Photo Credit: Sie Morley - @NowYouSieMe

Bringing Everything Home: Kyle Bushee’s journey through the ECHL

KALAMAZOO, Mich. – On a rainy Monday morning, Kyle Bushee comes to practice at Wings Event Center. It’s a place he’s known since he was a kid, but things look a little different now. As part of the ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey League), the team has gone through some rebranding since their days as the Dallas Stars’ International Hockey League affiliate.

“The fondest thing I remember was like, the black, green, and yellow, when they were the Michigan K-Wings and that the boards, the dasher boards, they were green around the top and they stuck out, like eight inches off the glass and pucks would always get stuck on ’em.”

Today, he stands on the same side of the dasher boards as he did when he was a kid. “My brother, I, my dad, and my mom, we would make sure we got here early for warm-ups and would just chase pucks all over, ’cause they would shoot ’em out, and the netting wouldn’t catch them, ’cause there wasn’t any. And then, we’d just run around finding pucks.”

Bushee’s teammates take the ice at eleven, skating out with the sounds of skate blades scratching against the ice echoing in the empty arena. Two nights before, he had taken a skate just above his knee, and the swelling was still significant enough to give him the day off, so he watches from behind the glass.

“It’s nothing serious,” he tells me. He rolls the bandage back over his swollen leg.

Not far from Wings Event Center, Bushee grew up in the town of Otsego, Michigan. As a kid in the early 90s, he experienced a unique culture of hockey. There was hardly a time in his life that the Detroit Red Wings didn’t make the Stanley Cup playoffs. But on his side of the state, the Kalamazoo Wings (renamed in the 1995 playoffs as the Michigan K-Wings, then back to the Kalamazoo Wings in 2000) were the biggest show in town.

Though the Wings never won a championship while he was growing up, those memories run through the culture of Kalamazoo hockey. “People still talk about them. They still talk about the Colonial Cup; they still talk about the Turner Cup. It’s like, the biggest thing you can do and accomplish at this level is to win a championship,” he says.

The last time the Wings won a championship was over a decade ago when they took home the Colonial Cup in 2006. Bushee hopes to change that.

At fifteen years old, Bushee first left home to play midgets in Detroit. It wasn’t long before he made his way to Des Moines, Iowa to play juniors in the United States Hockey League. In his first year, he put up 21 points in 60 games as a defenseman.

From there, he returned home to play for Western Michigan University. Despite being glad to play hockey at home, Western wasn’t where he needed to be. “It just wasn’t a right fit for me and how I felt development-wise and my role. But obviously playing college hockey in my hometown was quite an experience.” He grins, the way parents do when they talk about their college days, as if he doesn’t want to reveal too much. “It was really cool.”

There’s still some disappointment in his voice when he recounts how he returned to Des Moines after two years at Western and then eventually transferred to Canisius College.

It ended up being the right move for him. At Canisius, Bushee wore the A in his senior year and posted 18 points in 36 games.

The same season, he went pro. He signed with the Cincinnati Cyclones and played the final fourteen games of the regular season with them. They were a team that was Kelly Cup-bound, but Bushee wasn’t meant to be part of that story.

“I went back to school to finish. It was important to me to get my degree. I played one game in the first round. They were getting a defenceman back from the American League, and with school, I was so close to finishing and didn’t want to jeopardize that.”

He graduated from Canisius with a degree in exercise science. The Cyclones won the Kelly Cup.

The Kalamazoo Wings opened this season in Cincinnati on October 14th. Tied at two in the final frame, the Wings pulled out the win in overtime with a goal from defenseman Jon Jutzi.

In the first six games, the Wings have faced off against the Cyclones three times. The Wings took home a win in the first two, with Bushee injuring his leg in the second meeting. He sat out for the third game that these two teams met this year.

The Wings lost for the first time in regulation this season without him on the ice.

