The 2019-20 season was to be the last for former Kalamazoo Wings defenseman Kyle Bushee. The 35-year- old native of Otsego, Michigan, joined the K-Wings for the 2016-17 season and played for his hometown team for a total of three years.
During that time, Bushee played in 192 regular season games and 13 playoff games where he racked up 28 goals and 87 assists. In January of 2018, Bushee was named as the K-Wings representative to the ECHL All-Star Game.
“Making the All-Star game at the age of 32 was pretty special,” Bushee said. “That was my one and only. I was just married and my family was around for that and to be able to experience that with them was really nice.”
For Bushee, who spent countless hours at what was then Wings Stadium, watching the K-Wings as a young boy and then playing on the same ice as a member of KOHA (Kalamazoo Optimist Hockey Association), being able to come full circle and play for the team he grew up cheering for was an honor.
“It’s such a storied franchise,” Bushee said of the K-Wings, “I’ll always cherish my three years here. It’s very unique to go from a kid that goes to every game and I was out there in my KOHA jersey to then actually playing for them.”
Looking back on all of his memories on the ice at Wings, Bushee recalled an interesting fact.
“I scored a goal when I was five or six during the intermission of a K-Wings game as a member of KOHA and it was my first goal at Wings Stadium,” Bushee reminisced. “And in my last game as a professional at Wings, I scored a goal in the playoffs.”
While the ECHL season was cut short due to Covid-19, it was not the virus that ended Bushee’s 12 year pro career. Rather, it was a change of direction.
During the 2018-19 season, Bushee made a decision regarding his playing days.
“My plan, after talking to my wife throughout that year, was that I was going to play one more season, my final year,” Bushee said. “I was really looking forward to it. I was having a great summer of training and skating. Obviously, that plan didn’t go according to plan.”
During his exit interview with the K-Wings at the end of last season, Bushee said they didn’t give him any indication that he would not be asked back.
“My meeting went well,” Bushee said. “They told me I was everything they wanted in a K-Wing and appreciated my effort during the year and felt I had another good year.”
It wasn’t until the middle of August that Bushee learned of his fate with the K-Wings. After a meeting with the team, Bushee was told that they decided they weren’t going to bring him back.
“They gave some reasons, which in my opinion, I didn’t feel were warranted,” Bushee said. However, Bushee admits, that is just how things go sometimes.
“They have every right to do that,” Bushee said. “That was the decision they made. It sucks being on this side of it, but it just wasn’t meant to be this year.”
For Bushee, the timing couldn’t have come at a worse time, professionally speaking. Planning to remain in the Kalamazoo area, the Bushees had just purchased a home in the area and were expecting their first child.
Other teams came knocking, but with the situation being what it was and the fact that Bushee’s wife has a career of her own in Kalamazoo, the logistics of signing with another team just didn’t work out.
“It would have been a lot to put on my family,” Bushee said. “I wanted to play my last year as a K-Wing. The thought of driving to Fort Wayne and back every day (two hours each way), just wasn’t appealing, given our circumstances.”
Bushee said he was honest when other teams called. “I wanted to play, but it pretty much had to be Kalamazoo,” Bushee said. “It was nice that other teams were interested, but it just wouldn’t work.”
Bushee admitted that tears were shed between himself and his family, but things are better now.
“I felt like I had three really good years (in Kalamazoo),” Bushee said. “From being a local kid playing here, loved coming to that rink every day, loved that friends and family could come and watch…it was disappointing.”
“It was just not the way I envisioned my career ending,” Bushee said. “But life goes on. It’s alright now.”
One perk of not being a professional hockey player anymore is being able to be home on a regular basis.
“I guess you don’t really realize when you are playing, but it was a lot of weight on her (his wife) shoulders to handle the day to day duties and make sure everything was up and running,” Bushee said. “It’s nice to be able to take some of the burden off her and help out. It’s actually been a real blessing to be home.”
Now that his playing days are behind him, Bushee has had time reflect on his 12-year professional career. He has fond memories of his time with the Wheeling Nailers and Elmira Jackals, among others. The goals he scored in overtime or in the playoffs are highlights. But most of all, Bushee misses the little things that were taken for granted then.
“It’s funny,” Bushee said, “now that I am a little more removed, you think of all the highlights of playing, but you miss the team dinners, and bus trips, sitting in the locker room and chewing the fat with the guys you played with.”
Bushee may not be on the ice as a player any longer, but he is still lacing up the skates as a coach for KOHA. As his career was winding down, he knew that he wanted to be involved in hockey after his playing days here over.
“The plan was always to be involved,” Bushee said, “and I still get my hockey release. I just love hockey and it is a lot of joy to see how much the kids love hockey and light up when playing.”
As a player in KOHA, Bushee said many of his coaches were former players that gave back by giving their time to help develop the young players.
“For me to be able to give back and be with the kids for an hour or so on the ice is the highlight of my day.”
The future may hold even more time on the ice for the one-time player as he has turned his focus toward becoming a referee. Bushee isn’t sure where this journey will take him, but the dream, as they say, is kind of the same as when he was a hockey player.
“I am hoping to see where it takes me,” Bushee said. “Obviously every kid’s dream is to be in the NHL.”
According to Bushee, the NHL has a program set up where they invite former players to come to an “exposure combine” where they try to identify potential referee candidates from the group. Bushee hopes to take part in the combine this fall.
Bushee wished things would have turned out differently and that he could have ended his career on his terms, but he doesn’t have any hard feelings regarding the situation.
“I was privileged to call myself a professional hockey player for 12 years and I am excited about what is next,” Bushee said. “There are no regrets, no ill-will towards anyone there (K-Wings). It just wasn’t meant to be this year, and it is what it is.”
Submitted by Mark McGlothlen