Professional sports, at the minor league level, is an interesting existence for those men who make it their living. At a certain point, it represents the next step in the career, an advancement of sort from either the amateur level or, in some cases with hockey, a European game that is so different that experience in the United States is needed for a young player.
Those who play in the minors, whether it be at any level of baseball, on the feeder tours of professional golf or in the American Hockey League, know being there is important, that it’s a valuable experience, and they play hard, trying to improve every day.
And, no one particularly wants to be there.
It’s an interesting dynamic to balance, preparing and playing as hard in the present as you can for the hope, the chance, the shot, at leaving.
It’s the very nature of minor league sports. It’s not a secret. The players know it. The coaches know it. Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason freely acknowledges it is his job to try and get every one of his players out of the BMO Harris Bradley Center and to to the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., the home of the Admirals’ parent club, the Nashville Predators.
So, if you’re going to be working very hard to leave where you’re currently at, why not have where you’re at be, well, home.
"Everybody wants to be in the NHL," admitted Admirals defenseman Joe Piskula. "I’ve been, kind of, on the fine line of being in the AHL and I have had a couple games with a couple different teams (in the NHL) so if I’m going to be in the AHL it couldn’t have worked out any better living in Milwaukee."
It’s about as close to home Piskula, a native of northern Wisconsin, can get.
Piskula, who will turn 31 in July went from Antigo – which is just over three hours north of Milwaukee – to Madison to play for the University of Wisconsin and it’s storied hockey program.
He left Madison after the end of his junior campaign in 2007 to sign a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Kings on March 21. Despite being an undrafted player, he made his NHL debut just two days later and appeared in five games for the Kings as the season wound down.
After three seasons with the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate in New Hampshire, he signed as a free agent with the AHL Abbotsford Heat in Abbotsford, British Columbia. His play there earned him a contract with the Heat’s NHL parent, the Calgary Flames, and had another cup of coffee in the NHL, appearing in five games in 2011.
Calgary traded Piskula to the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline in 2013, when he was assigned to the Admirals.
"Sometimes change is good," Piskula said of the trade. "I was in Calgary’s system and I was doing well there, but sometimes a fresh start and having fresh eyes on you really can give you kind of a jump start."
It not only brought him closer to home, but also his wife Lauren, who is from Minnesota. It has also helped stabilize her business an interior designer, giving her a true base as well.
"She has clients all over the Midwest so it makes it such a huge advantage for her to be kind of in a central location here where she can have a career as well," Piskula said. "That’s a big struggle for hockey families and hockey couples, moving around all over the place, living in different cities and trying to have something for themselves as well. That’s a huge thing."
In his first full year in Milwaukee last year, Piskula contributed 23 points and recorded his third best plus/minus total of his professional career at a plus-56 for a playoff team. (For the layman, a player is given a "plus" when his team scores a goal while he is on the ice, and a "minus" if the team allows one).
"It’s kind of special," he said of skating out onto the ice at the BMOHBC. "Hearing good cheers. People recognize that I’m from Wisconsin. If you start the game and they call your name it’s cool that people recognize you. I think the people of Wisconsin or people from Madison who come from the games really appreciate having like a hometown kid on the team."
In the 47 games he played this year before injuring his knee on Feb. 8, Piskula had contributed 13 points and a positive 20 plus/minus to that point, which is by far the best on the team.
The 6-foot, 3-inch, 211-pound defenseman hopes to be back in uniform tonight when the Admirals host the Central division-leading Grand Rapids Griffins. The Ads have to hope so, too, as they have dropped to third in the division since Piskula was injured, going 2-7 since he was knocked out.
The team is currently sixth in the Western Conference playoff race, just four points away from the fourth seed but also just four points ahead of the ninth place Chicago Wolves, who are currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
As for the dream of leaving Milwaukee, the Predators are leading the NHL’s Central Division in the Western Conference.
There is a bit of logjam at Piskula’s position however, as the Predators do have some highly paid players on the roster, including Shea Weber ($14 million), Cody Franson ($3.3 million) and Roman Josi ($3 million) while Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis and Anton Volchenkov are each making at least $1 million.
So, for now, Piskula will continue to take advantage of the home cooking Milwaukee has to offer, and hope that it helps lead to an invitation to leave in the near future.
"It’s refreshing to see people that think you can play at the next level and they tell you you’re close and that if someone were to get injured or not play well you have an opportunity in Nashville," Piskula said. "Sometimes when you’re with an organization for a while that kind of fades away. It’s been great coming here. The coaches in Milwaukee are super positive and they communicate well and kind of tell you where you’re at. It’s been great for me."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.