Playing for Waffles: My Season in Belgium
If you have not read Adam Dennis’ article first, give it a read. It’s a great perspective on how hockey can help you experience life abroad. I am jumping on the bandwagon to add to this theme. My season playing in Belgium (yes, Belgium) was the best experience I have ever had in hockey. I was able to use the game as a way to live life in another country that does not rank hockey as its most popular sport. Actually, hockey probably wouldn’t crack the top ten. And that might have been what I enjoyed most about my season in Herentals, Belgium playing for HYC.
CIS to Belgium
Unlike Adam, I went undrafted and did not want to waste a great education package on a few seasons in the minors. I played four seasons at St.F.X. University, earned my degree in business, and had no clue what to do post-graduation. After 20 years of hockey, I finally had a wide open schedule. Look for a real job? No thanks, I wanted to travel. Find a beach and never leave? Tempting, but I still wanted to play while I could do so at a (relatively) high level. I decided to hunt down a team in Europe where I could play hockey and see a different part of the world.
It was important that I accept reality as a defenseman with limited offensive capability and no ECHL or AHL on my resume. The higher profile (and higher paying) leagues were out. I found an “agent” who had contacts in the lower levels of Europe to help me find a team. Players should know there are a ton of these guys out there, so if they are charging more than a couple hundred bucks, find someone else. Within two weeks my “agent” had secured try-outs in France and Netherlands, not optimal considering I would have to pay for my flight over and have zero certainty. There was one other option, a guaranteed contract to play in Belgium; the land of beer, waffles, and World War history. I didn’t need to think it over. A guaranteed contract to play hockey for money in Europe? Where do I sign?
Because hockey is not the most popular sport, there are less fans and sponsors, which means less money. This actually acted in my benefit, because once the team commits to an import, they do not want to have to make changes mid-season. The team is paying for flights and other costs for import players that add up quickly. I made contact with HYC management and we discussed the particulars of the deal. I had a (small) weekly salary paid in euros, apartment with satellite and internet to share with the other two imports, car with gas money, and free dinners at the rink on practice nights. Even better, each week different people from the team would host us for meals. Finally, I was expected coach a youth team within the organization.
Start of the Season
The GM of HYC is a Bauer distributor, so when I arrived I received all new gear. It was like Bauer Christmas! Considering how stingy some teams are at various levels with providing new sticks and gear, it was a huge benefit to know equipment would not be an issue. Neither was money. The team had secured stable sponsorship so we would not have to worry about missed payments. One thing was missing though. Something was different about our home rink. No roof? No roof! Outdoor rink baby!
The first few weeks were all about settling in. As a guy that loves the dressing room culture on a hockey team, I wanted to get to know my teammates. I knew the other two imports, Craig Foster and Mike Wehrstedt, through our time in the OHL and CIS. As for my new Belgian teammates, the language barrier proved to be just that. Everyone on the team spoke English, so it wasn’t an issue of translation, but that didn’t mean they spoke English to each other. It quickly became obvious that I would be hearing lots of Flemish for the next eight months. There have been others that have written about how hard it must be for European players with limited English to come over to our pro leagues. I now have a better understanding of how hard it must be.
Despite English not being the dominant language in the dressing room, my teammates were very welcoming. We did some standard team bonding and the imports’ apartment, located in the centre of town, was an easy meeting spot before going out to enjoy some delicious Belgian beer. On the ice, the first few practices were used to get adjusted to the bigger ice and different style of play.
The age range on our team was 16-40 (seriously) so there was such a range of skillsets. As an import, I was encouraged to by the head coach to run some drills. I loved this. After playing for some great coaches over the years, I had some decent knowledge and I would only really need to teach the basics. We take our coaching for granted in Canada. Stuff I was taught at age 10 was a foreign concept to some of the players. It wasn’t frustrating though. I found it hilarious and a great opportunity. It was in everyone’s best interest to have coordinated breakouts, d-zone coverage, and forechecks. I used the Bert Templeton “do it until you get it right” System, so I probably came off as way too intense sometimes when I made them do repeated breakouts until the passes were tape to tape.
