Life After Hockey

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When I was a kid growing up in Ontario, hockey was more than just a sport. It was what kept my heart beating every day. If I wasn’t on the ice, I was playing road hockey with neighbors or ministicks in the basement. At a very early age, I fell in love with the game, and made it my goal to make it to the NHL.

I was lucky enough to have a father who had played professional hockey (pictured below with the Hartford Whalers), and he helped me realize my goal of playing in the league. When I was 16, I took the first major step on my journey to the league when I was drafted by the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League.

When you’re in the OHL at 16, 17 or 18 years old, you’re living away from home and finishing up high school. What you are going to do when hockey comes to an end is the last thing on your mind. But my father was a realist. During my time in the OHL, he would implore me to focus on my schooling, knowing full well that hockey would be over someday, whether I wanted it to or not. I appreciated his input because my father’s hockey career ended when he was 28. He knew the importance of having something to move on to.

I took my father’s advice, but only to an extent. While in the OHL, I finished high school and started taking some university courses. But education was never my focus. Rather, pursuing an NHL career was at the heart of everything I did. Deep down, I knew I should be spending more time on education. I was only one play or injury away from my journey to the NHL getting cut short. But in my mind, I didn’t have to worry too much about school. Things were going well with hockey.

I was starting to think that my dream of making it to the NHL was a realistic one. As 2001 progressed, I proved that I was capable of competing with the best talent in the league. In ’03 — two years after I joined the Colts — the Dallas Stars drafted me. And in ’05 I signed a three­-year, entry-­level contract with them.

But before I could get too excited, I knew that I was going to have to pay my dues. I was going to have to spend some time in the minors. There was no doubt that I had some flaws in my game that I needed to fix before I was ready for the NHL (most notably, my speed). Maybe I was young and naïve, but I didn’t think it would take me too long.

Well, my time in the minors didn’t go exactly as planned.

I spent the majority of my first year playing for the Iowa Stars, Dallas’s AHL affiliate. But I also got sent down to the East Coast Hockey League to play for the Idaho Steelheads. Now, Boise’s a great city, but it wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned for my first year of professional hockey.

I remember thinking, It’s only my first year, I learned a lot and need to grind a little bit. Next year will be better and I’ll make my dream of playing in the NHL a reality.

Those thoughts quickly changed, though, because I then moved to a place called Pori. Where? Yeah, exactly. It’s a city in Finland, which is where I played for the professional team, Porin Ässät.

I had thought that this was going to be the year I made my first appearance on NHL ice. Instead, I ended up on another continent.

While playing in Finland — which, in the end, was quite an experience both on and off the ice — I had a good amount of time to think about my future. Knowing I was going into the final year of my entry-level deal, I set two goals for myself.

One, I was going to do everything in my power to reach the NHL. I looked at guys in the league who played a similar role to what I thought I could play and tried to figure out what differentiated them from guys like me who weren’t getting a chance. In my opinion those players all had one thing they were great at: Some were great on draws, others were great penalty killers and some were willing to fight anyone. I looked at my skill set and thought my best chance was to show a willingness to fight and stand up for teammates — so that’s what I did. I was lucky I played when I did because I wouldn’t have had a chance in today’s game.

Two, I was going to seriously consider what I wanted to do after hockey. I was finally going to take my dad’s advice and focus on getting an education.

***

I seriously confronted my post-hockey career during my time in Finland, when I’d spend countless hours reviewing different schools and classes that interested me. Of course, I was still working towards my dream of making it to the NHL, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t as close as I thought to making it big. It was hard to come to that conclusion, but I always tried to be honest with myself. And I knew that if I wasn’t going to have a career in the NHL I was going to need another dream — another goal — to chase.

The following year I was lucky enough to get an opportunity in the league. I made my debut for the Dallas Stars in January 2008. Though I only played eight games, my time in the league made me want to succeed more than ever. Fortunately, I played in seven-plus more seasons in the league. And I spent a good amount of that time having a blast on the ice and also going to school and building up my résumé.

I chose to walk away from the game of professional hockey this past year.

If you’re currently playing, I’m guessing that’s the sort of decision you don’t want to think about at the moment. I don’t blame you. You’re playing at the highest level in the world — why would you think about it ending? There’s nothing better than playing in the NHL — enjoy it.

But, unfortunately, your career will one day come to an end. I was extremely fortunate to have some mentors who pushed me in the right direction when I realized that my career in hockey was all but over. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that.

I want to encourage every player to start thinking about life after hockey. Look, I don’t want to be the jerk and tell you what to do. I just want you to be prepared. If you take a couple of steps now, the transition into the next phase of your life won’t be as challenging as it would be if you were to take no action.

With this in mind, I’ve compiled a few tips that may be helpful.

No. 1: Determine what interests you outside of playing hockey.

Take a moment to seriously think of what you’re passionate about. Jot some notes down on a piece of paper. Consider what passion you might realistically be able to turn into a career.

