Most hockey books chronicle the tales of elite players who were great at an early age, usually playing against older kids before going on to renowned hockey programs en route to an NHL career. “Thin Ice: A Hockey Journey from Unknown to Elite — and the Gift of a Lifetime” is not that book. Instead, “Thin Ice, ” by Ryan Minkoff, is for the rest of the players; those who work hard, get passed over again and again, yet have the drive to keep going, no matter the odds against them.
“Thin Ice” is Minkoff’s autobiography — and if you have never heard of him, you are not alone. He is not listed on HockeyDB, but his one season playing Division II pro hockey in Finland did net him a page on Elite Hockey Prospects and lay the foundation for his player agency business, 83 LLC.
Minkoff grew up in Minnesota and had the skills and dedication to succeed at hockey. But he was almost always passed over for better opportunities that could have furthered his hockey career and development — a lot of the time because his parents were not well-connected in their hockey community and would not resort to bribery or other illegal measures to curry favor with his coaches.
Yet, Minkoff is undeterred. He does everything but quit, despite frequent derision by his coaches or lack of quality playing time. This eventually leads Minkoff to make some tough, unorthodox decisions. He leaves his elite high school hockey program to play Tier 3 junior hockey. Later, he turns down the opportunity to play for an NCAA Division 1 program to instead play ACHA Division 2 hockey; basically, a “pay-to-play” club hockey league. On the surface, these seem like bad decisions — who wouldn’t fall all over themselves for a shot to play top-level college hockey? — they make sense when Minkoff explains his motives. He loves hockey, but never let hockey stand in the way of his other goals in life.
The bulk of the book is about Minkoff’s four years in college, and we learn the ins and outs of playing club hockey. And while it is sometimes hard to be interested in the exploits of a club-level hockey player, Minkoff hatches some interesting schemes to raise his team’s status. For example, he regularly pesters the school bookstore — pretending to be someone else — asking to buy hockey merchandise. Eventually, the bookstore caves in and starts carrying team t-shirts. Later, Minkoff recruits ice girls and even gets his team’s games streamed on YouTube; pretty innovative ideas for a team that still has to pay its own way for road trips.
Minkoff eventually ends up playing for a Tier 2 pro team in Finland, and this is arguably the most-interesting part of his book. Between the shoddy living arrangements, bad food, and copious amounts of boredom when not playing, Minkoff’s year in Finland quickly de-romanticizes the idea of playing pro sports overseas.
Again, unless you are one of the “coach’s guys” or a superstar at that level, nothing is ever really given to you and everything must be constantly earned. Sadly, even if you ARE a superstar at your level — which Minkoff was in the ACHA — getting those opportunities is still a struggle.
Excerpt that epitomizes “Thin Ice”: It was widely acknowledged by the players and most coaches that I was the best player in the league. I again led the league in scoring, as I had all four years. But when they handed out the second team awards, my name was called. Everyone in the room was shocked. Other coaches couldn’t figure out how this happened.
This was a deliberate slap in the face by the organizing team of the PAC-8 Conference and the banquet — none other than the University of Utah. They gave me that award to turn the screw on me. When their manager handed me the plaque, I didn’t want to take it.
I still had to take a picture with him, though, so I stood there, holding the plaque, emotionless. I could see the manager had a smug look on his face, as of to say, “We got the last laugh.” I kept my emotions in check on the way back to my seat with the plaque. One USC player, who got a first team award came over to me later and apologized, actually feeling guilty he had received this honor instead of me; it was a very classy move.
That moment of purposeful disrespect just served to motivate me more in my hockey career and in life. There will always be people who will want to bring you down, who are envious of your talents or work ethic or who don’t think you are worthy. It is up to you to show them they are wrong.
What I like about “Thin Ice”: Minkoff pulls no punches when detailing the poor treatment he received from his coaches: from youth coaches who yelled at their players to his Finnish coach who insisted that he play “old time hockey like Eddie Shore.” His chronicles of his one season in Finland greatly illustrates how playing pro sports in a European league is not as glamorous as it sounds.
What I do not like about “Thin Ice”: A lot of the book gets bogged down in the minutia of the author’s collegiate hockey career, which can get dull at times. Only the last 50 pages focus on Minkoff’s season playing in Finland, which is the best part of the book.
The title “Thin Ice” makes a great metaphor for Minkoff’s hockey career: the ice is just solid enough for him skate on it, but fragile enough that he could go crashing through it at any time. That metaphor also works because the best thing to do on thin ice is to keep moving, which Minkoff admirably did despite the odds against him.
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■