Love of the game: The hockey odyssey of former Coyotes player Justin Hodgman

When Justin Hodgman examine Keith Yandle’s contemporary NHL retirement, he couldn’t assist however smile at the twist of fate. With a ways much less fanfare, Hodgman made the similar occupation selection a couple of months previous after taking part in the 2021-22 season for the EIHL’s Sheffield Steelers.   

“One of my fondest memories is his assist on my goal and the high-five he gave me,” Hodgman stated of Yandle, his Coyotes teammate for 5 video games in the 2014-15 season. “I always wanted a Keith Yandle high-five and when he came in from the blue line and gave me that high-five it was easily a top-five moment in my career.”

Hodgman didn’t enjoy many extra of the ones moments. Those 5 video games that he performed with the Coyotes have been the best 5 video games of his NHL occupation. That doesn’t imply, on the other hand, that Hodgman’s hockey occupation used to be void of significant moments. Quite the reverse.

Hodgman’s professional occupation spanned 15 seasons, 16 groups, 11 leagues and 9 international locations. In that time-frame, he skilled 3 league titles, a fourth finals berth, a litany of cultures, traditions and folks, bouts of melancholy and self doubt, suicidal ideas, difficult instances clear of his circle of relatives, and once-in-a-lifetime studies along with his circle of relatives — all whilst development a smartly of unravel that saved him pushing ahead when different gamers would possibly have hung up their skates in lieu of different interests.

“I love adversity,” stated Anaheim Ducks trainer Dallas Eakins, who coached Hodgman with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and served as one of his biggest mentors. “I hate after I see someone deep in it. I hate after I’m in it, or my circle of relatives’s in it, or my group’s in it, however I like it in the similar breath as a result of while you pop out the different facet and you’ve got discovered your means via it, otherwise you’ve survived it, I feel it makes you extra resilient.

“It doesn’t matter what it is because I’m not just talking about hockey. I’m talking about life, so many different things. It really calluses your brain. I think it makes you more resilient and I think it makes you extremely grateful for life in general. When you look at Justin’s career and the amount of adversity that he’s gone through, moving through countries for different teams, I think he’s a better man for it.” 

Justin Hodgman keeping his son, Zayden, at the 2018-19 ECHL All-Star Game. (Photo courtesy of Justin Hodgman)

The street much less traveled

Hodgman wasn’t drafted after both of his first two seasons with the OHL’s Erie Otters. After taking part in his 3rd 12 months with the Otters, he spent portions of 3 seasons with the IHL’s Fort Wayne Komets, with whom he in the end received 3 league championships and used to be named the youngest player in league historical past to win the playoff MVP award at the age of 19.

As he chased his NHL dream, he additionally performed for the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye, Reading Royals and the Komets after they moved to the ECHL. In 2009-10, the Rockford IceHogs, who owned his AHL rights, traded him to the Marlies the place he first met Eakins.

“You don’t know much about the kids that go undrafted,” Eakins stated. “There’s one phase of you that’s very serious about why they haven’t been drafted or why they don’t seem to be signed. And then there’s the different phase the place you’re quietly truly cheering for them to do nice as a result of they’re large underdogs. That used to be Hodgie to a tee.

“He was really looking to please and he wanted to fit in. He had a skill set and he had enough size, but the biggest thing that stood out to me was this kid just ate, drank and breathed hockey. That’s all he did. He wasn’t big into the training off of the ice. He wasn’t built out or stacked like a lot of the players are now, but it wasn’t that he didn’t want to work at it. He was just working at his game, on the ice, on the street, wherever he could play. He was damn determined that he was going to get his foot in the door of pro hockey.”

Despite a good season with the Marlies through which he had 12 objectives and 29 issues in 42 video games, Hodgman didn’t really feel like he used to be going to get the alternative he sought after in North America so he spoke to Eakins and opted to signal a freelance with the Lahti Pelicans in the Finnish Elite League, the place he had 14 objectives and 53 issues in 59 video games.

“I think this would be a popular sentiment with hockey players, but there was only one thing that I ever wanted to do and that was to play professional hockey,” he stated. “It began with short of to play in the NHL, and getting there used to be a adventure of its personal, however to increase my occupation as the frame and the talent slowly began to go to pot, it used to be simply sort of glaring that there would perhaps wish to be a league exchange or a town exchange or a metamorphosis of surroundings so as to make one thing occur.

“I absolutely love to travel and I adapt very easily so I was happy to make those changes. The only thing that I would have wished for more is that my family would have been able to travel with me more.”

