After playing out his college hockey days at Quinnipiac University in 2006 and earning his master’s degree from Ohio University in 2007, Joe Dumais thought he had hung up his skates for good when he grabbed a whistle and joined on as an assistant coach with the Mahoning Valley Phantoms last summer.
Much to his surprise, however, it turned out that the sport still had a place for him on the ice, when he was called up last month to play professionally for the Columbia Inferno of the ECHL (formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League).
“When I graduated, I thought about playing pro, and was very close to doing it, but I got the opportunity to get my master’s degree and I jumped on that,” said Dumais.
“The same thing happened this year; I got a great opportunity to work for the Phantoms and it never really crossed my mind (to go play professionally). Things just kind of fell into place, and it has been amazing so far.”
Nearly two years removed from playing any kind of organized hockey, let alone competitive hockey, Dumais, a 25-year-old native of Auburn, Maine, now finds himself getting paid to play.
“So far it has been real, but it has been good,” Dumais said about his time in the ECHL. “It is everything I expected it to be. It is a very good level of hockey. I played college hockey, but everybody in this league is bigger, stronger and faster than in college hockey.”
Behind the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League, the ECHL is considered the third-best professional league in the country. Most ECHL teams are affiliated with both an AHL and an NHL team or two.
Playing out of the 6,231-seat Carolina Coliseum, located in Columbia, S.C., the Inferno plays in the South Division of the American Conference in the 25-team ECHL. Columbia is the ECHL affiliate of the Toronto Marlies of the AHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL.
“This team is a real good group of guys,” Dumais said. “Everybody is real loose in the locker room and were real receptive to me coming to the team. I fit in pretty well, and these guys have been awesome and easy to get along with.”
Currently the Inferno is 26-22-4-6, good for 62 points, fifth place in the division and is right in the thick of the playoff race. In five games so far, Dumais has already managed to score his first point as a professional - an assist - while playing on the Inferno’s top line, in a 6-3 win over the South Carolina Sting Rays on Saturday night.
Although obviously ecstatic about the opportunity to live out his dreams as a professional hockey player, upon hearing the news, his primary concern was the future of the young men he was coaching back here in the Valley.
“When I got the call, the first thing that went through my mind was that I was really excited, but at the same time I could only think about the 20 guys I’ve been coaching all year, and how tough it would be to leave them to go play,” said Dumais.
In addition to being an assistant with the Phantoms’ Junior A team, Dumais served as the head coach of the Phantom Fireworks’ Midget Major AAA team - their elder’s top feeder program. In 60 games this season, Dumais had led his team to a 36-16-8 record and three tournament championships.
While Dumais found it very difficult to leave his coaching position with the Phantoms, he hopes that the chance he took will lead to some longevity in the pros.
“I met with the coach and he really wants me to stay the rest of the year with the team,” said Dumais about his prospects for the future.
“I am just kind of taking it day by day. I would really like to get a pro contract again next year – that’s the goal. Whether it’s in this league, or at a higher level here or even in Europe, I would like to continue playing and get a contract next season.”