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Love of the game: The hockey odyssey of former Coyotes player Justin Hodgman

Craig Morgan Avatar
October 9, 2022

When Justin Hodgman read about Keith Yandle’s recent NHL retirement he couldn’t help but smile at the coincidence. With far less fanfare, Hodgman made the same career choice a few months earlier after playing the 2021-22 season for the EIHL’s Sheffield Steelers.   

“One of my fondest memories is his assist on my goal and the high-five he gave me,” Hodgman said of Yandle, his Coyotes teammate for five games in the 2014-15 season. “I always wanted a Keith Yandle high-five and when he came in from the blue line and gave me that high-five it was easily a top-five moment in my career.”

Hodgman didn’t experience many more of those moments. Those five games that he played with the Coyotes were the only five games of his NHL career. That doesn’t mean, however, that Hodgman’s hockey career was void of meaningful moments. Quite the opposite.

Hodgman’s pro career spanned 15 seasons, 16 teams, 11 leagues and nine countries. In that timeframe, he experienced three league titles, a fourth finals berth, a litany of cultures, traditions and people, bouts of depression and self doubt, suicidal thoughts, tough times away from his family, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences with his family — all while building a well of resolve that kept him pushing forward when other players might have hung up their skates in lieu of other pursuits.

“I love adversity,” said Anaheim Ducks coach Dallas Eakins, who coached Hodgman with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and served as one of his greatest mentors. “I hate when I see somebody deep in it. I hate when I’m in it, or my family’s in it, or my team’s in it, but I love it in the same breath because when you come out the other side and you have found your way through it, or you’ve survived it, I think it makes you more resilient.

“It doesn’t matter what it is because I’m not just talking about hockey. I’m talking about life, so many different things. It really calluses your brain. I think it makes you more resilient and I think it makes you extremely grateful for life in general. When you look at Justin’s career and the amount of adversity that he’s gone through, moving through countries for different teams, I think he’s a better man for it.” 

Justin Hodgman holding his son, Zayden, at the 2018-19 ECHL All-Star Game. (Photo courtesy of Justin Hodgman)

The road less traveled

Hodgman wasn’t drafted after either of his first two seasons with the OHL’s Erie Otters. After playing his third year with the Otters, he spent parts of three seasons with the IHL’s Fort Wayne Komets, with whom he eventually won three league championships and was named the youngest player in league history to win the playoff MVP award at the age of 19.

As he chased his NHL dream, he also played for the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye, Reading Royals and the Komets when they moved to the ECHL. In 2009-10, the Rockford IceHogs, who owned his AHL rights, traded him to the Marlies where he first met Eakins.

“You don’t know much about the kids that go undrafted,” Eakins said. “There’s one part of you that’s very curious about why they haven’t been drafted or why they are not signed. And then there’s the other part where you’re quietly really cheering for them to do great because they’re massive underdogs. That was Hodgie to a tee.

“He was really looking to please and he wanted to fit in. He had a skill set and he had enough size, but the biggest thing that stood out to me was this kid just ate, drank and breathed hockey. That’s all he did. He wasn’t big into the training off of the ice. He wasn’t built out or stacked like a lot of the players are now, but it wasn’t that he didn’t want to work at it. He was just working at his game, on the ice, on the street, wherever he could play. He was damn determined that he was going to get his foot in the door of pro hockey.”

Despite a decent season with the Marlies in which he had 12 goals and 29 points in 42 games, Hodgman didn’t feel like he was going to get the opportunity he wanted in North America so he spoke to Eakins and opted to sign a contract with the Lahti Pelicans in the Finnish Elite League, where he had 14 goals and 53 points in 59 games.

“I think this would be a popular sentiment with hockey players, but there was only one thing that I ever wanted to do and that was to play professional hockey,” he said. “It started with wanting to play in the NHL, and getting there was a journey of its own, but to extend my career as the body and the skill slowly started to deteriorate, it was just kind of evident that there would maybe need to be a league change or a city change or a change of scenery in order to make something happen.