Hodgman’s efficiency in Finland earned him a shot in the KHL, first with Metallurg Magnitogorsk for 2 seasons, then with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod and Admiral Vladivostok in the 2013-14 season, however he needed to move the ones years by myself, moderately than carry his circle of relatives right into a difficult atmosphere. His play used to be sturdy sufficient to signal a one-year, two-way take care of the Coyotes on July 1, 2014. He spent maximum of that season with the AHL’s Portland Pirates, however he earned a call-up on Oct. 24. He scored a power-play objective in his first sport, a 2-1 win in opposition to the Florida Panthers on Oct. 25 in Glendale.

Justin Hodgman talks with linesman Kiel Murchison all the way through a sport in opposition to the Florida Panthers at Gila River Arena on Oct. 25, 2014. (Getty Images)

European odyssey

That used to be it for Hodgman’s NHL occupation, on the other hand. Although he spent 15 video games with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves the following season, he wasn’t on NHL groups’ radar. At age 27, he used to be as soon as once more at a crossroads in his occupation; every other level at which he needed to make a decision how a lot he sought after to stay a certified hockey player.

That’s when the array of interesting studies got here in staccato style. He performed 15 video games in the Swedish Hockey League for Orëbro in 2015-16. He returned to the Pelicans the following season, but in addition performed 5 video games for HC Dynamo Pardubice in the Czech Extraliga. He returned to the ECHL with Fort Wayne the following two years, he performed for Krefeld in the German league in 2019-20, Ferencvárosi (Budapest) in the Hungarian league, ahead of completing his occupation ultimate season with Sheffield, Liam Kirk’s previous group.

It wasn’t at all times glamorous. Hodgman stated his lowest wage in Europe used to be 33,000 a 12 months, whilst he made $900 per week in the ECHL with the bonus of having his loan paid in his followed homeland of Fort Wayne.

“The craziest season was the season in Budapest,” Hodgman stated. “I used to be sitting at house with my youngsters and I didn’t have a freelance. I used to be in Germany the 12 months ahead of and it didn’t move really well so I used to be searching for a spot to play and so much of the leagues weren’t positive in the event that they have been even going to play as a result of of Covid.

“I’m on Elite Prospects scrolling and I saw that (former NHL’er) Keaton Ellerby was playing in the Hungarian league. We weren’t even friends but I sent him a message on Instagram like, ‘Hey, is this true? Are you really going to Hungary?’ A month later, we’re living two blocks away from each other. Apparently, he got a bunch of messages from other players as well, but I was the first one in the door so he went to the coach’s office and we had a contract done within a week.”

It used to be a memorable enjoy for plenty of causes.

“It was so cool, but it was such a shame that it was in peak COVID because we were on lockdown,” he stated. “I’m in a single of the most pretty towns in the international, touring to the rink on a daily basis on the tram with Keaton Ellerby, taking in the points of interest and feeling so grateful, however then knowing that every one eating places closed at 8 p.m. and there used to be a curfew the place you’re best allowed out after 8 p.m. in case you’re strolling your canine. It used to be simply sort of like a ghost the town.

“The Hungarian league has three Romanian teams in it, too, so we had like 13-hour bus trips through the Hungarian-Romanian mountains to some of the least desirable arenas you could ever imagine in Romania. We were actually in Transylvania so you’re definitely thinking about Dracula. It’s an experience that I’m extremely thankful for and will never forget.”

While Hodgman used to be globetrotting to stay his occupation alive, his circle of relatives used to be looking to adapt to the rampant and common adjustments. There have been instances when Nicole and the youngsters, Braelynn (now 13) and Zayden (now 11) accompanied him. There have been instances when they may no longer.

“None of this would have been possible without Nicole,” Hodgman stated. “From taking care of the kids when I was away and they couldn’t be there, to traveling across Europe with them to see me or be with me, I’m so thankful to her for making it possible for all of this to happen.”

When the circle of relatives used to be in combination, they skilled a litany of jaw-dropping recollections that few households will ever revel in. Both youngsters have been schooled in Germany the place Braelynn performed volleyball and Zayden realized to play hockey.

“We got to travel all over Germany and see all the German castles,” Hodgman stated. “When we went to Paris, we went up the Eiffel Tower. Seeing their faces illuminate when the Eiffel Tower lighting lit up is one of my favourite recollections of my existence.

