August 02, 2011
In the summer of 2008, I was at the make-or-break-it crossroads of my hockey career. I was 25 and coming off a pretty good season between the ECHL and AHL.
Problem for me was, 25 going on 26 isn't exactly youthful for an undrafted player trying to claw his way out of the minors, and each year there was going to be more and more young bucks who were drafted and on the rise. It's also likely that many of them would be much, much better than me.
I basically had to have one hell of a good summer of workouts, report to camp, wherever that may be (ended up being Hershey), and be better than I'd ever been if I hoped to play in the AHL. Otherwise the option would be to head off to Europe for "the experience," the money, and the chance to delay the inevitable "guess I should get a real job" moment that would be coming shortly after.
(Whether you start trying to climb the ranks at another job at 26 or 36, you're still starting from scratch, so the "why am I still playing?" doubt start to creep in for players in the minors around that age.)
That summer I entirely fell out of love with hockey, a game I loved so much for so long.
The feeling was tough to explain, except to say that there wasn't much of one at all. I had always just unconsciously been driven to get better, and suddenly I couldn't have cared less. I've since resumed my love affair with the sport, but during those crucial months I realized it had plummeted down my list of priorities, coming in somewhere just above watching reality TV. Which I loathe.
I guess when I really stopped to take stock of where my career was likely taking me, the realization that the NHL just wasn't in the cards took the wind out of my sails. For others, that loss of passion can happen for other reasons. Relationships, family, whatever, sometimes people just aren't happy in their line of work (as much as you can claim hockey as "work") and feel the need to make a change. But when you work your whole life to become a specialist at something, it's not exactly easy to justify stepping away. There ends up being a transition period where you go through the motions.
I've run into a few players that say this happened to them to (mostly minor league guys), and I'm sure when we see some players in The Show have off years, a few of them can be attributed to waning passion as well.
Hockey does become your job, and not everybody is able to keep that boyish pond-hockey love alive when they're buried in the minors, getting benched for a bad chip-pass. Maybe you've struggled to drag your butt into work to do your job sometimes too, but you do it because, well, it's your job. But you just can't be at your best when you're trying out of obligation.
Feeling like that during the off-season, a time that relies heavily on self-motivation, can sink you. I left the gym on a number of days after struggling to push myself at the squat rack. I skipped a couple on-ice sessions. And worse, I turned down an invite to Islanders camp for a second year because I didn't feel like I'd done myself justice in my summer training. Showing up to an NHL camp in less than peak physical condition would've gotten me killed.
Having a team that looks good on paper is fine, but we can't predict where individual players are at mentally. We all like to think that our favourite players on our favourite teams are going through their workout routines right now, sticking to the plan, desperately pushing towards the ultimate goal, the Stanley Cup.
But everybody's different, and that's not always the case.
This is why when you sign a guy to a long-term deal, you have to be certain he's got that passion, that fire, that need to win a Stanley Cup. You don't do it for a smaller cap hit. That's how you end up with buyouts all over the books.
I look back at that summer, and it's the only part of my hockey career that I regret. If I wasn't going to throw myself into it, I should've just headed across the pond, seen some sights, done something new.
Training camp is getting closer — we'll find out then if anyone went through what I did and didn't put in the necessary work to succeed at their level. We'll also see who got even hungrier, and is coming back even better. Maybe Alexei Yashin(notes) and Alex Kovalev(notes) are pushing each other to be better right now somewhere in the world, flipping truck tires up a hill or something. Who knows?
… Okay they're probably not. But that's why we play the games. You never know who's fully committed, and who's had enough.