September 01, 2011
No matter what your chosen line of work is, it becomes a part of who you are. Especially if you're someone who can call what they do a career — you're invested in that job, and it gets woven into the fabric of your self-identity.
When you lose that, sometimes you have trouble figuring out who the "new you" is going to be. You can't just live in the world of who you were, otherwise you become Uncle Rico from "Napoleon Dynamite." You have to re-discover yourself, and that's no easy task.
I was a psychology major at the University of Alaska Anchorage. One of the first tasks we were given was to write down five things that describe ourselves. I know I wrote down "hockey player."
Well, I'm not a hockey player anymore. For the weeks and months following my decision to give up the game, I enjoyed myself. A sort of relief washed over me, and for a short while, I felt relaxed.
Then I realized I wasn't sure what the next step was, let alone what I wanted to do. I had a lot of life left to live, and suddenly an arena wasn't going to be my office. I had never seriously considered that possibility.
You get a lot of perks as an athlete (even as a minor league guy — those smaller towns treat you very well), and definitely end up feeling like something special at times. You get special treatment in a number of different ways; when that gets stripped from you all at once, it's a humbling experience.
That uncertainty during the transitional phase into the real world isn't easy to cope with, and that goes for those who quit because they weren't going to make it to those who retire after long NHL careers. Your special perks suddenly start going to someone younger and better than you.
Looking at the real world, you realize that you've given your life to a single thing, and you probably aren't going to find something you love as much, let alone that you're just as good at. How depressing.
When my Dad retired from the Los Angeles Kings, he became a stock broker in Kelowna, BC. Then he went back to coach hockey. Then he sold insurance, then he was a realtor….then he started the Hockey Greats Fantasy Camp.
He's a Hockey Guy, and being anything else felt forced and uncomfortable. He went through some tough times before admitting that to himself.
The NHLPA is trying to do a better job of helping ex-players in their endeavors after hockey (job-wise). I know they host a conference call once a week with players that have business ventures that other players can get involved in. They've seen so many players leave the game and flail, and they want to help. For so many years, The Game was all they knew and thought about.
This struggle isn't unique to the domain of sports - anyone out there who's ever given themselves to a particular field (or a relationship for that matter) and had to change can relate. You just have to really look at yourself and examine what else you're good at, and what else you like. Sometimes the answer is nothing.
When I left the game, I struggled mentally for a little while. I was hacking out blogs to very few eyes, had just moved States and moved in with my girlfriend, and was starting new.
From the dressing rooms to solitude. From being a nomad to a sedentary lifestyle. Of course it was going to be difficult.
A couple of years later, and it seems the measure of perseverance I put in has been worth it. I'm writing more, and for bigger outlets. I get to do some radio and TV. I'm proud of what I do now, and I've made some friends around the sports media world. Getting though the darker days wouldn't have been possible without my amazing family and fiancée.
Even with them, I struggled. I probably drank too much and didn't exercise enough. But, live and learn, they say, and I think I've done some of both.
Some players, the big names, get to leave the game and still write "hockey player" as one of their five defining characteristics. Greats like Wayne Gretzky still get the perks, still live the lifestyle, still get the recognition.
But for the rest of us who leave and have to put on a new hat — mine says "media" — it can be a tough road to hoe.