“In my second stint in Finland, my family came over for New Years and we took a ferry to Estonia and celebrated New Year’s Eve in Estonia. How many kids can say that they saw fireworks in Estonia on New Year’s Eve? Those are the kinds of experiences that playing in Europe provided us.”

The circle of relatives at Eltz Castle in Wierschem, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Justin Hodgman)

End of the street

Hodgman had a sense that ultimate season used to be going to be the ultimate one of his occupation. There have been more than one elements at play, together with a need to be extra actively thinking about his youngsters’ lives, and inside their neighborhood.

“When I finally made the decision it was pretty easy for me,” he stated. “Over the last three seasons, I knew for a fact that my body had had enough. I’ve dealt with lots of injuries throughout my career; head injuries, too. With my kids being older and me playing overseas, they were really involved in school sports and youth travel sports so they weren’t able to travel with me or be there with me. It was really hard mentally and obviously on the body physically after a pretty long career. I made that decision in January of last year that I was ready to call it quits.”

The different significant component in Hodgman’s resolution used to be his personal psychological well being. In January, he walked into Steelers trainer Aaron Fox’s workplace and broke down, admitting his previous struggles with melancholy and suicidal ideas — ideas that also haunted him along with his circle of relatives part an international away, and ideas that led him to move public with British media.

“It was a struggle but I’m very open about it and I’m willing to talk about it, both because I think it helps me and because I hope that it might help others,” Hodgman stated. “It was good to have Foxie to talk to. He was willing to listen and he really helped me.”

Fox may just relate. A Hastings, Minnesota local, Fox spent the majority of his occupation taking part in in Europe. His stops incorporated stints in Slovakia, Germany, Slovenia and Austria ahead of taking the activity as the Steelers’ trainer in 2019.

“I know his family situation,” Fox stated. “He comes over by myself and they are attempting to return and seek advice from slightly bit, nevertheless it’s an enormous dedication to proceed taking part in and no longer have them with him for the quantity of time that he did. That trail no doubt isn’t a very easy one, it isn’t for everyone, and it took its toll on him, however he cherished the sport that a lot and it took him to a few superb international locations and cultures, some of which his circle of relatives were given to enjoy with him. When you take a look at it that means, it’s beautiful superb what the recreation can carry.

“We talked a little bit about his situation midway through the year and he said that there were some opportunities potentially in the real world. He’s coaching now and it’s still in hockey, but it is a real job now for him. He didn’t want to potentially lose out on that by playing another year so I totally understood where he was coming from.”

Hodgman is volunteer training again in Fort Wayne with some activity possibilities on the horizon. Whatever comes subsequent, he stated is having a blast being round his circle of relatives, but nonetheless ultimate thinking about the sport of hockey.

“When you speak to him now, with the amount of giving back he’s doing to his community right now and the amount of volunteering he’s doing in his community right now, he’s a beacon of inspiration to these kids that he’s helping because he’s gone through a lot of personal adversity, and career adversity,” Eakins stated.

“Some people might look at him and go, ‘Oh, man, that must have been super hard. What a crazy career! He should have stopped playing and done something else.’ There will be all these opinions, but I look at that and I love it. He had to dig down deep and find himself a number of times. When he came out of this, and when your brain is callused like that, there’s not a whole bunch more that you can throw at the kid that he hasn’t already seen.”

Eakins hopes that he helped alongside the means, however he suspects that one thing else performed a better position in steeling Hodgman’s unravel and shaping who he’s these days.

“I believe that the thing that got him through all of those personal adversities is the game of hockey,” Eakins stated. “It wasn’t a therapist, it wasn’t talking to people that he trusted like me. The game got him through it.”

Hodgman reiterated the crucial position that his circle of relatives and coaches performed in serving to him, however he stated that hockey used to be additionally a saving grace. It’s a sport that he’ll by no means surrender.

“I’ve fallen in and out of love with the game of hockey more times than you can imagine,” he stated. “But I am forever grateful for the countless experiences and life lessons it has provided me. There is no better game on this planet. Coaching these kids has helped me fall back in love with hockey again, and I know this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

Justin Hodgman celebrates with the 16U Fort Wayne Force (Indiana) group for which he’s volunteering. The group received the Sylvania North Stars (Ohio) Midget Tournament in September. (Photo courtesy of Justin Hodgman).

Photo at best of web page: Justin Hodgman shows the Coyotes player-of-the-game belt after scoring a objective in his NHL debut in opposition to the Panthers at Gila River Arena on Oct. 25, 2014. (Getty Images)

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