After getting a taste of playing professionally in Cincinnati, Bushee signed with the Johnstown Chiefs. They played in Cambria County War Memorial Arena, famous for the movie Slap Shot. It’s small, only seating 4000 people, and Bushee claims it’s exactly as it appears on film. While there, he played for former Detroit Viper and NHL defenseman, Ian Herbers. Bushee’s year with Herbers was a learning experience, where he took the time to really study the game.

Unfortunately, Herbers left the summer after Bushee’s first year. As happens in this business sometimes, the new guy cleaned house and everyone Herbers left behind was traded by November. That included Bushee.

The Kalamazoo Wings are off to the best start to their season since the 2009-10 season. They sit at the top of the Central Division with nine points in six games. They’re fifth in the league, with only one team above them, the Wichita Thunder, that hasn’t played an additional two games.

For Bushee, there’s no time to feel complacent. Now an assistant captain, he has to keep his team focused on maintaining. “It’s encouraging. We always talk about – like last year, we got off to an awful start, and we had to scrap and claw and fight for everything down the stretch to just make the playoffs. We talk about how points we bank now, early in the year, you can’t get back, you can’t make up when it comes February, March, April, because everyone’s in that position and every point becomes more desperate. I know the message I’ve tried to relay is just because it’s game six coming up, doesn’t make it any less important than game 66, because two points is two points.”

Playoffs are just part of the goal. Bringing the Kelly Cup to his hometown for the first time is the real one.

As part of the culling of Johnstown, Bushee found himself traded to the Wheeling Nailers.

“Another town that gets a really bad rap, but it’s very passionate about hockey,” he recalls. “I got treated phenomenally there. I can’t say anything bad about the organization, the fans, they were great.”

Though he had been playing in the ECHL, Kalamazoo wouldn’t enter the league until after the IHL folded in 2010. With his new team, Bushee found himself making trips to play back home, in the arena he grew up in, for the first time. “It was just wild. It was almost like surreal to come back. Granted, I was on the other side, but like, coming out of the visitor tunnel, after how many games I’d watched in Wings Stadium… my parents only had to drive fifteen minutes to watch me play. It was awesome. It was a great experience.”

Bushee’s second season with Wheeling, he put up 31 points in 67 games, his best offensive season since he turned pro. The Nailers made it to the Conference Final that year, where Bushee added four points in 17 games.

They wouldn’t make it to the Kelly Cup Final in 2011. The Kalamazoo Wings took the series, 4-2.

Off the ice, Bushee is hitting a different kind of milestone. This summer, he proposed to his girlfriend, Katie. The two grew up in the same town but were always in the other’s periphery. At first, Bushee tried adding her on Facebook, but his teammates at the time gave him advice from a younger perspective.

“One of my buddies was like, ‘Dude, you gotta follow her on Twitter.’ ‘Cause I didn’t have Instagram, that’s the whole hot-in-the-streets thing. So they were like, ‘If she follows you back, then you send her a Twitter message.’ I followed her, and she didn’t follow me back for like, two and half weeks, so I was like, I don’t know what’s going on. And then she followed me back, I sent her a Twitter message, and then that was kinda the rekindling of us.

“Like, we had known of each other and had spoken to each other, but it wasn’t like we had any sort of relationship, really. But it wasn’t like we were complete strangers who had never met or were blind going into it. Not like I picked a random girl out and Twitter messaged her.” He laughs. “There was some basis to our relationship before things really started.”

Since the proposal in September, things have been moving at lightning speed. The couple plans to marry during the Christmas break in December of this year.

“It’s great, to be honest with you. And it just makes me want to succeed even more. It’s not myself that I have to worry about. I have another life and responsibility that – it’s not any more pressure; I don’t think of it that way, it’s just… I don’t want to let her down, either.”

With Katie, he sees his future. He’s fortunate in a lot of ways that she isn’t someone he met in any of the many places he’s played hockey before now. They get to build their new life in the city they’ve both always called home.

