds back on, he realized that getting mono was actually a blessing. He built up lean muscle mass and found himself in the best shape of his life.
Currently, Jay is training in Toronto, pushing his body to extremes in preparation for the open tryouts next month. He’s determined to bring his game at its highest level in the hopes that GM Brent Cullaton and head coach Derek Armstrong will notice. But beyond what he does on the ice, Jay has something the Cutthroats, like every team, surely needs: strength of character. His unwavering resolve to improve and turn challenges into opportunities already sets him apart. "I found a way to re-motivate myself this year," Jay said. "It finally kind of hit me what I have to do in order to make my dreams come true and not be mediocre and be above and beyond. I’m very driven. I have a set of goals that I want to accomplish." One of those goals is playing for the Denver Cutthroats.
Jay’s interest in the team goes beyond just wanting to play in the CHL, though. When he came to Denver to turn in his paperwork for the free agent camp, he immediately fell in love with the city. Like many athletes, Colorado captivated him, so he decided to spend some of his off-season getting to know the state. As a result, his desire to make the team intensified. If all goes well, he will not only get the job he so dearly wants, he’ll get a home, too.
Coming up next: A look at Jay’s intensive training schedule.
UPDATE: About the time I finished this article last night and submitted it for posting, Jay's girlfriend, Jessica Ghawi, known to her friends across the sports world as Jessica Redfield, was in an Aurora, Colorado, theater when a young man, identified by police as 24-year-old James Holmes, burst in through the emergency exit and started firing into the crowd that was waiting to see the new Dark Knight movie. He killed twelve in all. 20 other victims, including a 3-month-old baby, are being treated at local hospitals. 50 were hurt all together.
Jessica became my friend over the last year. She was starting a career in sports journalism, and I regularly picked her brain about it. She was granted the ever-elusive Avalanche press credentials, and it was through her that I met Jay. Jessica and I sent messages back and forth to each other, brainstorming the article. She was instrumental in getting this project off the ground.
Jessi was smart, friendly, and amazing. A red head through and through, she was a ball of energy and fire, with a quick wit and an infectious personality. She was also a big reason why Jay wanted to play in Denver. I haven't spoken with Jay yet this morning, and it's hard to say how this tragedy will affect his plans to try out for the Cutthroats. My heart goes out to him—and all of Jessica's friends and family—during this time.