Caught in the middle: Shea Theodore living a life of limbo between NHL, AHL

ARLINGTON, Va. – Every now and then, at least when his black 2016 GMC Yukon isn’t plowing through the same stretch of I-5 in southern California, Shea Theodore will punch his name into Eliteprospects.com, a hockey resource website. Once his player page loads, the 21-year-old defenseman scrolls to the section labeled, “Transactions.” Then he looks at the list and starts counting.

“It’s pretty f—— long,” Theodore says, laughing. “When you’re up and down so often, you don’t realize how many it’s actually been.”

Save the truly special talents, most young players at some point experience the swings of reassignments and recalls, to and from the NHL. It’s standard procedure, part of the growing process. But Theodore’s travel tally stretches to comically long lengths. When the Anaheim Ducks reassigned him to their AHL affiliate in San Diego last Friday, it was their 13th official time doing so this season alone. Even with some of these existing as paper transactions meant to save money against the cap that don't require Theodore to report—the AHL’s ledger has seven of the 13 stints lasting either one or two days—no one else has physically shuttled more often between levels, either. In other words, Theodore is leading the league at leaving the league.

By now so much movement has bred routine. The SUV stays stocked with at least one packed bag of essentials, and recently began doubling as a portable closet for shoes and hats. “When you’re checking in and out of so many hotels it’s hard to haul everything in and everything out,” Theodore says. “I just keep it loaded.”

The drive typically takes around an hour, northbound or southbound, depending on southern California traffic. He passes the trip by chewing sunflower seeds (“Spitz, dill pickle or barbecue”), drinking the occasional Coke (“to keep the energy levels up), listening to music (“rap or techno to just have the car bumping”), or catching up with friends on the phone. “I know you’re not allowed to text and drive,” he quickly reassures. “I’ve got the Bluetooth in my car for calling.”

Through the weekend Theodore had accumulated 11 points in 15 games for San Diego and eight points in 19 games with Anaheim, not to mention several thousand more in membership rewards at Hilton properties. He stays there when playing for the Ducks, but officially pays rent at a house in Del Mar, Calif. It’s a sizable pad located near the beach, outfitted with a hot tub. Three fellow Gulls live there, too. They have stopped predicting when their fourth roommate will be around.

“When he leaves, you wouldn’t know if it’s for five minutes or if he’s gone for a month,” says Jaycob Megna, a 24-year-old defenseman. “I’ll be out getting groceries and I’ll come back and he’ll be gone or packing up again. You never know when you’re going to see him.”

Take one stretch not long into Theodore’s first full professional season. The Ducks were in Carolina on Nov. 16, 2015, beginning a four-game road trip, when defenseman Josh Manson fell ill. Since Anaheim was due to visit Nashville the next night and needed an extra warm body, Theodore was booked on a redeye flight. Thanks to help from Megna, who packed his bag and drove him to the airport, Theodore reached Nashville several hours before the puck dropped.

After watching the Ducks lose to the Predators as a healthy scratch, Theodore was reassigned him the next morning. So he caught a 5 a.m. flight, met the Gulls in Stockton, Calif., and skated in a 4–0 loss on Nov. 17, bleary-eyed but still spirited. “I think that’s the way you have to take it,” Megna says. “If you live and die with every call-up and send down, you wind up being pretty unhappy most of the time. He’s done a good job going with the flow.”

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Not that Theodore has much choice. A first-round draft pick in 2013, the right-handed shot remains on his entry-level contract and therefore does not require waivers to move back and forth. GM Bob Murray has spoken to Theodore about this. Theodore understands. “I’m not pissed off or anything,” he says. “It’s business.” The paper transactions are part of this. But the proximity of its affiliate also allows Anaheim to maximize Theodore's time with the big club. He just gets stuck with a longer commute. “The first time they called him up, it was for a weekend just to have him practice the power play,” says Ducks defenseman Kevin Bieksa, Theodore’s most regular NHL partner this season. “I think that’s a huge advantage for an organization, having the minor league team so close.”

A former journeyman who sipped cups of coffee in eight different NHL cities, San Diego coach Dallas Eakins knows the bubble life well. For this reason, he takes a proactive approach whenever young players return from Anaheim, calling them into his office to ensure the move hasn’t shaken their confidence. Usually, this involves some level of tracking the player down for an invariably tough talk. Not Theodore.

“The last few times he’s beat me to the punch,” Eakins says. “He comes in immediately. He’s walked in and said, ‘Hey, I’m not happy to be here, I’m onboard, what are we doing today?’ The conversations aren’t 30 and 40 minutes. They’re much shorter than they have been in the past.” Eakins is quick to rave about Theodore’s skating and puck-moving ability, but he falls short when trying to recall specific moments. Of course, this is understandable. “If you asked me about any other player, I could remember his last bunch of games quickly,” Eakins says. “He’s hard for me to get a real good footprint in my head the last time he was here.”

Indeed, all those ups and downs can result in some serious emotional…well, ups and downs. “You’re on such a high from getting called, then you get sent back,” Theodore says, “it’s not the greatest feeling.” Planning visits from his girlfriend, a university student in Vancouver, has proven especially difficult and usually only happens when both Anaheim and San Diego are at home. But even the constant uncertainty results in pleasant surprises. Last season, on Jan. 11, the night before Anaheim began its siblings road trip, Theodore was summoned in time for his older sister, Alyssa, to meet the team on short notice and participate. “She was very, very pumped,” Theodore says.

On some levels, Theodore is still adjusting to the rhythms of professional life, which is perfectly understandable given his level of experience. Megna, for instance, reports that his cooking has undergone dramatic improvements from last season, to the point that Theodore has been trusted with whipping up pregame meals. Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, meanwhile, delivered mixed reviews of his 30 NHL appearances in ’16-17. “He’s played some good games, he’s played some not so great games,” Carlyle says. “He’s a young kid, and we’re trying to transition some young players into our lineup, and you’ve got to live with the growing pains of that some days.”

That Theodore embraces everything in stride surely helps, especially since the transfers aren’t stopping anytime soon. When the Ducks passed through Washington less than two weeks ago, Theodore was three games into his latest recall. He logged 18:18 against the Capitals on Feb. 11, and then 13:24 in Minnesota on Valentine’s Day. Reassigned over the weekend to hit that baker’s dozen mark of moves, Theodore joined the Gulls in Bakersfield, Calif., pumped six shots on net in a loss, rode home on the team bus and notched a goal and an assist the next night. The only logistical hiccup? His girlfriend had flown to Anaheim, and wound up needing to drive his truck down to San Diego, so the couple could continue their visit.

“I understand the situation,” Theodore said after one Ducks practice last week. “If they send me down, I’ll go down. If they need me back, I’ll be back in an hour and a half. I guess we’ll see at the end of the year how many I can get.”

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