“It couldn’t be any more perfect, to be honest. Her whole family’s here; she’s from here, I’m from here, my whole family’s here. I get to continue doing what I love here, play hockey. She works for Kalamazoo College in the admissions office, so it’s not like I have to uproot anyone. It’s awesome.”

In 2012, the hockey world struggled through the NHL lockout. For Bushee, things weren’t all too different. The ECHL maintained operations, and he signed with the Elmira Jackals. He was lucky to get a spot – all NHL players who were eligible to play for their American League affiliates were assigned there during the lockout, pushing a large number of would-be AHL players down to the ECHL. The compete level was higher and the audiences bigger that season. Bushee set a new personal best with 32 points in 63 games. In six playoff games, he tallied four more.

After two years in Elmira, he played abroad, appearing in 36 games for the Aalborg Pirates of the Metal Ligaen Danish Ice Hockey League. When he returned to the States, he signed with the Toledo Walleye. Halfway through the season, the Walleye had too many veteran players, and Bushee was traded back to Elmira, where his numbers were lacklustre compared to his first time around.

In the summer of 2016, for the first time in his career, Kyle Bushee became an unrestricted free agent without any qualifying offers. He was 31 years old.

Coming of age in the 90s with the successes of a dominate Red Wings team, like a true Michigan hockey fan, Bushee found himself drawn toward defenseman Niklas Lidstrom. It’s hard for him to find words to explain how he felt watching Lidstrom growing up, but there’s still a level of awe and reverence when he says Lidstrom’s name. “What can I say? He’s the best defenseman to ever play. He was on my TV pretty much every night through hockey season. He was awesome. I just loved the way he played, how smart he was. He just looked effortless, all the time.”

But as a kid, Bushee actually began his hockey career as a forward. On his first travel team, his coach switched him over to defence. He hated it so much that he threatened to quit hockey.

“I don’t remember this, but my dad tells me this, but I told him I was quitting, I’m done. I’m quitting; I’m not playing D. I’m done with hockey. My dad had a rule when we were kids that if we signed up and participated in a sports event, we couldn’t quit in the middle of the year. So he said, ‘Well, you have to finish the year, ’cause you made a commitment to the team. If you want to quit when you’re done, that’s fully upon you.’ But clearly I must’ve enjoyed playing defence enough, ’cause I’m still playing.”

Now an adult, Bushee helps with the local youth hockey organization. This summer, he ran a high school camp. “I just try to encourage the kids, like, hey, it’s possible,” he says.

“You can do it, too. You can play here.”

Bushee returned home to work at a Jeep dealership the summer after he left Elmira. Long-time Kalamazoo Wings netminder, Joel Martin, paid him a visit. The two got to talking, and Bushee asked about Martin’s summer training. The 34-year-old goalie trained with Mark Olson, the Wings’ strength and conditioning coach.

Bushee got in touch with Olson, who would proceed to ask him about his plans for the upcoming season and whether or not he’d return to Elmira. From there, he got in touch with the Wings’ coach, Nick Bootland, and eventually signed a contract with his hometown team.

Something changed in his game after that. Last season, he matched his regular season point total from that second year in Wheeling – the one where the K-Wings ended their postseason prematurely. That was six years prior, back when Bushee was only 25 years old. Suddenly, he was playing with a newfound energy and offensive touch.

The Wings clawed their way into playoffs, finishing the regular season fourth in the central division. In the first round of playoffs, they met up with Bushee’s former team, the Toledo Walleye, and took them to seven games, eventually losing the series.

“I still had some good friends on that team, but when it comes down to the playoffs, there are no friends. I actually fought a guy I’ve known for ten years.” He shrugs. “Just how the series went. And then after, we talked, and we’re still friends, but while you’re in it, all you want to do is win.”

Going into Wings Event Center, there’s an action shot from last year of Bushee shooting the puck that covers the doorway from top to bottom. His face is unavoidable inside the building, as well.