“I absolutely love to travel and I adapt very easily so I was happy to make those changes. The only thing that I would have wished for more is that my family would have been able to travel with me more.”

Hodgman’s performance in Finland earned him a shot in the KHL, first with Metallurg Magnitogorsk for two seasons, then with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod and Admiral Vladivostok in the 2013-14 season, but he had to go those years alone, rather than bring his family into a challenging environment. His play was strong enough to sign a one-year, two-way deal with the Coyotes on July 1, 2014. He spent most of that season with the AHL’s Portland Pirates, but he earned a call-up on Oct. 24. He scored a power-play goal in his first game, a 2-1 win against the Florida Panthers on Oct. 25 in Glendale.

Justin Hodgman talks with linesman Kiel Murchison during a game against the Florida Panthers at Gila River Arena on Oct. 25, 2014. (Getty Images)

European odyssey

That was it for Hodgman’s NHL career, however. Although he spent 15 games with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves the following season, he wasn’t on NHL teams’ radar. At age 27, he was once again at a crossroads in his career; another point at which he had to decide how much he wanted to remain a professional hockey player.

That’s when the array of fascinating experiences came in staccato fashion. He played 15 games in the Swedish Hockey League for Orëbro in 2015-16. He returned to the Pelicans the following season, but also played five games for HC Dynamo Pardubice in the Czech Extraliga. He returned to the ECHL with Fort Wayne the following two years, he played for Krefeld in the German league in 2019-20, Ferencvárosi (Budapest) in the Hungarian league, before finishing his career last season with Sheffield, Liam Kirk’s old team.

It wasn’t always glamorous. Hodgman said his lowest salary in Europe was 33,000 a year, while he made $900 a week in the ECHL with the bonus of having his mortgage paid in his adopted hometown of Fort Wayne.

“The craziest season was the season in Budapest,” Hodgman said. “I was sitting at home with my kids and I didn’t have a contract. I was in Germany the year before and it didn’t go very well so I was looking for a place to play and a lot of the leagues weren’t sure if they were even going to play because of Covid.

“I’m on Elite Prospects scrolling and I saw that (former NHL’er) Keaton Ellerby was playing in the Hungarian league. We weren’t even friends but I sent him a message on Instagram like, ‘Hey, is this true? Are you really going to Hungary?’ A month later, we’re living two blocks away from each other. Apparently, he got a bunch of messages from other players as well, but I was the first one in the door so he went to the coach’s office and we had a contract done within a week.”

It was a memorable experience for many reasons.

“It was so cool, but it was such a shame that it was in peak COVID because we were on lockdown,” he said. “I’m in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, traveling to the rink every day on the tram with Keaton Ellerby, taking in the sights and feeling so thankful, but then realizing that all restaurants closed at 8 p.m. and there was a curfew where you’re only allowed out after 8 p.m. if you’re walking your dog. It was just kind of like a ghost town.

“The Hungarian league has three Romanian teams in it, too, so we had like 13-hour bus trips through the Hungarian-Romanian mountains to some of the least desirable arenas you could ever imagine in Romania. We were actually in Transylvania so you’re definitely thinking about Dracula. It’s an experience that I’m extremely thankful for and will never forget.”

While Hodgman was globetrotting to keep his career alive, his family was trying to adapt to the rampant and frequent changes. There were times when Nicole and the kids, Braelynn (now 13) and Zayden (now 11) accompanied him. There were times when they could not.

“None of this would have been possible without Nicole,” Hodgman said. “From taking care of the kids when I was away and they couldn’t be there, to traveling across Europe with them to see me or be with me, I’m so thankful to her for making it possible for all of this to happen.”

When the family was together, they experienced a litany of jaw-dropping memories that few families will ever enjoy. Both kids were schooled in Germany where Braelynn played volleyball and Zayden learned to play hockey.

“We got to travel all over Germany and see all the German castles,” Hodgman said. “When we went to Paris, we went up the Eiffel Tower. Seeing their faces light up when the Eiffel Tower lights lit up is one of my favorite memories of my life.

