|Bryan Esner will have the opportunity to play professionally in front of his friends and family with the Phoenix Roadrunners.
For most, growing up as a hockey player in the desert is like learning to golf on a highway. It's not really ideal.
Yet Bryan Esner
not only played the game as a youngster in Arizona, he excelled at it. Come October, he'll have the opportunity to play professionally in front of his friends and family.
After a stellar rookie season with the South Carolina Stingrays and Pensacola Ice Pilots, the 25-year-old Esner will start the 2008-09 campaign with the Phoenix Roadrunners. It's a tremendous situation for Esner, who grew up in nearby Paradise Valley, Ariz.
Esner became a free agent when the Ice Pilots announced they would not be returning this season. After being dealt from the Stingrays to Pensacola last October, Esner had 21 goals and 28 assists in 55 games.
"It should be a good experience," Esner told NHL.com. "I have a lot of friends and family back at home there. I'm pretty excited. Obviously I want to move up the levels, but it's definitely a great place to play. I'm excited to be a part of the organization and I can't wait to play in front of my friends and family. It should be a good time."
Esner moved to Arizona from the Cleveland area when he was 8 years old. His passion for hockey unwavering, Esner was surprisingly able to remain on the ice. Ten years later, he found himself playing for the Texas Tornado in the North American Hockey League, where he scored 32 goals in two seasons. In 2003, he began his collegiate career with Northeastern University. After his senior season there, he played the final 12 games of the 2006-07 campaign with the Peoria Rivermen in the American Hockey League.
"We had a mite team that actually had a lot of good guys," Esner said. "I think nine out of the 13 or 14 guys played Division I. We traveled every weekend to get good competition. We just kept playing and developing our skills. It kind of got to a point where you made it to juniors or college, and then you're playing professional. It's just sticking with it and working hard. It comes from having good parents and good people around you."
Esner began the 2007-08 season with South Carolina, but quickly became disgruntled due to a lack of playing time. It wasn't due to a lack of talent, but rather because of the number of prospects sent to the Stingrays by the Washington Capitals
. In his first 16 games, Esner had just three goals and two assists.
On Dec. 4, Esner's wish for more playing time was granted. He was shipped to Pensacola in exchange for defenseman Derrick Byfuglien
"I went to South Carolina, and they had a lot of NHL and AHL guys signed," Esner said. "I had been asking for a trade for a couple of weeks. I finally got traded to a good spot where I could at least help a team try to win a few games and put some points up. I definitely saw the business side of it last year. Everybody's trying to make the team better, and sometimes you've got to do what's best for yourself."
Playing for the Ice Pilots was certainly the best thing for Esner, who flourished under coach John Marks
. The new Augusta Lynx coach believes it won't be too long before Esner returns to the AHL.
"I was very fortunate … he was hardly getting any ice time in Charleston," Marks said. "He was one of the guys I was able to make a deal for, and I was certainly glad I did. He's a great kid … just a great, young man. You couldn't ask for a harder-working, team player.
"He's fast as lightning. He's just a marvelous kid. I really think he's going to get a shot in the American Hockey League. I would expect he won't be in Phoenix too long, especially if he picks up where he left off."
Esner said he received numerous offers around the ECHL this summer, but the chance to play in front of his family was simply too good to pass up.
"I have a lot of friends and family back at home there. I'm pretty excited. Obviously I want to move up the levels, but it's definitely a great place to play. I'm excited to be a part of the organization and I can't wait to play in front of my friends and family. It should be a good time." - Bryan Esner
"There were a ton of teams after me," Esner said. "Phoenix was definitely up there on the list, obviously because I'm from there. They put together a good deal for me. There were a couple of other teams I was interested in, but Phoenix was the best spot. I wound up being home."
How long he'll be in Phoenix could ultimately be up to Esner. The 5-foot-9, 165-pounder will try out with the AHL's Worcester Sharks next month, when he'll hope to make a lasting impression.
"I'm going to go and try to do well up there and get a good look," Esner said. "Hopefully they take a good look at me. If I'm down in Phoenix, my job is just to put points up and help the team win. I just need to keep working hard."
Esner admitted he was a bit discouraged that he did not receive any promotions to the AHL last season, even though he did have an impressive run with the Ice Pilots. Despite Pensacola's last-place finish, Esner managed to finish with a highly respectable plus-6 rating. He also scored four shorthanded goals.
"I think that my size and my past numbers aren't that great, so I think on paper it's discouraging for some scouts and organizations," Esner said. "Every summer, I work as hard as I can to prove myself. As long as I'm getting better every year, I know that my time will come. But I definitely was disappointed. I thought I'd get a couple of cracks."
Marks believes it had more to do with every organization's commitment to its own prospects rather than Esner's smallish frame. But the ECHL's all-time winningest coach is certain that Esner will force their hand.
"All the teams in the (ECHL) now have affiliations, so they're going to lean towards their own contracted players first," Marks said. "There's guys in the NHL and in the American League who are certainly smaller than him. I think it was he hadn't proved himself yet and maybe hadn't been seen enough. Now, if he starts throwing some numbers up in a hurry -- with that speed -- somebody's got to recognize it and give him a shot. He's one of the fastest skaters I've ever coached."
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.