And then there's the case of Washington Capitals defenseman Tyler Sloan.
In the first period of his first NHL game, in front of his hometown fans in Calgary, Sloan made an impact that Flames center Daymond Langkow won't soon forget. Sloan caught Langkow with a thunderous hit at center ice that sent Langkow flying. Rene Bourque jumped in to defend his teammate, and was subsequently assessed a 9-minutes in penalties.
So besides putting his team in advantageous position -- Sloan wasn't penalized for the clean hit -- he played 12 shifts totaling 9:03 and was on the ice for the Capitals' lone goal.
That 9:03 minutes made up for 7 seasons of beating the bushes from one side of North America to the other. In his first trip to the NHL Sloan, 27, appeared in 4 games, scoring one goal. He returned to Hershey Friday after Tom Poti came back from a groin injury.
Nothing ever has come easy for Sloan, who holds the rare distinction of never being drafted -- not in bantam hockey, the Western Hockey League or the NHL. But he realized his life-long dream of playing in the NHL Oct. 20, when the Capitals recalled him from AHL Hershey.
As luck would have it, Sloan's father, Fred, was in town after driving 36 hours from Calgary to spend some time with Tyler.
"I went home (from practice), my dad was there, and I told him the news," Sloan recalled for NHL.com. "He was pretty pleased. It was a great moment. We've been waiting for this a long time."
And for a long time, it never looked like Sloan would get there.
Sloan played with the Calgary Royals of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, and then signed with the Columbus organization in September 2000. He spent the next 2 seasons in the WHL with the Kamloops Blazers, and then started his professional career in 2001-02 with the Syracuse Crunch, the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate. He played most of 2 seasons in Syracuse -- with a short detour to Dayton of the ECHL -- and thought his career was pointed in the right direction. But when the NHL shut down for the 2004-05 season, he was knocked off his path.
"The lockout year was really tough on me," said Sloan. "I spent my second full year in the American League and my third year was the lockout year and I spent it in Dayton. It was a terrible year."
Dayton finished near the bottom of the standings, and Sloan didn't get along with the coach or others in the organization.
"It was a tough year," he said. "That was the closest I've got to saying I've had enough of this garbage."
A light came through the darkness when one of his Dayton teammates, Shawn Limpright, was dealt to Las Vegas. Limpright told Sloan how great things were in "Sin City" and how he should come out if the opportunity arose.
Everyone goes to Vegas hoping to get lucky. In reality, most folks go home unhappy. Sloan, though, was one of the lucky ones.
"That rejuvenated me," Sloan said. "Vegas is a great city to live in. We had a great team, great coaching, amazing building, great group of guys. I had a great year and that earned me a chance to go to Hershey at the end of the season."
The Bears needed an extra defenseman for the 2006 Calder Cup playoffs, and he was impressive enough in a 2-game stint to earn an AHL deal for the 2006-07 season. He had 11 points and 104 penalty minutes 68 games with the Bears, and then had 8 points and 90 penalty minutes in 56 games last season.
Sloan made a positive impression on his first coach in Hershey, Bruce Boudreau. And when Boudreau's Capitals needed some extra bodies for a trip out west in late October, Sloan got the call.
"There were a little bit of rumors flying around a couple days before, they were going out west and they might need an extra guy," Sloan said. "I didn't think anything of it, but they said be aware. The call came Sunday morning and it was confirmed. It was really hard to believe. It doesn’t sink in. I had a 2-hour drive to Washington to let it sink in. The wheels are turning, and I'm thinking, 'Holy cow I'm going to Calgary and I might be playing my first game there.'"
Flying to Calgary with him was more than just his hockey equipment. Going along with him was the memory of his older sister, Tara. Eight years ago, Tara Sloan was a 20-year-old national breaststroke champion and a favorite for the 2000 Canadian Olympic team. But on her way to visit her grandmother in Saskatchewan, she was killed when her van swerved and rolled several times. Tara was taken off life support less than a week before Tyler's 19th birthday.
"He was very close to his sister," Fred Sloan told the (Toronto) Globe and Mail. "When something like that happens it can affect you in different ways and I think he used it as a springboard. He adopted her discipline and drive and her mental focus."
He also adopted her journals. Tara Sloan was meticulous in keeping track of her practice and race times, her workouts, her nutrition habits, and her goals.
"We were very close," Sloan said. "We both were very much into our sports. She was an elite swimmer and shooting for the Olympics. We were very close. When I was playing in Calgary Tier 2 for the Royals, she lived across the street from the rink. Growing up I was in grade 7 and she was in grade 9, and when I was in grade 10 she was in grade 12, so she was there for me every time I started at a new school. I think I learned a lot from her in terms of sports, her competitiveness, her work ethic, her physical and mental outlook on sports. I learned from her."
He keeps his own journal now, with his goals and hopes. And while his hope is to stay in the NHL as long as possible, he knows what the reality is.
"Just enjoy it every second that I'm here," Sloan said. "Whether I'm flying to the next city or practicing or taking a morning skate, going to pregame meal, just enjoy every second of it and relish it while I can. I might not be here for too long. I might be here for 1 more day or 1 more month, you never know."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.