Like thousands of Maine youth, Jake Rutt, a native of Augusta, dreamed of playing professional hockey. After a four-year career at the University of Maine and a heartbreaking playoff series loss to the University of Vermont last spring, that dream became a reality when Jake received a call from the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL (the hockey version of AA baseball). Almost overnight, Jake went from student-athlete to professional with a new set of rules and expectations while also completing the course work necessary to earn his degree in Business Management.
For his final project in my English 205 – Introduction to Creative Writing Class, Jake submitted the following journal describing those hectic days.
I chose to write a journal about my first three weeks or so in pro hockey because of the unique experiences and emotions that happened. This short time period of my life has been the most exciting and adventurous that I will probably experience, ever. I realized that this opportunity happens to very few people and I wanted to write it down so I could remember it for a lifetime.
I wanted to collect the raw emotion I felt in certain situations like my first pro fight or see- sawing in and out of the lineup. In some incidences, it was hard to express what I felt because either I didn’t want to relive the moment or the moment was so intense it was hard to put into words. Someday I hope to pass this “once in a lifetime” experience on to my children so they can see what their dad accomplished.
After a tough defeat to UVM, the UMaine hockey team arrived back in Orono around 5:30AM Monday morning. That night/morning I remember I could not sleep because of the feeling of the loss. We outplayed the opponent each game but somehow could not win the series. I left with my roommates Bill and Stricky around 12PM to get breakfast at Governor’s and on our way back I got a call from a 585 area code number. I took it and it was the assistant coach for the Idaho Steelheads. In our 15 minute conversation, he basically said we need you for Wednesday and we love the way you play. I didn’t give him answer because I was in shock of how quick it was. I went over to Coach Ben Guite’s house and talked about it and he actually set me up with an agent. After leaving Guite’s house, my mind was made up and I went home to pack my bags for Boise.
Contract talks ended around 7:30PM that night. One of the hardest things to realize was how happy and sad that made my girlfriend, Danielle. She was so excited for me but at the same time she was sad I would not be around. I hadn’t seen her that much the last few weeks and now I would be leaving her for even longer.
My day of travel to Boise was a long one. It started at 6: 30 AM when I had to go to the Alfond to grab my gear and sticks to bring on the trip. Bill [Norman] came with me down to Portland so he could drive my van back up. Since my flight wasn’t until 11:30 AM, I gave myself enough time to say goodbye to my brother, sister and parents. I visited Jon and Abby at home where they were waiting for me. I needed to drop off a few things there before I left so it was convenient as well. Then I went to my Dad’s store in South Portland and we talked for a bit. He wanted to give me some money but I told him I didn’t need it. He gave it to me anyway.
The hardest goodbye of the day was my Mom. I never see her at work but she made it happen today. She is an operating room nurse at Mercy Hospital in Portland. She came down in her scrubs, almost in tears. She said she was going to miss me and said she was so proud of me. One thing that stuck in my mind of what she said was if you do your best, only good things will come. I don’t remember it verbatim but that’s what I took from it.
Throughout the whole day, I was in touch with David DeKastrozza (UMaine hockey alum and current Steelhead) because he was going to pick me up from the Boise airport. After two connections, I was in Boise around 10:30 PM local time which was 12:30 AM back in Orono. I got to the team apartments around 11:30 PM after a quick stop at “Jack in the Box.” As tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep because of the excitement I had for the next day.
That morning I met my roommates Matt Case, a former Ferris State Bulldog who had seen some time in the AHL with the Texas Stars and Steve Quailer, a one-time rival at Northeastern. I hopped in Case’s car and was off to the rink. This whole concept of basically being an object and being signed in order to help a team was new to me but my mindset was that no matter what… it is still hockey.
When I got to the rink, I had the contract waiting for me to sign, the equipment manager to help me, Assistant Coach Graham waiting to talk hockey with me and 23 new faces I needed to meet all before morning skate. One of the tougher things to get used to were the sticks. The ECHL has a contract with CCM so we have to use their sticks. It’s not that the sticks are bad, they’re just different. During the skate, I shot as many pucks as I could in that half hour slot. I had a puck on my stick the whole time which helped a lot. I knew for my first pro game I would have to keep my game real simple because of the change from Warrior sticks I used the last 3 years to CCM.
After the morning skate, I had another meeting with Graham about the Steelhead’s systems they play during the game. I won’t get too technical but the game they teach is different from UMaine’s. The style of play is slower with more puck control and more set up plays rather than a run and gun style of how most Hockey East teams play.
