There is nothing more terrifying than the concept of “The End.” While the end can mean many things, negative or positive, it is the former that is often first manifested in our minds. We are conditioned to fear and prepare for the worst. The end of a path. The end of a dream. The end of a life.
In hockey, like in all sports, the end is an inevitable certainty. There is no way around it. Whether you finish up in midget, junior, college or pro, your career is going to end and you’re going to have to find a way to pick up the pieces and move on. The reality is, when that final game comes and goes, most aren’t prepared to say goodbye and take that next step. Most aren’t able to transition and see the value in what they have accomplished and how the skills they’ve acquired and lessons they have learned can continue to pave the way to future success.
One thing I learned after 25 years in the game of hockey is that the end means something different for everyone, no matter what level you reach or how long you play. I’ve seen kids with two years of junior experience bawl their eyes out and fall into deep depression when the lights go out on their career. I’ve also seen 14-year pros, with NHL experience, shrug their shoulders, walk away and never look back. It’s important to refrain from assumptions. Just because someone retires with millions in the bank and Stanley Cup rings on their fingers doesn’t mean they will take it any easier than someone who finishes up after 12 junior hockey games, or vice versa. What I’ve learned is that everyone is different and the end of a dream affects everyone in different ways.
I’ve seen players grind through a career, suffering horrific, life-changing injuries; lose families, fortunes and their sense of self-worth. With growing awareness of the lingering and debilitating effects of concussions, we’ve seen an uprising of courage from former players to speak about their post-career struggles, tearing down the walls of stigma. Players like the late Steve Montador, who took up the fight to create awareness for mental health, and his friend Dan Carcillo who dropped the guarded, tough-guy image to open up in an emotional revelation, have shed much needed light on the struggles faced by players when their career ends. These guys are heroes. True warriors.
While the weight of the end hits everyone at every level differently, there are common themes and lessons that can help lessen the blow of reality. Things that benefit everyone while dealing with major change and transition in life.
Here are five important things to remember as you prepare for “The End”:
- You’re Not Alone
The most important step to climbing out of a dark place is to reach out for support. Too often, especially in hockey, a sport governed by an unwritten code and represented by a certain image, players will conceal their wounds, both physically and emotionally, and try to “tough it out.” You don’t want to show weakness, so it’s better to suffer in silence or use other coping methods. You don’t want to go down this road. If you’re suffering, reach out and get the support you need before it snowballs into something you can’t get out of. Be courageous and drop your guard. You’re not the first athlete to admit they need help and, hopefully, you will pave the way for others to feel safe to do so.
- Recognize the Transferrable Skills
I touched on the value of hockey players and their transferable skills in another article (“Hockey to the Workplace: 10 Transferable Competencies”). Whatever level you reach in hockey, you have learned some invaluable life lessons and acquired a transferable skill-set. From the value of perseverance to proactivity in the workplace, hockey provides a strong base of skills and values to build off of as you transition from one stage in life to the next.
- Understand the Value in Your Accomplishments
One of the issues I had during my playing career was that I never recognized the value in what I was doing. This is mostly because players are coached and bred to never be satisfied and always reach for something more. It wasn’t until I retired, took a step back and decided to write a book, that I began to see the intrinsic value in everything I had accomplished. The biggest value I was able to take away from my career was the relationships I built and the experiences I had, both good and bad. Most of my best friends in life have come from the hockey world. Hockey paid for my university degree. Hockey allowed me to travel the world and experience different cultures. All of these amazing positives dwarfed the fact that I never made it to the NHL and that I was often a healthy scratch in college. Always look to the positive value in anything you do to help you understand the purpose.
- You’re Somebody’s Hero
I recently spoke to a mother of a child with down syndrome who spends her Saturdays during the winter in cold rinks watching single-A bantam hockey games. They don’t have a relative playing in the game. One of the players is a classmate of the child with down syndrome; someone with a kind heart and a love for the game of hockey. For this child this player is a hero. The player will likely never play beyond the age of 16 or 17, likely never reaching a level higher than rep hockey. When they do hang up the blades, they will see a smiling face in a small crowd in a cold rink on a Saturday.
After hearing this story, it made me realize that no matter how far you go in hockey or in life, there are always people out there counting on you, rooting for you and caring about you. You don’t have to play in the NHL to be somebody’s hero and when you stop playing the game, it doesn’t mean you stop being the hero.
- Take Your Time
Most players I talk to, and this was always my biggest problem, are always worried about an imaginary clock ticking away on their window of opportunity, their career and their life. In hockey, there is an obsession with this clock. People put deadlines on everything. Parents often say, “If Johnny doesn’t make AAA by minor bantam, he’ll never reach his dreams.” There is an obsession over the OHL, WHL and QMJHL drafts. Parents will say, “If Johnny doesn’t get drafted, he’ll never reach his dreams.” And, when you’re done playing, there is a pressure to hurry up and be instantaneously successful in something else. For me it was, “OK, you have your degree so go out and get a high-paying job right away.” When it didn’t happen like that, I was devastated. I felt like a complete failure all over again. First, my hockey career failed and now I can’t even get a decent job. The clock was ticking and I was a slave to it.
The reality is that the clock is a farce. If you don’t make AAA by minor bantam, you can still reach your dreams. If you don’t get drafted in the OHL, you can still reach your dreams. If you don’t get a great job within a year after your playing career ends, you are normal. Don’t rush. Most mistakes in life are made in haste. You probably didn’t decide to make your lifelong dream to be a hockey player in the first moments of your life and you shouldn’t expect your next step to be any different.