Talk to anyone and everyone and get their input. It can be friends, family, mentors or advisors. Ask them what they could see you doing and what they know about different industries and professions. Once you have spent some time determining what you may be interested in, start reaching out to people who know that specific line of work and find out what it’s like on a day-to-day basis. This will give you great insight into what your future life could look like.

Think you’re interested in being a GM for a hockey team one day? Give the front office of the team you’re playing for a call and set up a meeting. Learn as much as you can. You don’t want to take the first steps toward becoming a GM right after you retire, only to find out you hate being a scout.

I knew I wanted to get into finance very early on. I found out pretty quickly, however, that finance is a pretty broad field. So I started looking into a lot of different areas within finance. I thought it’d be a good career move to get my law degree. When I spoke to some lawyers, I quickly realized that financial law wasn’t my calling. I would have been in trouble if I hadn’t taken the time to find out about the intricacies of financial law.

In 2008, the St. Louis Blues claimed me off of waivers from Dallas. That was when I was introduced to John Hierlihy and Duncan Fletcher, who were working with the Professional Hockey Players’ Association, the union for both the AHL and the ECHL. (Both John and Duncan are now in the process of launching a program for the NHLPA and NHL to help players prepare for their transition out of the league. If you get a chance to work with John and Duncan, take advantage of it — they are great at what they do. But it’s not only John and Duncan who can help. There are programs at almost every level to help athletes with their transition.)

When I first met John and Duncan, they were helping players plan for retirement, among many other things. My conversations with them started out very simply at first, but they eventually became much more detailed. Those talks helped me to define what exactly I was looking for after my career was over. I wanted something fast-paced, competitive and results-driven. I also wanted to do something that had a strong team component to it. I already knew that I liked finance, and John and Duncan helped me to pinpoint exactly what area of finance I was passionate about — private-equity and real estate. They then presented some education programs to set me up for success.

No. 2: Once you have identified your interest, get some substance behind it.

After taking a couple of classes through a few different universities, I finally settled on enrolling at the University of Phoenix, which offers an online program. Despite being in the NHL, my workload was more manageable than I had thought it would be. The University of Phoenix offers classes in five-week increments, which kept me engaged every single day. Some days, class would break out into a discussion. Other days, class would be more assignment based, as we’d have to complete a paper or take an exam.

The great thing about hockey is that you usually have pretty good idea of what your schedule looks like. With travel, time in between games and time at home, it wasn’t that much of a challenge to find a quiet moment to keep up with my studies. It’s easy to carve out an hour to pick up a book and get some work done.

Don’t get me wrong, I can’t say that I loved schoolwork all the time. But honestly, I found the work to be a great escape from thinking about hockey. Every player reading this knows how, as hockey players, we can overthink everything. What’s the coach thinking? What line am I going to be on? Am I in or out of the lineup? Why couldn’t I have made a better pass? Heck, I remember back in juniors when I’d spend hours sifting through draft boards to see where I might be taken. Those things will drive you crazy.

Focusing on school provided a sense of balance. It took my mind off of all those things over which I had no control.

I hear a lot of excuses from guys I’ve spoken to about taking classes. They usually say something like, “I need to focus on hockey; I’ll just figure this out when I’m done,” or, “I don’t want to miss out on being one of the guys.”

I promise you continuing your education is not what you envision it to be. I’m sure there were times when I was or doing some school work when the boys were going for a beer, but I never felt like I was missing out on those things. Honestly. I don’t think I missed a card game on a plane in my entire career. Getting my degree just meant that, when we got off the plane, I’d need to spend 30 minutes doing some schoolwork instead of watching SportsCenter.

Bonding with the guys in the locker room is so important. I get that. But I’m telling you — you won’t lose any time with your teammates. If anything, you’ll wind up impressing them with your newfound knowledge.

No. 3: Add depth to the experience you have.

As I continued to work toward my degree, John and Duncan suggested that I speak with former hockey players who had transitioned into successful business careers. Every person I spoke to would give me the contact information for a couple of people they knew who could they thought might be able to help me out. This was huge. I picked their brains on everything from their jobs to the differences between life in and out of hockey. I know it sounds cliché, but I was a complete sponge. You should be one, too. Almost to a man, each guy repeated a variation of the same things:

“Talk to as many people as you can. They will be a lot more willing to give you the time of day now than they will be when you’re done.”

And:

“I wish I had done more to prepare for life after hockey while I was playing. I wish I had met more people. I wish I had spent more time in school. I wish had more experience.”

And when I spoke with these former players and their contacts, I asked if I could shadow some of them at their offices during the off-season. Hockey players have pretty much only been hockey players their whole lives. That may be the biggest hurdle after retirement. The thing is, it’s much easier to convince a company to hire you when they see you’re taking the time to get an education and understand the business. “Professional hockey player” sounds cool, but I’m telling you, it doesn’t get you that far when a company is choosing between you and a guy with five or 10 years of experience in the field.

