March 17, 2014
Gregg Sutch played in the Ontario Hockey League for five seasons (2008-09 to 2012-13). He finished his career with the Saginaw Spirit, where he was one of Terry Trafford’s linemates. Sutch, 22, was a first-round draft pick in the OHL and a fifth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in the 2010 NHL entry draft. He is currently retired from hockey and will be writing on occasion for Yahoo Sports. – Ed., SS
It's been a few days now since Terry Trafford was found dead in his truck, and the tragedy has been replaying over in my head day in and day out. We all know the story of Trafford by now, but that's not what I'm here to write about. What I want to discuss is how we react to this tragedy.
It's pretty clear hockey needs a serious overhaul:
The face of major junior needs major reform.
The way we view hockey players needs to change.
Hockey players need to change the way we see ourselves.
For many of us, the words “I am a hockey player” have become a social stigma. Hockey has become so overwhelming and blown out of proportion that it consumes our lives. We grow up playing hockey and after a while we allow hockey to define us. Hockey becomes who we are. Everything about us is related to hockey - the way we carry ourselves, the way we dress, the way we act and talk. It's become so prevalent that people can pick out hockey players in a crowd. Is that really good anymore?
Stereotypically, a hockey player is supposed to be a man’s man and as tough as nails. If you're a hockey player, you don't want to speak out if you need help. Why? Because you're supposed to be tough.
A hockey player's biggest fear is for someone to call us a "baby" or "soft." Our biggest fear is that if we admit we need help with something or, if you don't want to play hockey anymore, we will not longer be viewed as that tough hockey player. When you grow up that way, there's no way you're going to face those fears. A hockey player will suck it up and drag it out for as long as they can, playing minor hockey in remote cities making very low pay, because sometimes that's all you know.
I've been there.
It was one of, if not my main fear, when moving on from the game. I was scared people would say I was “soft” because I didn’t want to play hockey anymore. This needs to change. If you continue to be overwhelmed and live with that fear, it'll eat you up. You won't ask for help when you really do need it, and the problem will grow.
I know too many guys who continue playing hockey well into their late 20s, early 30s, toiling in remote leagues, because hockey is all they know. At some point, though, we all have accept the reality that there is life after hockey.
Five years ago, I was in Los Angeles in a room with NHLers John Tavares, Cam Fowler, and Adam Larsson. In a seminar conducted by former actor and leadership consultant, Steve Shenbaum, we were asked to write down five things we valued. The trick? We weren’t allowed to write hockey, family or friends. After 20 minutes, I had nothing on my paper. It was something so simple, yet so alarming. I couldn't think of one thing I valued aside from the obvious. That day I vowed to grow myself as a person and value more than just the obvious. Fortunately, that's what helped me move on from the game because I knew I was more than just a hockey player.
Shenbaum called these five values "your coins" and told us to always carry them with us. He told us not to talk solely about hockey when meeting people because it was our values that made us special.
We see too many kids now who grow up playing the game, and that's all they know. In the event hockey is ripped away – say a career ending injury or being cut from a team – and you no longer know who you are. That's what scares me. Kids, grow yourself as a person away from the rink because one day, you will have to hang up the skates and be more than hockey; it's inevitable.
Pawns In The Junior Game
How we treat hockey players must also change. I've been there myself. You make it to the OHL and now you're a pawn. You become a piece of the business, and if you're no good, you're gone. It's the dark side of the game.
There’s not enough emphasis on helping the players grow as decent individuals as opposed to how much emphasis is put on the win column. I can honestly say that I only know a handful of people in the hockey world that I worked with that truly cared about me as a person. These individuals know who they are because I've gone out of my way to acknowledge them for what they've done for me. I wouldn't be who I am today without these men in my life, but to the rest, I was just a pawn.
If I didn't fit in with the team or your game plan, it was a quick fix to ship me off somewhere else or sit me out. Major junior touts itself as a league where you go and you're well on your way to the NHL. Let's just stop and think about that for a second. You do realize how few guys make the NHL, right? You realize just how hard it is, right?
Let me give you an example: I attended Buffalo Sabres training camp for two years. Everyone there was trying to make a team of 20-plus players out of 3-4 NHL draft years, AHL players, CHL players, NCAA players, and regular NHL roster players. Did I mention you only have two years to prove yourself to get a contract?
So instead of trying to sell to these kids and their parents on a fast track to the NHL by joining the league, let's start growing these kids as human beings. Let's develop them into well-rounded men who are prepared for the future, and that's not just on the ice. I was fortunate to have played for Saginaw Spirit head coach Greg Gilbert who helped round me out into a decent individual.
It's too bad there isn't more of this going on in hockey because I know far too many guys who only know hockey and nothing else. A lot of it also has to do with parents.
Parents, you need to let your kids play the game for fun. Don't push little Johnny through something because you want him to make the NHL. Let him take his life course and be the support system he needs for that journey.
As players, we also need to take it upon ourselves to grow. I get it - you're living the dream, no school, just play hockey, and not a worry on your mind. Wait till you're done hockey or hockey is taken away from you, and you've done nothing for yourself. It's like hitting a wall. Do something for yourself to prevent this from happening.
If you need help, speak up.
I always spoke to my teammates if I needed someone to hear me out and I still do it now. You need to develop your support group. Don't be afraid to talk to the boys because at the end of the day, we are one big family and only we understand each other. Your coaches should be able to help too; hopefully they are there to help you in ways that are more than just hockey related.
Billets, help out your players at home. Don't turn a blind eye to the kids if you think something weird is going on.
Boys, we are more than just hockey players, we need to discover more about ourselves. A great example I can share is when NHLer Matt Duchene lived with veteran Adam Foote in Colorado. Duchene is one those, "eat, sleep, hockey" guys and Foote caught onto that quickly. Foote, a perennial hockey player, had one rule for Duchene: Talk hockey at the rink, but once you leave the rink, no more hockey talk. When I heard this, it was refreshing. We all play so much hockey, it becomes consuming. If we can learn how to keep hockey at the rink and be a well-rounded individual away from the rink, we will grow so much more. By doing something small like this, you will develop more values than your obvious ones in hockey, family and friends.
Players, if there's one thing I want you to all take away from this it’s to change the way you view yourself, and for the way everyone else views you. Don't let hockey define you, let hockey be the game you love to play. Let hockey be your enjoyment and your getaway.
Don't let hockey be your life. Don't ever let one single thing, whatever it may be, be your life.
My biggest wish is for the junior leagues to start developing these kids as individuals and not just as hockey players. We are humans at the end of the day, and when you treat us as pawns, when we are only 16-20 years old, we don't know how to handle it. It starts early, so parents, let your kids play the game for fun, and let them chase their dreams.
Play for the right reasons and carry your five coins with you when you do it.