Obviously, another big aspect that is different is there is fighting. Today, there are people who say there isn’t a place in the game for fighting but I am here to tell you there is. During the course of a game, officials sometimes miss calls or players of the other team can play a certain way that might be against the “unsaid” rules of the game that technically aren’t penalties but shouldn’t be done i.e. spraying a goalie or trying to take a run at our goal scorer. Fighting is a way to make the other team play different and it is also a way to police the game. Once a fight occurs, teams play differently, less pugnacious and more controlled. To me, a ref cannot police a game like good fight or fighter can.
The type of player that I am can often stir up confrontations which lead to fights and other skirmishes. I knew this going in, so I needed to make sure I was ready to fight. Coming from college, I have had very little fighting experience compared to others that play major junior hockey in Canada so I needed to pick my spot wisely when or if I do fight. With all of this in mind, I could not change the way I play because I was scared of getting beat up.
That night, we played the Bakersfield Condors who are the bottom of our division. It was a good warm-up game. The speed was slower but the forwards were more skilled. I don’t remember much of the game but remember one kid for the Condors making fun of me for it being my first pro game. I made sure to hit him every time he touched the puck.
After the game, the team went out to a local bar called Hannah’s. The owner of the bar, Dickey is a legend to the veterans of the team. He doesn’t let us pay for a drink. It’s a little better setup than the Roost in Orono I’m sorry to say. The Roost will always have a place in my heart for their “Carolina Lightning” wing sauce though. One thing I don’t think I will get used to is that other teams will go out as well. I saw the guy who was giving me a hard time and his slightly drunker self was much nicer and congratulated me on my first pro game.
After the win, the mood at the rink the next morning was upbeat and we were ready to fly to California for a 3 in 3 (3 games in 3 days) versus the Stockton Thunder, a notoriously rough team. Practice was optional and after flying all day the day before and then taking a few big hits against the boards, I wanted to take the day off and just travel. But, I thought it would make a good impression if I skated even though I was sore as hell from yesterday’s game. The rumor around the locker room was I was going to have to fight this weekend because of how the Thunder play and the type of players they had. I like to call them “meatheads.” Basically, a “meathead” is someone who doesn’t want to play hockey, they just want to run around the ice and cause havoc. I actually don’t blame Stockton for playing this way because they have only have 14 wins on the year so how else would they put fans in the stands?
Anyways, after learning the protocol for my gear from the equipment manager for road trips, we hopped on a plane and flew to Sacramento, CA. One major difference from the pro hockey lifestyle compared to NCAA student athletes is the travel. Anytime we travel, we are in suits. Can’t say I like it but it makes me feel more important if that makes sense. People look at me differently wearing a suit rather than a sweat suit.
In the league that I am in, we are paid $39 per diem. Guys on the team think it’s low but growing up learning how to be frugal, I make a pretty good pay day every time we are on the road.
The area that the rink the Stockton Thunder play in is in a pretty rough neighborhood. It was pretty intimidating. I looked up the Thunder to see how they are doing in our league. They are last in our league by about 20 games and have 400 more penalty minutes then the second to last team in that category. This 3 in 3 was going to be a rough one and I was expecting to get into my first fight.
Pregame skate went fine and it was time for the pregame meal. It was at the rink and rumor has it that it is the worst meal I would ever have. The guys were not kidding! The pasta was in clumps, the veggies were soupy and the bread was rock hard. I would prefer Wells cafeteria’s food way over this. It was in the back of my mind that it was intentional but there is no way to prove it.
I held my breath and ate the food. The game went well and we handled the opponent relatively easy. There were a couple fights but nobody came my way which was surprising because I had a couple big hits that sparked a few altercations.
As we get to the rink for an optional skate and a meeting, I look up at the marker board where the lineup is posted for the game and see my number is not up there. At the time, it was a tough pill to swallow and as I am getting dressed to skate, Ralphie (Head Coach) calls me into his office. Now thinking like a pro player, I thought for sure they were upset with me and how I was playing and I was going to be released. The meeting was quite the opposite. They were really happy with the way I was playing they just wanted to give me a day off because I had played five games in seven days with a full day of travel in between. We went over film to improve my game and said they were pleased with what I brought to the ice. I left the meeting with a big smile on my face.
About two minutes after the meeting, my number was put up on the board which meant I was in the lineup. Apparently another defenseman had an injury and couldn’t go that night. A rollercoaster of emotions just took place in the last 20 minutes which made me learn a valuable lesson which I should have learned in college: “Keep an even keel.” The game is now a business and I need to keep a perspective on the situation and take advantage of every opportunity I get.
The Steelheads were streaking, getting points in the last 13 games. It wouldn’t happen in this game though. We gave our starting goalie a rest and we lost on a last second goal. This was our first regulation loss in the last month.
The mood was down around the locker room because of the loss last night. I was in the lineup and one thing that made all the boys on the team happy was we had a different plan for a pregame meal. It was catered and we would eat it at the hotel which meant for a longer nap before the game. This was a relief not only because of the food was garbage at the rink but having a longer nap before the third game in the 3 in 3 made a world of difference.
