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On The Forecheck: Shining The Light On A Career In The Minor Leagues

What is it like to be a professional in your sport but to never get to play at the highest level? On The Forecheck finds out.

Mike Strasinger-USA TODAY Sports

Covering pro teams and pro athletes at SB Nation inevitably means covering people who are playing at the highest level. We tend to concentrate on the players who are at the pinnacle, but underneath that, especially in a few of the pro sports leagues, is a multitude of players just trying to make it. Minor league players in baseball, D-league guys in the NBA, and minor leaguers in the NHL.

SB Nation's Nashville Predators blog, On The Forecheck has a great interview with an athlete who spent his whole career in the minor leagues, never once gracing an NHL roster, never getting even one shift at the big leagues. Heck, even Moonlight Graham got his one shot at the big leagues.

Jeff Winchester never got that chance. He played college hockey and minor league hockey for years and years, with a multitude of different teams, and even won some championships along the way. At one point he was on three consecutive championship teams. But his NHL dreams were dashed early.

"My first full year in the ECHL, I was reassigned to the Columbia Inferno [of the ECHL], and was given the opportunity as a rookie to play on the power play and log some very big minutes," he recalled. Then, just five games into the season, Winchester blew out his knee, an injury that required surgery. He missed 20 games that year due to injury.

"At that stage of my career," he recalled, "this was by far the toughest thing mentally I had ever had to deal with. I never fully recovered [physically] that year, and struggled with confidence after that for a long time. After that season, I knew that my dreams were going to remain dreams."

But Winchester soldiered on because he loved the game and he loved the competition.

In fact, many opportunities came along for Jeff to play professionally, even if they weren't from the sport's highest level -- and that was just fine by him. "I played sports my whole life, and always loved the competition," he said. "So as long as I was getting offers to play, I decided to play a few more years.... I was able to support myself from playing, and have never held another job during a season."

So that's just the set up, the real insight is when Winchester talks about life in the minors, the  long trips on buses, the toll on his body, and getting into fights on the ice.

It's a fascinating read about an athlete who almost made it to the top, but still enjoyed what he got out of his playing days as a professional. Thanks to George Scoville at On The Forecheck for putting this article together.