On Friday, Jeff Ulmer, the 39.9-year-old Ironman of Hockey will be doing something he hasn’t done in four seasons. He’ll be lacing up his skates for the Frederikshavn White Hawks to play playoff hockey, on a quest to win the Danish Championship. This professional ice hockey veteran is excited with his team’s chances. He figures they have the strength to go all the way.
This is Ulmer’s 18th season as a professional hockey player. Eighteen seasons is rare for pro hockey players. But for Regina-born and Wilcox, Saskatchewan-raised Ulmer, 18 is just a number. In fact, the Notre Dame Hound and University of North Dakota alumnus is far from hanging up his skates.
“I feel so good on the ice,” he tells me via Skype. “In fact, I feel like I move even better than I did a few years ago, if you can believe that.”
And what’s to doubt? The playing contracts for the 5’11” 200-lb Ulmer keep coming in spite of the April 27, 1977 date on his birth certificate. Ulmer has skills, a good agent, and a mind-boggling playing streak of nearly 850 games without a sick day. Ulmer is an anomaly in so many ways.
Being an Ironman is just one of them.
Ever Ready Ironman Ulmer
With nearly 1,000 games under his blades and so many of them injury free, Ulmer needs to go way, way back in time to when an injury sidelined him from playing professional hockey. It was a knee injury that took place on Boxing Day in 2002. He was playing for the AHL’s Binghamton Senators. The sprain kept him off the ice for five weeks.
Boxing Day 2002 was a little over 14 years and two months ago, Ulmer has played on 18 hockey teams and well over 800 games since then. When he got back on the ice five weeks later, that was it. He got on the ice and never looked back.
“I just wanted more than anything to play,” Ulmer tells me.
Has he played sick?
Has he played hurt?
But no missed games?
“Not unless it was a transfer, a suspension or a coach’s decision,” he says.
When I ask him about what it takes to play healthy for so long, Ulmer believes there are a few reasons why. First is the diversity in sports he had as a youngster.
“Going to high school at Notre Dame College (Athol Murray College of Notre Dame) meant you got to play every sport,” Ulmer says. “Sure there was a hockey season, but there was baseball season and football season too, and I ran track. I didn’t have that 365 days of hockey wear-and-tear that kids today seem to have. I think that’s part of it.”
Ulmer thinks that his ability to separate hockey from the rest of his life also helps.
“I love hockey, it’s true,” he tells me. “In fact, guys who know me know that I like to go to the rink a little bit early, I’m so excited about playing. But I’m excited to get home from the rink too, to see my wife (Robyn) and baby girl (Jaydee). I’m excited to play and excited to take the skates off and separate hockey from my daily life.”
Denmark’s Pick-Your-Opponent Playoffs
This is Ulmer’s first season as a White Hawk, one of four Canadians on the team. Eight of the 10 teams in the league make the playoffs, but these are playoffs with a twist. The top three teams — 1st, 2nd and 3rd — get their turn in descending order at choosing which team they want to face first in a best-of-seven format from the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th place teams. With these “Pick-Your-Opponent” style of playoffs, the 1st place team doesn’t necessarily pick the 8th place team for the first round. Finishing last isn’t always a disadvantage. They may be hot. They could be healthy. They could be a six-hour bus ride away. And since the venues alternate, those six-hour one-way trips can be exhausting.
“The playoff system really rewards the team that finishes first,” Ulmer says.
Ulmer will be wearing #44, the number on his hockey sweaters since 2006. I ask him about that number and whether or not it’s special. It sort of just happened when he signed on for his first season with the original Frankfurt Lions, a team in the German Ice Hockey League (DEL) that folded in 2010. He’d worn #22 before that and #19 before that too — as an homage to Steve Yzerman — another right-shooting centerman. But when he got to Frankfurt, both those numbers were taken. So he doubled 22 up, and took #44. He’s been wearing that number ever since.
Back to Center
And this season, he’s playing center instead of right wing. It’s a position he hasn’t played since the start of his last season in the AHL. That was in 2004, playing for the Hershey Bears.
And he likes it.
“I’m no longer up against the boards like I used to be as a winger. It’s all different angles as a center. I’m able to gain more speed in the defensive zone. I touch the puck more and am skating with the puck more than I have in a long time.”
Ulmer sticks out on his team, not just because he’s seven or eight years older than everyone else on the roster. He’s a right shooter in a sea of left-shooting players, and that helps him win faceoffs (mostly on the backhand) and score goals. In fact, he’s the only forward that shoots right on his team. He scored 29 points in the regular season: 15 goals and 14 assists. His best scoring season to date was for the Frankfurt Lions, when he became the DEL’s scoring leader with 74 regular season points.
