Not every hockey player can make to the NHL, but if you're lucky enough, sometimes the NHL comes to you.
Despite being born in Kelowna, Travis Martell's German heritage has allowed him to play as a domestic player in Germany's Bundesliga for the past two seasons. While playing there this year, he's been given an up close and personal look at some of the world's best hockey players.
The NHL lockout has afforded the 29-year-old defenceman the chance to play alongside Clarke MacArthur, Chris Stewart and Wayne Simmonds as a member of Eispiraten Crimmitschau; and against 10 other NHL players that have come through the German second league this year.
"It has created better hockey," said the 6-foot-5, 227-pound Martell. "It's fun to play with and against guys that play at the highest level and that you see on TV. It's nice to have that experience, and I'm glad that I'm a part of it. Skill-wise, it definitely improves our practices. Those guys are a lot faster, crisper and a little stronger. The competitiveness increases in practice, and it makes everyone a better player. They battle during practice like they're playing in a game. Their skill level really helped me to better my play and become aware of the little tricks that high-level guys might pull. Their work ethic was always 100 per cent. Within the league, we're playing against better players and goalies. It increases the league's level of competition, and makes everyone step up their game."
Many players on lockout deals have only lasted with their European club for a matter of months - either opting to return home to North America, or to relocate to a different team. This discontinuity has required teams and their players to adjust, something they don't usually have to do, as European rosters generally do not change once they are set.
"Last year we didn't have any changes on our team," Martell recalled. "It was very consistent. The team cohesion was there.
"This year when the lockout happened, we brought in a couple of NHL guys and they were only here for a month. Then we had to find guys to fill their spot, then one came back, and then we got another NHL guy . . . it's been more like a revolving door this year. That took some getting used to. In North America, there are trades, and it's more typical that guys come and go. But here when your team's set, it stays like that for the whole year. Trying to develop chemistry with a certain guy on your line and not knowing how long they're going to be around for can be a challenge. As professionals though, most guys are used to it. All our imports are used to coming and going and having to find that chemistry as quick as they can. It's never easy, and it's not like you just adapt to it right away, but their level of professionalism allows them to adapt to it as fast as possible."
Many have criticized NHL players for taking jobs away from European players as they've come over to play while their league remains in gridlock. Martell is instead empathetic to their situation.
"I don't think it's any different than any other job," Martell contends. "If someone who is more skilled at your position comes into the company, obviously that person is going to get hired. You're then going to have to take a job away from someone that you're better than, if you want to keep working. In the same way, guys lose their position on a team. A second-line guy become a third-line guy, a third-line guy becomes a fourth-line guy and isn't really playing much anymore. Those NHL guys come in and take those roles, and everyone else just kind of has to be humble about it. You have to understand where they are coming from. They want to play and stay in shape, but because of the lockout they don't have that option back in North America.
"You can't really blame the players, you have to blame the situation. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it goes."
Despite the criticisms, all Eispiraten Crimmitschau's contracted lockout players were well received within the club while they were around.
"All three of them fit in really well," Martell conceded. "They were great in the locker-room, helping us and the younger guys out. It was definitely a good experience to have them here. Our coach speaks English all the time, and all the guys on the team can too.
"Our team is an easier fit for North American guys coming to play European hockey in that regard. It's tough when a coach doesn't speak the language that the imports understand. On other teams and in other countries, you never know what you're going to get. I think a lot of guys that came over to Europe and left early did it because it wasn't what they thought it was going to be. It's not North America, you have to be open-minded."
Playing in Germany has posed some other unique challenges to Martell's game that he hasn't experienced anywhere else.
His team's home rink is one of three in the league that only has three walls, and leaves one end of the arena completely open to the German countryside; making for a chilly fan experience come winter time.
At the start of the season, fog created by the outside heat mixing with the arena's cold makes sight nearly impossible. Additionally, the building allows fans to smoke inside; the scent of which can throw a player's sense of smell for a momentary loop - not something one wants to encounter while trying to focus on a split-second decision that needs to be made.
"I'd be coughing on the ice from the second-hand smoke," Martell revealed. "Everyone smokes in the rink. Our equipment smelt like cigarettes after. Inhaling it while you're playing and breathing heavily really impedes your lung capacity.
"The fog gets so bad in August and September that there were times that I couldn't see the play or the puck from the blue-line if it went into the corner."
If history is any indication, Martell may be adding a Bundesliga champion-ship to the collection of SPHL, KIJHL, and B.C. Hockey titles which he already possesses, by the time he returns home to Kelowna for the off-season.
Martell holds a Bachelor's Degree in Exercise Science, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning specialist. He recently started Martell Elite Fitness, and trains local hockey players in the summer.
His playing career has taught him how much work ethic, strength and speed mean to a hockey player, and he hopes to pass his knowledge along to younger players - whatever level, position or gender they may be.
You can follow him on his blog at www.martellelitefitness.blogspot.com and on Twitter @MEF_21.
Dave Cunning is a former semi-pro hockey player turned writer, coach and personal trainer. You can read his blog at http:// davecunning.wordpress.com.