BELFAST, Northern Ireland - While it is the dream of every hockey player to play in the NHL, Canadian Paul Deniset is playing it smart - literally.
The Winnipeg native signed on to play for the Belfast Giants of the UK Elite League this summer, and much of that decision was down to the fact it allows him to continue his education at the University of Ulster.
"I've always been concerned with my life after hockey, and the opportunity to continue my education was certainly a big part of the move," he said. "I had my undergraduate degree from the University of Manitoba, and when I heard that I could do my master's degree here (in sports management, and business and management) while also playing at a team that has a strong fan base, it was an offer that was too good to turn down."
Having completed his degree in Manitoba, there were options for the then-25-year-old in North American hockey, but his interest was piqued by inquiries from an array of teams playing in the German 2nd Bundesliga. His initial reason to go to Europe was based on the style of play there.
"At that time, the game in North America was still based on size, and the technical skills of the game weren't as coveted," said the five-foot-11, 185-pound centre. "The European style, however, was known to embrace skill and good skating. I thought that type of open game would suit my style, so I was open to going there, and thankfully, so was my wife."
In the 50 games that he played for Bremerhaven REV, Deniset contributed 25 goals and 39 assists. Even so, Bremerhaven stalled on offering him a new contract, and when a stint at Bietigheim-Bissingen SC in 2007 saw him lose form, he moved on once again, recovering his confidence at Schwenningen ERC by registering 27 points in 30 games.
"When you are away from your home in particular, having a loss of form can affect you even more quickly," he said. "You can feel more expendable, and more alone in some ways, so I was happy when I moved to Schwenningen and ended up having a solid finish to the season."
That end-of-season rally is what led Deniset to his latest challenge of playing in the ever-improving Elite League, where he has continued that form, with 18 goals and 21 assists in 21 games. That has helped to push the Giants - who have seven Canadian players in their ranks, the same number as there are local players - to fifth in the table, with three games in hand on leaders Coventry Blaze.
The challenge of playing in 54-game Elite League is one that Deniset realizes is different to that of playing in North America's upper echelons, but he is enjoying it nonetheless.
"I've found the Elite League to be a good standard of hockey," he said. "It's difficult to compare to back home, because there are so many different leagues in Canada, but I've found that the UK plays a high level of hockey, and that the local players have been improving over the years. Obviously, it's great that that is happening.
"The game at, say, the NHL level is a little quicker and crisper. Passes, shots and decisions are quicker. When I skated when some of the NHL players this summer, that's the thing I noticed. Their mental game is also a little better. Some players just have a better knack of reading the ice, and knowing where the puck is going to go, and where your teammates are going to go. But that's something that will improve here over time."
With the Giants' sights set firmly on the Elite title this season, Deniset refuses to allow himself to think too much about the future. But when pressed with the idea of finishing his career back home, he was at least open to the possibility, before setting his mind to the immediate task in hand.
"You never know, I could end up back in Canada for maybe a last season or something. There's a lot of factors to these decisions, but there's a chance of it happening. But for now, all the team and I have our sights set on the Elite title. There is no doubt that that is our No. 1 aim, and that's all I'm concerned with.
"We've dropped a couple of spots in the last couple of games, partially because other teams had games in hand on us, but there's a greater need for consistency in the team. It's very tight in positions one through five, but we're definitely looking to take the title this season. Anything else would be a big disappointment."