It was an unassuming Thursday night. I was sitting in the modest, cookie-cutter dressing room at the relatively modern Invista Centre in Kingston, Ontario, fresh into a lukewarm Coors Light and covered in sweat from an hour of pick-up hockey. Long gone are most of the remnants of any speed or skill that I once had, although when I tell stories of the past, I am always much better than I actually was. All that remains from eight-plus years of high level hockey are a tattered pair of hockey pants from my days with the now-defunct Amarillo Gorillas of the Central Hockey League and a pair of palmless gloves from my days with the also-defunct Augusta Lynx of the ECHL. The last free stick I would ever receive was obliterated on a botched one-timer attempt only minutes prior, which was foolish because I was never good at one-timers even when I was in my prime. A massive platinum championship ring from my junior days collects dust in one of the many shoeboxes stashed away in a nameless Tupperware bin in my basement.
These days, most of my excursions back on the ice are filled with emotions of sadness and disappointment. Sadness to feel such a rapid decline in ability and disappointment in the constant regrets and reminders as to what could have been if I had only known back then what I do now. If I had only had a better mindset and had worked harder at each level or trained harder each off-season. If I could have only known more about what style of play could have gotten me to a higher level. I don’t regret ever playing the game; I’ve always had such a strong passion and desire for hockey. It is the disappointment of not achieving what you know now might have been attainable if you had only made better choices along the way.
It was a comment by a young, budding player sitting next to me that snapped me out of my self-loathing funk. The player, whom, in my opinion, has a pretty impressive resume having played over 250 games at the major junior level, was griping about suiting up in the CIS next season. He was making off-handed comments about it being the end of the road in his hockey career; a dead-end for a deadbeat player.
I quickly stopped worrying about my own past failures and said to the kid, “Don’t give me that shit about playing in the CIS being the end of the road. Don’t go into this experience with that defeatist attitude. Go tell Joel Ward and Steve Rucchin that the CIS is a hockey graveyard.” Most of my problems in hockey stemmed from going into situations with the worst possible mentality. I let my fear of failure control my life. I went into almost every situation expecting bad things to happen. It’s pretty hard to find success when you are subconsciously urging yourself to achieve the opposite.
Too often stories of flawless success are thrown in our faces. We fawn over perfection and tales of easy road success, ultimately setting our own expectations in life to levels that are unattainable by anyone below the form of a deity. Especially in a sport like hockey, where the negatives overwhelmingly outweigh the positives from shooting percentages to the frequency of turnovers in a game, having the mindset that everything should come easier is toxic.
The ultimate goal is and always will be the NHL, but why does everything short of that goal have to be a failure? By setting milestone goals within the dream of reaching the pinnacle, you create the momentum of pride and accomplishment. Smaller goals, such as making a junior team and then doing what you need to do to increase playing time, will help to foster a greater sense of self-worth and efficacy.
No matter what rock-bottom you may find yourself at along the way in hockey, there is always someone who has been there, bounced back and made the best of it.
Couldn’t stick at the major junior level? No problem, meet Bryan Helmer, veteran of over 1,400 professional hockey games, including 152 NHL games (including playoffs). Helmer spent just 6 games in the OHL with the Belleville Bulls before being released. After four seasons with the Wellington Dukes, a Tier II Jr. A team, Helmer received a tryout offer with the New Jersey Devils, sparking a 20-year pro career that began in Albany, NY in the AHL. Helmer almost didn’t return for his last year of junior, in fact, and was all set to attend Guelph University after his last year of junior when the Devils came knocking, giving him another shot to achieve his dream.
Maybe you’re a player who can’t seem to crack the local Jr. A team? If you can’t even make that team the dream is surely over, right? Meet Dustin Penner, current NHL power forward and owner of a Stanley Cup ring. Penner played University club hockey (not varsity…club hockey) at Minot State after he was cut three times from local junior teams. It was sheer blind luck that landed Penner at the University of Maine when he was spotted by Black Bears Assistant Coach Grant Standbrook at a summer prospects tournament. Penner spent only one season at Maine before signing an NHL contract with the Anaheim Ducks in 2004.
A common downward spiralling point of many players is when the reality of not being offered an NCAA Division I scholarship sets in. Division III schools play second fiddle all season long and then end up signing sulking prospects that have all but closed the book on their own careers. It’s a crossroads where a large number of players pack it in mentally. Once again, all you have to do is look to successes of players like Keith Aucoin (Norwich University), Alex Hicks (University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire), Guy Hebert (Hamilton College), Kurtis McLean (Norwich University), Eric Selleck (Oswego State) and Joel Otto (Bemidji State – back when they were considered D III), Division III alumni that all went onto suit up in the NHL.
This brings us full circle to that dank dressing room on a muggy Thursday night in July, where another young player was about to close the book on his career, destined to be another casualty to the mentality of fast-track success or bust. The two of us sat there, a tragic before and after picture of what that demoralizing mentality gets you in life. Here I was thinking about what I would do to have one more chance to make it right, to go back in time with a different mindset and tackle each situation with vigor and wisdom. There he was, young and full of potential. Dejected from seeing teammates over the past few seasons make the fast-track leap without him. He tries to laugh off what he sadly views as his last few years of semi-meaningful hockey; about to plunge down the slippery slope of negativity into a pit of regret and self-pity.
Since I drive a KIA and not a Delorean equipped to go where we don’t need roads, I can simply do what I can to help the next generation rid themselves of the mentality that there is only one way to reach your dreams. There is no guarantee that never giving up will result in complete success but it might bring forth the next best thing. Hockey can open so many doors in life from job opportunities, to travelling the world and getting paid to do it. Why close the door on a world of endless possibilities? Especially if it’s what you’ve always wanted to do.