April 10, 2011

Amateur tryout deal offers a look at what it's like to live the dream

For players hoping to break into pro hockey, there's nothing like a tryout to show your stuff.

By Rachel Lenzi rlenzi@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - A rash of injuries and reassignments within the Buffalo Sabres' organization prompted the need for immediate reinforcements in Portland, the organization's American Hockey League affiliate. In the days after his team was eliminated from the NCAA hockey tournament, Kyle Ostrow got a phone call from his agent.

click image to enlarge

Kyle Ostrow, a former University of Denver forward, is one of seven amateurs trying out for a spot in the Sabres organization this spirng with the Portland Pirates.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Defenseman Jeff Dimmen took the Portland Pirates' offer of an amateur tryout as a next step after his career at UMaine. Dimmen sees the tryout as a chance to earn a pro contract.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

"You're headed to Portland, Maine," Ostrow's agent said.

It was the end of a hectic process that came at the end of a hectic time for Ostrow, but it was the start of Ostrow's professional hockey career after four years at the University of Denver. Yet while Ostrow joined the Portland Pirates on an amateur tryout agreement -- an ATO in pro hockey vernacular -- he isn't drawing a paycheck. Instead, Ostrow is working at a chance to earn a full-time paycheck as a pro.

The 23-year-old forward is one of a group of former college hockey players who are advertising their wares in the AHL as players who are on amateur tryout agreements, and there are no guarantees of a contract. After a certain period -- a player can remain on an ATO for up to 25 games -- a team can choose to keep the player or release him. For professional clubs, ATOs are a low-risk, low-cost way to assess talent while figuring out if and how a player fits that team's needs. For players, it's an opportunity to prove themselves.

"It's a challenge for those guys to get over the hump and say, 'I'll have a chance to go in, I'll have a chance to show them what I can do ... but I have a chance to get hurt,' " said Pirates Coach Kevin Dineen, who handles his team's ATO signings. "It's a big step for these kids, to make that leap and to play one level below the NHL."

A player agrees to a tryout with an AHL team as a free agent with only a nominal per diem as compensation and hopes to catch the eye of an NHL organization. Including Ostrow, the Pirates have seven players in their lineup on ATOs: defenseman Jeff Dimmen (Maine), goalie John Muse (Boston College), defenseman Eric Baier (Providence), forward Joe Whitney (BC), forward Shawn Szydlowski (Erie Otters) and defenseman Corey Fienhage, who played two seasons at North Dakota but spent last year with Kamloops of the Western Hockey League. They could remain with the team on an ATO for the AHL playoffs, or they could be looking for new teams once Portland's regular season ends today.

"The Pirates asked me if I wanted to come down and help fill in over a stretch of seven games in nine days," said Dimmen, who is one of five players from this year's team at Maine to turn pro on an ATO. "They needed some bodies and asked me if I wanted to come help out, and I jumped at the opportunity. Teams have been watching you at the college level and some teams may not know how you transition. So this is a way for you to showcase your abilities."

Some, like Ostrow and Dimmen, jump into a team's lineup right away. Others practice with teams and hope for playing time, in addition to hoping to make a strong impression, not just on the home team but on other teams who may be looking to plug holes within an organization.

"You don't know how long you're here for, just trying out with a team," Ostrow said. "Hopefully it helps me out for next year, to find a team and to get some experience. It's to see what kind of level of hockey this is, so I can see how hard I need to work this summer."

(Continued on page 2)

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