“It’s a little different. I guess you’d say you never get really used to it. I think part of it is just in this league and my mentality is that I’ve had to scrap and fight for everything, to stay in this league and even now, it’s like you never really feel secure in your job. Not in a bad way, like oh, there’s that carrot thing, or a noose around your neck they can pull at any time, but just like… I feel like to have an edge and be successful; you have to have a little fear of hey, I could lose my spot. And it’s even more pressure, like your face is plastered all over town. You’re from here, and people start to recognize you and put two and two together. I’m engaged now; my fiancee is from here, she has a job here, the last thing I want to do is give any reason to move me.

“It’s different. I don’t know. It’s hard to put into words, really. The team I grew up coming to watch, this was the pro hockey, this was the biggest thing in this town when I was a kid, other than the Red Wings. Now, to be on the other side of it – I’m rambling. It’s a unique experience, it really is. It’s hard to like put into words. The only thing I can say is that I’m super proud and prideful in Kalamazoo and our city, our team, and the people here.”

Coming back to Kalamazoo is certainly different this time around. At Western, Bushee was a fresh-faced kid, looking for a chance to develop his game with a team in which he didn’t fit. Now, he’s a veteran player and part of the Wings’ leadership group. Last season, he was more of an offensive defenseman, but this year, he’s been partnered with the first-year Aaron Irving and is more than happy to take the backseat on scoring so that Irving can take on a more familiar role.

“If I’m gonna be at this level, I just want to win. I don’t care who scores, who plays, who doesn’t play. Let’s win.”

When talking about his career, Bushee brings this blend of hopefulness, gratitude, excitement, and realism. He’s grateful for the opportunities he’s been given, can’t find it in himself to speak poorly of any of the organizations he played for, no matter how it turned out. He’s excited by the start of the season, that the Wings are setting the standard for the rest of the division and that they’ll be bringing their best hockey against the Wings now that they sit in first place.

But like anyone who has ever gotten a taste of what it could be like, there’s part of him that will always hope for more. “I still want to. I don’t think you play the game because you don’t aspire to play at the highest level.”

He approaches it with a hopeful practicality. “Playing the NHL is everyone’s goal. You don’t — I don’t think anyone sets out to play hockey to be like, Oh, I want to play in the East Coast League. Granted, I understand the situation, and my age, and how things are. The chances of that are small. But I don’t think that dream ever dies until the day you stop playing.

“But on the flip side of that, I realize that…” He trails off, smiling before picking his next words. “Winning is just so much fun. When I was younger, I think I was worried a little bit, like yeah, you wanna win, but oh, this guy got called up, why didn’t I get called up? Whereas now, like… the thing that would cement my career and just be phenomenal would be to win a championship in my hometown. That’s really all that matters.”

So that’s his focus. That’s his new dream – or, at least, the dream he occupies himself with, the other sitting firmly in the back of his mind.

He’s thought some about what he could do when he starts building a life after hockey. He’s already working on starting a family and getting married. This summer, he spent a lot of time with Mark Olson at Athletic Mentors, fostering his interest in skill development and off-ice training that could eventually put his exercise science degree to good use.

He tries to not think about it, but at some point, he’s either going to win the cup with Kalamazoo or retire here without one.

He stands behind the glass, and he watches his teammates run drills, shooting puck after puck at Michael Garteig. He’s got his gloves on and a stick in his hand, but he wears gym shorts and a long sleeve tee shirt. If he walks up the stairs and out onto the concourse, there’s a poster with his face on it, left over from earlier in the month, advertising the home opener, where they beat the Brampton Beast 5-2. That was his 526th ECHL game, putting him at 26th in the league for total number of games played. Only two active players have played more games in this league than he has.

He watches his team, and you can tell he believes in them. “You saw a lot of guys came back from last year’s team.” He emphasizes, “A lot of guys willingly came back. I think the expectation for us was like, we want to be good, but it’s not just gonna happen. We need to work for it.”

A puck rattles off the glass in front of him. He takes a step backwards, then heads down the Zamboni tunnel.