By the points, you’d think it was his 3-goal rookie season with the New York Rangers in 2001, but Ulmer is quick to point out that those 21 games were in the National Hockey League, at the highest level of hockey in the world.
“I wouldn’t trade those three goals with the Rangers for anything. I scored my first goal in my 2nd game against Buffalo on Dominik Hasek. That and my first NHL game against Montreal are probably the top two highlights of my career.”
In fact two of Ulmer’s three NHL goals were scored in this undrafted player’s first five games, something New York Times sports reporter Jason Diamos took note of. Diamos referred to Ulmer in “Hockey: A Sleeper Helps Wake the Rangers“, wondering “Where has this kid been all season?”
Sixteen games later, Ulmer was traded to Ottawa, and the start of the long road that took him to where he is now, playing hockey on a team in a city about as far north as you can get, in Denmark.
Life happens when you’re busy making other plans, they say. For Jeff Ulmer, the NHL lockout that wiped the 2004-2005 season from the record books made all the difference to Jeff Ulmer’s career path, no matter which way the coin might have fallen. Signing with the Colorado Avalanche, the lockout forced the Avs players onto their farm team, the Hershey Bears. Ulmer had a good season with the Bears; he even had a 7-game goal scoring streak playing on and against teams stacked with NHL players who’d been locked out.
“The GM in Hershey told me that had there been an NHL that season, Colorado’s GM had told him that I would have been playing in it,” Ulmer explains. “In the end, that didn’t count for anything but I certainly had a great season with the Bears. I was made a captain and had my first 20+ goal season in perhaps the strongest year talent-wise of the AHL.”
Although regular season games have been many, playoffs and championships have been few and far between. His first championship was in college during his sophomore year at UND winning the NCAA title. Fifteen years later, he’s on an end-of-season contract playing for Lausanne. And that team is hot.
“The last time I was in the playoffs was 2013 in Switzerland,” Ulmer says. “It was the lock out season, I came over late to play for LHC in Lausanne, a Swiss B-league team. We won the B Division and then beat the winner of the Swiss A-division which meant we moved up into the A league. It was a long run. It was nice. It gave me a chance to grow a beard.”
That was his only professional hockey championship to date. In Denmark, his beard is already growing.
Of the 10 teams in the Metal League, four are located in Copenhagen, a gruelling 12-hour back and forth by bus — on game day. For the first round of the playoffs, Ulmer figures his team is lucky, at least travel-wise. They’ll be facing the Herning Blue Fox, a team that’s an easy two hours bus ride away. It’s a short ride to Herning, but they will be a tough opponent.
As to the White Hawks winning the championship? Ulmer thinks they have what it takes.
“We have a good chance of winning the championship. We’re most likely the deepest team in Denmark — our experience and depth makes us one of the favourites. We finished third overall, but we’re strong.”
I ask Ulms about the shock of the season’s end.
“You don’t think of it at the time,” he admits, “but that last game comes hard. I know I won’t play with most of those guys next year, and most of them you might never see again except on Facebook. The last game is always tough. I don’t book a flight home for at least a week later so you can go out to dinner or have a beer with your team mates so you can say ‘good-bye’.”
As for taking off a jersey for the last time, that’s tough too.
“You don’t think about it ever being over — you always think you can win. Even when you don’t, the shaking hands and that final act of taking off your jersey is always tough,” he says.
For the Ironman of Hockey, or Hockey’s Most Traveled Player as he refers to himself on his blog, it’s been 24 teams, 13 different countries and all the top hockey leagues in the world. But some jerseys are tougher than others to take off after that final game.
“The toughest by far was my Hounds jersey,” he says. “I was 17. Then my last year at the University of North Dakota — those are two jerseys I remember taking off for the last time that really hurt.” Ulmer pauses, thinking.
“And the Rangers’ jersey, that was tough,” he says. “In Europe I’ve changed teams so often, there isn’t much time to build up that same loyalty. However, I’ve loved each and every stop I’ve had in some way. This season has been special, and Robyn and I love Frederikshavn. Some guys are lucky, they get to play on the same team for 7-10 years. That hasn’t been me, but I wouldn’t change it for the world..”
When this season finally ends for Ulmer and the White Hawks, no matter how it ends, Jeff and Robyn will bundle up Jaydee, pack up their belongings and head back to North America for the summer. They’ll spend a couple of months in Arizona, take a trip to Ontario to visit Robyn’s family in Muskoka (Cottage Country), then head to Calgary where Jeff will spend July training at The Edge to get into skating shape for training camp in Europe on August 1st.
Until July, hockey will be far from the Kinesiology major’s mind. He’ll be spending time with his family. Relaxing. Playing golf. Working out.
On August 1st, he’ll be raring to go. Ironman Jeff Ulmer will be ready for his 19th season, excited to get the equipment back on and play hockey once again.