While I was narrowing down the list of things that I was interested in, I used my off-season work experiences to meet new people and to begin getting the hang of the private-equity world. The first couple of times I “interned,” I sat in on meetings and shadowed some people in the office. I began to see what life after hockey could look like. As the years went on, I received more responsibility. The company let me to review deals that it was working on. No, I wasn’t closing multimillion dollar negotiations, but it felt good to have something else to think about and work on during an 82-­game season.

Sure, I had my awkward moments, like when I had to ask questions like, “Sorry, you mind repeating that in another way?” or, “Do you think you could explain that a little better?” Don’t be afraid to ask those questions. Those who I asked were happy to answer. In fact, I sometimes called a couple of people at different places to ask for some help.

Those phone calls were always interesting to me. A lot of the guys I talked to wanted to learn a bit about the life of a hockey player, so I had an easy icebreaker. The conversations were a lot of fun.

After talking about my world for a little bit, I would get the chance to learn about theirs. I was always able to walk away from a phone call with some advice. People will be more than happy to help you out. It’s all a matter of taking the time to give them a call.

No, I didn’t have a lot of the technical skills I could bring to a workplace, and neither will you. But, as hockey players, we have a different skill set that can’t be taught. I’m talking about commitment, work ethic, teamwork and accountability. Those are extremely valuable attributes.

We’ve all been in situations where we had to learn on the fly. Think about a time you did something out of your comfort zone on the ice. You ended up on the penalty kill even though you aren’t the best defender? You got shifted to a power-play line even though you aren’t the best at producing points? You’ve always adjusted and made it work, or else you wouldn’t be where you are. That’s been your whole life — to put your head down, figure it out and get the job done for your teammates. That’s accountability. And that’s very valuable in any workplace.

No. 4: Believe that you can be successful outside of hockey.

Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you’ll be doing something different after your hockey career is over.

I understand the trepidation. You’ve been doing one thing — and one thing only — your entire life. You may think, deep down, that you don’t know how to do anything other than play hockey. I was there. I’m here to tell you that that’s not the case. Are you going to be at the same level in a different industry right away? No chance. But the earlier you start and the more experience you can get under your belt while playing, the easier it will be to find success after your playing days are over.

You may have been born to play hockey, but you certainly haven’t lived until you’ve gotten out of your comfort zone and tried your hand at something new. It takes time and effort to not only identify what you want to do, but also to get the knowledge required to succeed. If you’re focused and competitive enough to make it in professional hockey, you’ll do just fine in another industry.

No. 5: Don’t forget about your hockey career.

Of course, while you’re in the league, you want to get as much out of your career as possible. I am definitely not telling you to commit more time to life after hockey than to your hockey career. It’s what you’ve worked for your whole life. Enjoy hockey for as long as you can. But you should also keep your posthockey life in mind. We have a lot of downtime when we’re playing. It’s not hard to find a few hours a week to help yourself out. If you can squeeze in those small increments of time to focus on some sort of schooling, your older self will thank you profusely.

Some final notes to take with you:

So, why am I telling you all of this? Because if you start preparing for your future now, your life after hockey will be enormously easier. I repeat: Start now. You do not want to be blindly searching for what you want to do after you retire … after you’ve already retired. Things can go south pretty quickly if you don’t feel a sense of purpose.

One thing that John and Duncan spoke often about was the need to have choices. You need choices after you retire. You want to be set up for success. Think about how many aspects of your game you needed to work on to get to the level you did. It’s no different in the business world — you want to equip yourself with an understanding of a variety of topics.

I know how lucky I was to be put in the position I am in today. There are a lot of people who have helped me with my transition from hockey into the private-equity and real estate world.

And to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I would be where I am today if my dad hadn’t told me that I needed to get an education. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t met John and Duncan. And I don’t think I would be where I am today if it hadn’t been for all those people who took my calls or allowed me to shadow them while they were doing their jobs.

I don’t think enough athletes take advantage of the ample opportunities in front of them. So if I can encourage you to do one thing while you’re playing, it’s to start going down this path.

It’s not weird to do that. It’s not a waste of time. It’s smart.

Yeah, I was a hockey player once. My career was not glorious by any measure. But I made it. I reached my goal and lasted almost eight years in the NHL. That’s something I am extremely proud of.

But looking back now, it all seems like a former life. I love my new job, I love the challenges, the opportunities and the group I work with. There’s nothing that can replace playing professional sports. But having a new career that excites me every day has given my life new meaning. And I know I wouldn’t be in this position if I hadn’t taken the steps I did while playing.

So go ahead and get started. Reach out to people who are willing to help. Even if it’s only a couple of phone calls a year, do something to help yourself out.

And remember the words I heard from every ex-athlete I spoke to:

“I wish I had done more while I played.”

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