“In my second stint in Finland, my family came over for New Years and we took a ferry to Estonia and celebrated New Year’s Eve in Estonia. How many kids can say that they saw fireworks in Estonia on New Year’s Eve? Those are the kinds of experiences that playing in Europe provided us.”

The family at Eltz Castle in Wierschem, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Justin Hodgman)

End of the road

Hodgman had a feeling that last season was going to be the final one of his career. There were multiple factors at play, including a desire to be more actively involved in his kids’ lives, and within their community.

“When I finally made the decision it was pretty easy for me,” he said. “Over the last three seasons, I knew for a fact that my body had had enough. I’ve dealt with lots of injuries throughout my career; head injuries, too. With my kids being older and me playing overseas, they were really involved in school sports and youth travel sports so they weren’t able to travel with me or be there with me. It was really hard mentally and obviously on the body physically after a pretty long career. I made that decision in January of last year that I was ready to call it quits.”

The other major factor in Hodgman’s decision was his own mental health. In January, he walked into Steelers coach Aaron Fox’s office and broke down, admitting his past struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts — thoughts that still haunted him with his family half a world away, and thoughts that led him to go public with British media.

“It was a struggle but I’m very open about it and I’m willing to talk about it, both because I think it helps me and because I hope that it might help others,” Hodgman said. “It was good to have Foxie to talk to. He was willing to listen and he really helped me.”

Fox could relate. A Hastings, Minnesota native, Fox spent the majority of his career playing in Europe. His stops included stints in Slovakia, Germany, Slovenia and Austria before taking the job as the Steelers’ coach in 2019.

“I know his family situation,” Fox said. “He comes over alone and they try to come and visit a little bit, but it’s a huge commitment to continue playing and not have them with him for the amount of time that he did. That path definitely isn’t an easy one, it isn’t for everybody, and it took its toll on him, but he loved the game that much and it took him to some amazing countries and cultures, some of which his family got to experience with him. When you look at it that way, it’s pretty amazing what the sport can bring.

“We talked a little bit about his situation midway through the year and he said that there were some opportunities potentially in the real world. He’s coaching now and it’s still in hockey, but it is a real job now for him. He didn’t want to potentially lose out on that by playing another year so I totally understood where he was coming from.”

Hodgman is volunteer coaching back in Fort Wayne with some job prospects on the horizon. Whatever comes next, he said is having a blast being around his family, yet still remaining involved in the game of hockey.

“When you speak to him now, with the amount of giving back he’s doing to his community right now and the amount of volunteering he’s doing in his community right now, he’s a beacon of inspiration to these kids that he’s helping because he’s gone through a lot of personal adversity, and career adversity,” Eakins said.

“Some people might look at him and go, ‘Oh, man, that must have been super hard. What a crazy career! He should have stopped playing and done something else.’ There will be all these opinions, but I look at that and I love it. He had to dig down deep and find himself a number of times. When he came out of this, and when your brain is callused like that, there’s not a whole bunch more that you can throw at the kid that he hasn’t already seen.”

Eakins hopes that he helped along the way, but he suspects that something else played a greater role in steeling Hodgman’s resolve and shaping who he is today.

“I believe that the thing that got him through all of those personal adversities is the game of hockey,” Eakins said. “It wasn’t a therapist, it wasn’t talking to people that he trusted like me. The game got him through it.”

Hodgman reiterated the critical role that his family and coaches played in helping him, but he acknowledged that hockey was also a saving grace. It’s a game that he’ll never quit.

“I’ve fallen in and out of love with the game of hockey more times than you can imagine,” he said. “But I am forever grateful for the countless experiences and life lessons it has provided me. There is no better game on this planet. Coaching these kids has helped me fall back in love with hockey again, and I know this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

Justin Hodgman celebrates with the 16U Fort Wayne Force (Indiana) team for which he is volunteering. The team won the Sylvania North Stars (Ohio) Midget Tournament in September. (Photo courtesy of Justin Hodgman).

Photo at top of page: Justin Hodgman displays the Coyotes player-of-the-game belt after scoring a goal in his NHL debut against the Panthers at Gila River Arena on Oct. 25, 2014. (Getty Images)

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