A Day in the Life
HYC has since moved up to the Dutch League to play against better competition, but during my season we played within the six-team Belgian league. Longest road trip: one hour! Most days consisted of trying to wake up before you could no longer call it “breakfast”. Because of Flemish being the dominant language, jobs prospects were non-existent. The team helped as best they could, but there wasn’t much. I was able to secure a prestigious position of beer brand allocation technician, otherwise known as the guy who separates empties. One of the team sponsors ran a liquor store and supplied many of the bars in town.
A bar would send a pallet of different crates back and I would sort them by brand for ten euros an hour. It was a really stressful workday: 10am-3pm. If there were slow days at the warehouse or maybe a team bonding activity the night before, my boss was always cool with giving me a day off. During the day, my Belgian teammates either had school or jobs, so we always practiced at 9pm. That’s a lot of free time, so the imports would head to the gym, get groceries, watch the NHL game from the night before, or take a day trip. Herentals is a suburb of Antwerp, and is within a few hours of Cologne, Paris, Amsterdam, and London. The team was great about granting us some time away from practice to travel, so I got to see those cities without missing any games.
Each week we would practice Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday and play two games on any of Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Saturday breakfast was always at a local café where the owner was a sponsor and loved hockey. This meant free Belgian waffles every week. I’m surprised I didn’t gain 50lbs during the season. On the ice, there were some major adjustments to make. None of the rinks had glass like we know it in Canada. Some had a bit of plexiglass behind the net, but most just had heavy mesh. All rinks had heavy mesh down the sides. It was so comforting to receive a hit and bounce off that mesh like it was nothing.
However, “high off the glass and out” does not work with mesh, so best ensure you can make a direct pass. Some fans were brave enough to not stand behind the mesh at all, simply standing right at the boards with no protection. I may have sent a clearing attempt into the face of an unsuspecting fan, but he should have been watching the game! One thing that did drive me nuts was the lack of a nice flat surface right into the boards. You ever notice a guy working the bottom of the boards so there is a nice right angle into the ice? I guess that type of maintenance was not considered priority. Most of the rinks would let that stuff build up for weeks. Rimming the puck was not a smart decision.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, and some Fridays, people from the team would host us for meals. This meant home cooking, good conversation, maybe even a few Belgian trappist beers. What started as quick visits with basic conversation and getting to know everyone in September eventually changed to some very long and late meals by the second half of the season. I made friends for life because of these meals and if they come to visit me in Canada I will owe them the same hospitality. One of the hosts was a huge WWII junkie and took us on a trip to Bastogne and the area known as Battle of the Bulge. My father came over to visit after Christmas and we visited Ypres and Vimy Ridge. Being able to see these places up close is something special and I would recommend it to anyone.
I was assigned to coach the HYC Under-17 team, and we ended up being very successful and winning the U-17 Championship. At first the kids probably thought my drills were too repetitive, but it was worth it to see them breakout smoothly or set up a powerplay with ease by the end of the year. With hockey as a less popular sport, some kids would miss practice for cycling. Tough to argue with when they could win lots of money at a weekend race. One thing I did make a priority was to teach them the valuable skill of using hockey slang. Words like dangle, sauce, gutless, bar-down, and snipe were all eventually part of their vocabulary and my “no diving” rule was well-followed. The kids taught me a bit of Flemish in exchange, and would get a good laugh at my pronunciations.
A Great Finish
After working hard all year, learning to play like a real team, and with a roster of good Belgian players (and imports!), we ended up winning the playoffs in Game 7 of the Finals on home ice. Kampioen van Belgie! I had not won anything in hockey since Bantam, so this was huge for me. From September to late March, we became brothers like any team I’ve been a part of in Canada.
Looking back, my season in Belgium was everything I was hoping for when I decided to hunt down a team in Europe. I got to see amazing cities and memorials, play hockey for money, enjoy the best beer in the world, and make some friends for life. Since returning I have not had one job interview (yes I finally did try to get a real one) where my experience in Belgium was not discussed. Players don’t always consider using the game as a way to experience the world. There is plenty to get out of the game even if you will never crack an NHL lineup. The opportunities are there, but they are not always the first ones you think of.
Jim played three seasons in the OHL for the Sudbury Wolves and Owen Sound Attack. He then played at St. Francis Xavier University and received a business degree. After St.F.X., Jim played one season in Belgium for HYC Herentals and still recruits Canadians to join HYC. He is currently in law school at Dalhousie University and is a proponent of both the NCAA and CHL as paths to success for players.