Minor Leagues & Second Fiddle: What I Learned from Jhonas Enroth of the Buffalo Sabres About Paying Your Dues

Tonight the Buffalo Sabres (my favorite team in the National Hockey League), will start their 2014-15 season in Buffalo with Jhonas Enroth entering his first full season as the Sabres’ starting netminder. Head coach Ted Nolan said, when Enroth showed up after the offseason, “He had that determined look of ‘You’re going to give me this job.’ The way he performed and the way he played, he certainly earned it.”[i]

Minor Leagues

I saw Jhonas Enroth play in the minors several years ago with the Portland Pirates in Portland, Maine (the Buffalo Sabres’ minor league affiliate at the time). I was hoping to see Enroth play, but because he had been called up to start for Buffalo on Wednesday night that week (and Thursday was Thanksgiving), I didn’t expect to see Enroth in net on Friday night. But there he was.

That night I just kept thinking about how hard it must be to get excited to play in the minor leagues again 48 hours after starting a game in the NHL. Wednesday night, in a Buffalo arena that seats 18,690 people, he played against Pittsburgh Penguins superstars Syndey Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (neither of them scored on Enroth that night, by the way). 48 hours later he was back in goal for Portland playing against minor leaguers in an arena that seats only 6,733 people. I wondered to myself, “How do you get excited for this game after playing in that game.” How do you get excited for this game in front of a small crowd in a small arena so soon after sharing the ice with the best players in the top league in hockey? As I watched Enroth play well whether he was playing in the minor leagues or against future hall of famers, I became a Jhonas Enroth fan.

Second Fiddle

After that season, Enroth got his permanent call up to the NHL … to back up Ryan Miller for the past three years. For three seasons in Buffalo, Enroth played second fiddle. As backup, he played an average of 22 games per season (compared to 54 games per seasons as a starter in the minor leagues). At times Enroth struggled in his backup role, and at times he had streaks of genius (including a 9-game winning streak) where some of us in Buffalo seriously questioned whether he should replace Miller (a Buffalo legend). At one stretch he had a 14-month winless streak,[ii] due in large part to his limited playing time behind Miller. And no one was cheering for him more during that stretch than me.

Leonard Bernstein was once asked which instrument was the most difficult to play. He thought for a moment and then replied, “The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm—that’s a problem. And if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony.”

Meanwhile, I wondered whether it was better to be the backup goalie in the big leagues, or the starter in the minor leagues. Given the choice for myself, I wasn’t always sure which I would choose.

Paying Your Dues

All of this is part of why I’m an Enroth fan: most of us have to pay our dues by playing in the minor league or by playing second fiddle before we will ever get our day in the sun. No shortcuts, no moving to the head of the line, no special treatment: paying your dues to get where you want to be. I am a Jhonas Enroth fan because I’ve watched him pay his dues, and now that it’s his time to shine, I hope he burns brightly.

Every day I watch college students who are paying their dues taking classes and studying for exams, putting in the work that is preparing them bit by bit. I am a Buffalo Sabres fan, and as a sports fan (especially a fan of Buffalo sports) I’ve learned to remain somewhat detached from the players who play for my teams. But I’m a fan of Jhonas Enroth because he is an athlete who paid his dues, took his turn playing second fiddle, and put in his time in the minor leagues.

Tonight, I’ll be cheering for Buffalo, but I’ll also be cheering for Jhonas Enroth.

Let’s go Buffalo.

© Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, Director of Ministry Resources
at Houghton College (Houghton, NY), and a Commissioned Ministry Coach.

[i] http://sabres.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=733414&navid=DL|BUF|home

  1. [ii] (http://www.rantsports.com/nhl/2013/03/14/buffalo-sabres-tuesday-win-was-a-big-one-for-jhonas-enroth/)

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