Despite the fourth NHL lockout in the last 20 years, former Massachusetts hockey star T.J. Syner is still finding a way to continue chasing his dream.
After the NHL and NHL Players Association failed to come to a collective bargaining agreement on Sept. 15, commissioner Gary Bettman locked out the players for the third time during his tenure. The main issue at hand is how the two sides will divide the roughly three billion dollars in revenue, which, in the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, was split with the players receiving 57 percent of the revenue. Now, the owners want the players to take as much as a 10 percent more, reducing the players to only a 47 percent cut of the revenue.
“I’m not sure how long the lockout is going to go on for,” Syner said in an interview. “A lot of people are speculating but in reality it’s up to the NHLPA and the owners.”
Right now, Syner is making the most of his opportunity to play hockey, currently suiting up for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League.
The path to the pros for the 24-year-old began back when he was a child. He started out playing roller hockey and finally picked up the sport on ice when he was eight-years-old after seeing his brother, Chris, play the game.
Ever since then, he was hooked.
His parents, Richard and Karoline, were forced to spend their free time taking him to and from practices and games all over the New England area in order to give their son a chance to chase his dream.
“I did a lot of traveling when I was younger and during my second or third year during high school, I started getting attention from (Division I) schools,” Syner said in an email interview. “From that point on, I made it a personal goal to put my heart into it and work really hard in the weight room and on the ice to be able to make the jump.”
He continued pursuing hockey into his teens, when, at 16-years-old, he played in his first two junior games for his local team, the New England Jr. Falcons in the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
In the next two seasons for the Jr. Falcons, Syner played in 88 games and totaled 64 points, earning him a spot on the Indiana Ice, a team in the United States Hockey League, the top Junior-A league in America. In 58 games for the Ice in 2007-08, Syner accumulated 35 points in 58 games for the Ice, finishing sixth on the team in scoring. During that year, Syner also had the opportunity to play along side of current NHL defenseman John Carlson, the 27th overall draft pick of the Washington Capitals in the 2008 NHL Draft.
During his time in juniors, Syner began attracting offers from various D-I schools, including his childhood favorite, UMass.
“For me, UMass was just the perfect fit. I grew up right down the road being from Springfield and I went to games growing up and loved that place as a kid,” Syner said. “When I was old enough to actually experience the recruitment process, I had the ability to meet the coaching staff, see the facilities, tour campus and watch games with, in my opinion, the best student section in college hockey.
“The whole idea of going to UMass just felt right and I wouldn’t change my decision one bit.”
During Syner’s recruiting process, UMass assistant coach Len Quesnelle spent significant time attending Syner’s games. And while Syner only stands at 5-foot-9, it was not his size, but rather his speed and skating ability that stood out to Quesnelle.
“His skating was so far superior than anybody else at that level and you could just see the chances that it created, not just for himself, but for his teammates as well,” Quesnelle said.
Syner accepted the offer from UMass and as a freshman in 2008-09, he accumulated 13 points for the Minutemen. Over the course of the next two seasons, Syner’s play continued to improve and by his senior year, he earned the respect of both the coaching staff and his teammates and was named a co-captain heading into his senior year.
He lived up to those high expectations on the ice, leading the team in points (37), second in goals (13) and first in assists (24). It comes as no surprise to his former teammates that Syner was nominated as a Hobey Baker Award finalist, the award given to the nation’s top D-I player.
“T.J. has a really great work ethic,” senior forward Eddie Olczyk said. “He takes practice as serious as he does the weight room and he was a great leader and role model for other players, like myself, on the team.”
The work ethic that earned him the respect of so many people around the college hockey world is what allowed him to land a free agent contract with the AHL’s Hershey Bears following the completion of his senior season. After making the team, Syner played in 10 games for the Bears, managing a single assist. But it was the opportunity he was given that he cherishes most.
“A lot of good players aren’t fortunate enough to be offered a contract right after school so I was glad that a team saw something in me and offered me an opportunity,” Syner said. “A team like Hershey is a prominent organization so being offered from them was that much more special too.”
But all of the positive emotions that he felt following his signing came to a screeching halt in the offseason when the NHL locked out the NHLPA, causing a work stoppage in the NHL. For many of the locked out players, heading overseas was the likeliest of options, but for younger guys on NHL rosters, they had the option to be sent down to their team’s AHL affiliate. That meant for guys like Syner, a spot on an AHL roster at the start of this season was going to be harder to come by.
“The whole lockout situation has affected a lot of players and people,” Syner said. “A lot of players that have the skill to play in the AHL may have started in the ECHL. From there, it’s just a trickle down effect around the league.”
While there’s uncertainty as to whether or not there will be an NHL season this year, Syner continues to make the most out of his dream opportunity. Due to players being sent down to the minors, he started this season with the ECHL’s Royals, but after registering five points in five games, he got called up for the Bears’ on Oct. 27 game against the Albany Devils.
“At the beginning of the season, I found myself down in Reading, Pa., and it was kind of a wake-up call,” he said. “It was tough at first, but I was playing down there rather than sitting in the stands up here. I waited my time and I ended up getting an opportunity and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
Syner may not be a guy that lights up the scoreboard every night, but he has the other intangibles to make him a great professional player.
“He’s obviously a player with great character,” Quesnelle said. “His skating ability is going to be his strength at that level, and so it all comes down to his skating ability and him utilizing that when he goes up against guys who are much bigger and stronger than him.”
But Syner does not just want to be a guy that has to rely on his speed. One thing that he is working on improving is his shooting and scoring ability against professional goalkeepers; a task that Syner said is much more difficult than at the collegiate level.
One thing that will remain a constant for Syner is he’s always going to be one of the smaller guys on the ice. But what one cannot measure is his heart and passion for the game, which is much bigger than his 5-foot-9 frame.
“You know it’s been a dream come true to be able to play in this league,” Syner said. “Obviously it’s everyone’s dream to make it to the next league, but for now, it’s a good developing tool and you take it for what it is and hope that you get better and you never know with an opportunity.”
Patrick Strohecker can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.