We won this game pretty handedly. All signs pointed towards the better food was the reason why we played well. Our flight wasn’t until the next morning so we had the night to relax and kick back to enjoy a few beers. These nights I made sure to try and bond with the other guys. In order for a hockey team to be successful, I firmly believe that the team needs to be a close-knit group. This helps put egos aside when it comes to games. Players will now start to make unselfish plays like taking hits to make plays, screen the goalie to take a beating in order for someone else to score and fight when a player needs defending. A close-knit team wins championships.
Today was a day off and a day of travel. We bussed to Sacramento then flew to Boise where I found out the player whose apartment room I’m staying in was getting called down from the AHL and needed his room back. So right when I got back, I had to move out and into another apartment.
My new roommates were goalie Chris Rawlings, another Northeastern Huskie who spent a few games with the Portland Pirates and a defenseman who joined us from the Missouri Mavericks, Martin Lee. This apartment was available because at the trade deadline, Ralphie traded two players and they moved out immediately. It’s still weird thinking about hockey as a business. One thing I hope doesn’t happen is I lose the perspective I had growing up about the game.
Throughout the week of practice, I found myself low on the depth chart as the 7th defenseman for the upcoming Friday/Saturday matchup versus the tough Colorado Eagles. Coming in and joining the Steelheads, I didn’t know what to expect in regards to playing time. But what I did know is I wanted to play and knew that I was good enough to not just crack the lineup but make an impact both defensively and offensively each game.
Looking back at the first four games I played, I probably was too cautious, almost afraid to make a mistake. There was no conviction in the way I was playing. I played a safe game which might sound good but it was too safe. I created nothing but nothing bad was happening so I felt like it was good. This week of practice I made sure to push myself to make plays with conviction, to trust my skating and make impactful plays that altered the way the game was being played. It didn’t matter though, I didn’t crack the lineup for Friday’s tilt against Colorado.
Pregame skate today was different since I wasn’t playing. I skated my bag off to try and keep my conditioning level up but also to show that I wasn’t happy. I stayed on the ice for about an extra hour or so with the backup goalie to work on my shot and my puck handling. I wanted to be back in not because I was sour about the embarrassment of being scratched but because I knew I had what it took to be an impact player at this level. The only thing holding me back was my mindset.
Watching the game from the stands gave a good perspective on the game. It made me realize that in certain situations, I would have more time with the puck than I thought. I could make certain plays that open up if I just skated a little bit faster. I tried to study the game as much as I could while taking stats for the team.
We won in overtime that night. The defenseman that replaced me was handed the player of the game award by Ralphie. My job just got that much harder to break the lineup.
We reported to the rink at 10 AM the next morning for an optional skate but it was mandatory for those who did not play the night before. Walking in, I see the lineup for tonight’s game posted on the whiteboard. Like yesterday, there is no #7 in the lineup. I wasn’t mad. I just thought to myself, I played too safe and maybe lost out on a huge opportunity. I quickly stretched and got dressed and prepared to bag myself on the ice.
As I was conditioning myself, skating blueline to blueline, Ralphie came over and quickly stopped me. He told me that one of the defenseman was hurt and told me to prepare to play tonight. I tried to remain composed but I was excited as hell. I knew how I needed to play especially after watching the game from a different angle last night. I went ahead and asked Ralphie just off the top of his head what he wanted to see me do better. Ralphie said I play a strong physical defensive game but I need to have more composure with the puck in order to make more things happen on the ice. I agreed because that is what I realized watching last night.
At UMaine, I was always taught to move the puck right away and go “north.” In the style of play the pros play, that is the right play about 50% of the time. The professional game is slower and it is also more structured. In the neutral zone, the coaches want to “build” and drag forecheckers out of position while our forwards skate to position. The reason why this game is more structured than the college game is because of the amount of games that are played. In college, I played roughly 35 a season. In the ECHL, we play 72 plus a maximum of 28 more playoff games.
That night was one of the funnest games I played so far. It was a hard fought game where we won in overtime again. I felt much more confident and I made more plays whether it was building in the neutral zone or making crisp outlet passes out of the zone.
The locker room was electric after the win. Our equipment manager, nicknamed “Beast” (I don’t know his real name) opened up his equipment room and had a keg waiting for us. I couldn’t believe this. Everyone from the team doctor to Ralphie packed into the back room and had a few beers. This was a tight knit group from the players all the way to the equipment managers and coaches. As it turned around midnight, the team headed to Hannah’s for a few more. After roughly two weeks, I felt like I have been on this team for years.
Sunday was a day off where I could catch up on my school work and actually settle in to the apartment. Monday was an optional skate with a workout. When it says up on the board optional, it really didn’t matter for me. For rookies, anything optional meant mandatory.
