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Little Big Man

Happy to be riding the bus and taking his lumps for $750 a week, minor league hockey king Kevin Kerr could be an inspiration to some sullen superstars

The bus was rolling through the Michigan countryside last Friday, up I-69 out of Kalamazoo, bound for Port Huron and the 1,210th game of his professional career, and hockey's most notable nomad was saying everything was perfect. Or as perfect as life in the minors gets. Kevin Kerr had four seats to himself on the Kalamazoo K-Wings bus--the teammate who sits opposite him wasn't on the trip--and you would have thought a flight attendant had just offered him a choice of steak or lobster. He had Tylenol PM to help him doze that afternoon and the prospect of a game to quicken his spirits that night. "For 18 years I've been playing for a living," he says on a cellphone. "What a great gig." Kerr borrows that creakiest of sports platitudes and infuses it with an ineluctable truth, an unabashed appreciation of a job that in these bleak hockey times might be a greater gift than any goal he has ever scored.

And Kerr, a 5'10" right wing, has scored 673, a minor league record. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Kerr once wrestled with that question but eventually came to accept that he has done well with what he has. Being three inches too small, 20 pounds too light and a stride-and-a-half too slow wasn't going to take him far--if you consider Rochester (twice), minor league Phoenix (three times), Fort Wayne (twice), Cincinnati (three times), Utica, Birmingham, Flint (three times), Portland, Quad Cities (twice), Mobile, Toledo, Elmira, Rockford and Kalamazoo not far. He played a few exhibition games with the Buffalo Sabres in his second pro season--he was their third-round draft choice in 1986--but a view of the big time long ago vanished out of the bus's rear window.

Kerr earns $750 a week, big money in the United Hockey League, which, in its earlier incarnation as the Colonial League, was described as a Jules Verne loop: 20,000 leagues under the NHL. UHL teams have a $10,000 weekly salary cap for their 20-man rosters, putting the average salary at $500. Maybe he was emboldened by surpassing Scott Gruhl's 10-year-old mark of 664 minor league goals on Jan. 7, but when locked-out NHL stars like Chris Chelios and Derian Hatcher signed with the UHL, whose cornerstone is a salary cap, after refusing one in the NHL, Kerr denounced the hypocrisy. "Bashing NHL guys," says Kerr, "got me some attention."

One person who apparently took notice: coach Steve Shannon of the Motor City Mechanics, for whom Hatcher and Chelios play. On Feb. 22 the UHL suspended Shannon for the rest of the season for allegedly putting a $200 bounty on Kerr. Initially Kerr heard it was $100, the amount Reggie Dunlop, Paul Newman's character in Slap Shot, put on the head of Tim McCracken, "chief punk on that Syracuse team," as Kerr recalls Dunlop saying. Like most hockey lifers, Kerr can quote the movie practically verbatim. It is always shown on the first trip of every season, "which means I've seen it at least 18 times." When the UHL commissioner told him the bounty was actually double what he heard, Kerr was more impressed.

Kerr says nothing untoward happened in his next game against the Mechanics, other than his taking a legal hit and splitting open his elbow, which subsequently became infected. Could have happened to anybody. "You take the good with the bad," he says. "I've had to make room for myself out there, and if I cross-check a defenseman on the back of his head, well, maybe it makes them a little afraid. Gives me an extra second the next time, which allows me to score the goal."

Of course his methods of self-preservation mean Kerr has been suspended more often than disbelief, once, in the late 1980s, for nine games for biting a player's finger during a fight. His most recent ban was more complicated. On March 10 Kerr met with the Flint Generals' owner, who said some changes were afoot. When Kerr, the team's career scoring leader, arrived at the rink for the pregame skate the next morning, his locker was empty. The Generals had suspended him without explanation--"I thought I would have gotten more respect," says Kerr, whose ice time had dwindled--and traded him to Kalamazoo four days later.

If he had ended the season in Flint, he says he probably would have retired. (He runs a hockey school near Grand Blanc, Mich., where he lives with his wife and two kids, and wants to coach some day.) Now, as the K-Wings gear up for the UHL playoffs, he ponders one last minor league training camp--he turns 38 in the fall--and 700 goals. Unless the NHL needs a replacement player for Hatcher or any other millionaire who may have moonlighted in his playpen. "It's always been a dream to play in the NHL and to make a little money to help my family," says Kerr, laughing, as the K-Wings bus barrels north. "Yeah, I'd do that." ■

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