Minor league hockey lifer content with career
January 28, 2008
LOVELAND, Colorado ” Greg Pankewicz has ridden more dilapidated buses than he cares to remember.
He’s skated on ice rutted with potholes thanks to incompetent Zamboni drivers, played on teams rumored to be relocating, earned meager pay and taken so many punches and high sticks to the face that he’s running out of places for scars.
Yet Pankewicz wouldn’t change a shift in his 17 years of playing minor league hockey.
“The life of a minor leaguer isn’t all that glamorous,” said Pankewicz, now with the Colorado Eagles of the Central Hockey League. “But I’ve had a good ride.”
He’s the hockey version of Crash Davis in “Bull Durham,” carving out a distinguished career for himself in minor league arenas with poor lighting, bad ice, unruly fans, between-period novelty acts and cheap beer specials.
The 37-year-old has played in 1,019 minor league games all over North America, on teams with nicknames like the Ice Pilots (Pensacola), Thoroughblades (Kentucky) and Aeros (Houston). He’s scored 1,079 points and spent 3,398 minutes in the penalty box.
It’s been a nomadic existence for him and his wife, Charmaine, who’s accompanied him every step of his hockey pilgrimage. They’ve rarely stayed in one place longer than eight months since he began his professional career in 1991 with the Knoxville Cherokee.
Being traded just became a way of life. Pankewicz was dealt so close to Christmas in 1995 that he and his wife spent the holiday in a Chicago hotel room with a bucket of chicken and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi.
“We lived in that hotel for almost a month,” said Charmaine Pankewicz, whose husband played 45 games with the Chicago Wolves that season. “It’s what you make of it.”
The scars on Pankewicz’s face tell his tale. The nicks, cuts and abrasions provide a map of his adventures.
Like the deep, crimson gash under Pankewicz’s left eye. That came courtesy of an inadvertent high stick while playing for the Manitoba Moose in 1996.
Or the fading mark just above his nose, which Pankewicz received thanks to a wayward stick while playing for the Prince Edward Island Senators in 1995. He lost his vision in his right eye for 20 days, and nearly his hockey career.
“Pretty scary moment,” he said.
Pankewicz is particularly fond of the permanent bump near his left cheek, the result of his head being smashed into the glass. He received that prize while with the Calgary Flames in 1998, one of just 21 games he played in the NHL.
“Knocked me out cold,” Pankewicz said of the concussion. “If I wouldn’t have gotten hurt … “
His words drifted off. He won’t let his mind travel that road. The concussion led to the end of his NHL run as someone else coming up through the ranks ” a younger version of himself ” took his spot.
“I was expendable. It’s like herding cattle ” there’s someone else waiting to come through the chute,” Pankewicz said. “I have no regrets, though. I chased the dream of playing in the NHL for a long, long time.”
Pankewicz grinned as he drifted back for a minute.
“Everything was first class up there,” he said of the NHL. “You always wish you could stay longer.”
Jeff Bes, a forward for the Laredo Bucks, had a different spin on Pankewicz’s brief run in the big time.
“That’s 21 games more than a lot of people,” said Bes, a 15-year veteran who’s never played an NHL contest. “He’s done very well for himself.”
Pankewicz suited up for three games with the Ottawa Senators in 1993-94 and then for 18 more with the Flames in 1998-99. He was 28 when he joined the Flames, and once played on the same line as Jarome Iginla and Theo Fleury.
He had three assists while with the Flames, plus a goal that didn’t count. Pankewicz banked in a shot off Nashville goalie Mike Dunham, but it was credited to Jeff Shantz.
“It was legitimately my goal,” Pankewicz said. “It doesn’t go down in the record books, but I have the puck at my home.”
Home. It’s been a foreign word to him. He’s always rented, never really establishing roots.
Until now. He’s found his place in this midsized community about 50 miles north of Denver. The town treats him like its version of Joe Sakic.
After 17 years of bouncing around from one minor league outfit to the next, he’s discovered paradise with the Eagles, who play in a plush new building and do a lot of their traveling by plane instead of backbreaking bus rides.
And he’s a celebrity around town. Pankewicz can’t go out to eat, buy groceries or get a coffee without someone approaching for an autograph. Not that he minds.
“This is my NHL right here,” he said.
Even after he hangs up the skates, Pankewicz and his wife want to stay close to the area to raise their daughters ” Taylor, 7, and Mackenna, 2. They bought a house in the nearby community of Windsor.
“I’ve lived in some good cities, some bad cities, played on some good teams, some bad teams,” said Pankewicz, who grew up in Drayton Valley, Alberta. “But coming to the rink here, I’m happy.”
He’s been the face of the Eagles since joining the expansion team for the 2003 season. The organization has won two championships and sold out a minor professional league regular-season record 145 straight games with Pankewicz on board.
“Greg’s our leader,” said Ralph Backstrom, the founder of the Eagles. “All the players look up to him.”
Backstrom won six Stanley Cup trophies playing for the Montreal Canadiens, and has a pretty good eye for talent. It’s a mystery to him why Pankewicz never latched on with an NHL team.
“I don’t think he was ever given a chance to exhibit his true talents,” Backstrom said. “He’s got the skills. He’s feared around our league for his tremendous shooting ability.”
Life in the minors certainly hasn’t made him rich. Although, his eyes lit up talking about his $375,000 salary with the Flames.
“A nice chunk of change,” he said.
With the Eagles, his paycheck is $628 a week after taxes ” plus a $24 a day per diem when he’s on the road, just enough to cover a cab ride from the hotel to the mall for a sub and a movie, but not enough to allow him to get dinner later that night.
So, he supplements his income by selling commercial and residential steel in the summer. He’s also started his own clothing line, GP Sports, making knit shirts for minor league teams.
His wife pitches in as well. Charmaine has nine different nursing licenses thanks to all the stops they’ve made along their journey. She’s currently an operating room nurse at a Northern Colorado hospital.
“It’s been fun for me,” said Charmaine, who met her husband when he played for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League in 1990. “The first couple of years, it was hard to move. Everybody that you got to know is crying. But you get to a point where you don’t cry anymore.”
Pankewicz is still among the CHL elite even in the twilight of his career. He recently played in his sixth All-Star game ” fourth in the CHL ” and scored a goal and added an assist in an 11-6 loss.
David Schlemko, a 20-year-old defenseman for the Arizona Sundogs, marvels at Pankewicz’s longevity.
“I’d love to play that long,” he said. “But I don’t know how the legs will feel at his age. He’s still one of the best players in the league.”
At an autograph session before the All-Star game, fans lined up to get his signature. He’ll never turn anyone away, not after being dissed by Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee following a concert a few years ago at the Budweiser Events Center ” Pankewicz’s home rink.
“I waited until after the concert for his autograph and he said he wouldn’t sign,” Pankewicz said. “I’m still ticked he didn’t sign anything for me. That’s not right. I would sit and sign forever if they wanted me to.”
A young fan approached him to sign a hockey stick.
“How you doin’?” Pankewicz said. “Still got all your teeth?”
The kid cracked a wide smile.
“Well, there you go then,” Pankewicz said, shooting a grin right back. “You play hockey?”
The kid nodded his head.
“You keep playing,” Pankewicz said. “It’s the best sport in the world.”