Tuesday was an official practice and I found myself in the lineup again. I was on the second defensive pairing with a 5 year veteran. That meant a lot to me because of how much he played during the course of the game and I was going to play just as much. Shawn Boutin played out of the Quebec Major Junior league, a little undersized but skilled with the puck on the blue line. During drills, I felt like we had good chemistry because of skill sets complemented each other. I was more of a stay at home defensemen where he was an offensive type d-man.
On Tuesday after practice, we bussed to Salt Lake City, Utah. This would be the only bus trip we have because it was only a 4.5 hour bus ride. For me, it was a normal trip down to Boston from Orono. During the trip, I took the time to talk to friends and family as much as I could. The ride was scenic going through the Rocky Mountains.
After checking out the rink and having a fast paced but short pregame skate, it was off to Olive Garden for the pregame meal. Something I am still getting used to is not being fed by the team and instead you are in charge of whenever you want to eat. Personally, I like to eat earlier and more often. My regular eating schedule for a 7PM game is pasta and chicken at noon, big snack like a bagel or protein bar at 3PM, another bagel or protein bar at 5 and eat half a banana during each intermission. I drink roughly a gallon of water 24 hours before the game too. It sounds like a lot of food but I am still starving after the game.
Anyways, the game was a rough one. The Utah Grizzlies are fighting for the 4th and final playoff spot and you could tell by the way they were playing, very energetic and emotional while playing with a certain edge.
We had only had five defensemen due to injury which made for a tiring game. During the game I made a breakout pass and a forechecker tried to catch me off guard and hit me late. I braced myself at the last minute and was able to give him a counter blow that knocked him down. He didn’t like that one bit. He went nose to nose with me and cross checked me several times asking me to go. I told him he’s an idiot and we only have five d-men. Grahamer (assistant coach) applauded me for keeping my head.
We pulled away with the victory 5-3.
Ralphie and Grahamer talked to me after the game and said that was the best game I have played in a Steelheads uniform. I played simple, poised and physical and made a big impact on the game. I felt like I am starting to play like I am capable of, like an impact player every shift.
Since we beat Utah on Wednesday, Ralphie explained that they are going to play even more desperate and we needed to be ready for war in his pregame speech. I knew that night I’d be fighting.
The game was intense. The Utah forwards didn’t take a stride off when they forechecked and hit everyone in their sights. I felt like I needed to make an impact play.
The first period was about half over and Utah was dictating the play. After a shot from the point, the puck squirted loose to the blocker side corner where I raced an opposing forward for it. He beat me by half a stride but I was able to lean into him and bury him high into the glass. As the home crowd was silenced, I felt a whack off the back of my knee. I knew this guy wanted to defend his teammate and felt like it was a good time for me to assert myself. As I turned around, it was the same forward from Wednesday’s tilt that wanted to go. I dropped the gloves first and got a good hold on him. The player was a little smaller than me which made getting leverage easier. He was able to get a few punches in but they didn’t carry much weight. He probably swung more but the few that I landed made an impression on his face and cut his chin. I thought the linesman was going to break up the fight so I let up. A minor mistake because the linesman didn’t come in and the guy was able to take me down.
We got up and mutually said good fight to each other. I looked over to the bench and my teammates were going wild. They loved it and knew that it was my first pro fight. The fight turned the momentum of the game. We won 7-4 and I was a +2 for the night.
After the game, Ralphie gave me the player of the game award. I felt like that is the way I need to play. I cannot be afraid to hit their best players. I need to be able to stand up for myself and not let the other team dictate the way I want to play. That is what will make me a better pro defenseman.
– About the Author –
Jacob Rutt was born on April 26th, 1991. Growing up in a middle class neighborhood in Augusta, ME, he was fortunate enough to be within walking distance to an outdoor public rink where he logged several hours each week on top of regular practice for his travel hockey team. His brother Jon and sisters Caitlin and Abby would skate with him where they offered good competition and bragging rights around the dinner table. His parents Norman and Lisa worked countless hours and sacrificed tremendously in order to support their four kids and the steep ice hockey bills.
Jacob’s family moved to Scarborough, ME when he was 16. Moving to a more southern location of the state offered him more opportunities where he played in out-of-state tournaments against better competition. During his sophomore and junior year in high school, he played for Scarborough High School where the team was very competitive in the Class A tournament. He chose to forgo his senior year and instead played for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs, a junior hockey team that played in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. He committed to his dream school of the University of Maine in 2010 where studied business management and played four years compiling 9 goals and 23 assists, He was named an Assistant Captain his senior year. He signed with the Idaho Steelheads on March 11th, 2015. This fall he will attend training camp with the AHL’s Texas Stars.
Oh, and he recently got engaged to Danielle.