The Trap

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Chris Collins, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

I was having some wine on the flight to Helsinki when a dangerous thought occurred to me: I am living the dream. I’m going to play professional hockey in Finland. Europe, baby! 24 years old. Making good money. What could possibly go wrong?

“Sir, would you like some more wine?”

Sure.

We landed and then drove to the small coastal town of Rauma (population 40,000), home of my new team, Lukko (arena capacity: 5,400). They were having an exhibition game that night, and seemingly the entire town had turned up early. I was still trying to shake off the jet lag and process my surroundings when someone from the organization walked right up to me and asked, with an extremely serious face, “Can you play?”

I was like, “What? Like right now?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“You must work out then. For the fans.”

“What?”

“Yes, for the fans. They came to see you.”

There was a small crowd already filling the stands before the game. I was still in my clothes from the plane. I hadn’t even met my teammates yet. They pointed to the stairs.

“Jump.”

“Jump?”

“Yes. Jump up. Jump, jump.”

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I started jumping. The fans were just staring blankly at the weird American guy hopping up the stairs in a hoodie. I hated the jumping. But then I was instructed to do some kind of cartwheel routine and I sort of missed the jumping. When the routine ended, I was mildly applauded and spent the game in the press box intermittently falling asleep. The team officials were unamused. “Tomorrow morning, 6-mile run,” someone said. “Then practice.”

The thought I had on the plane started to turn on me. “Is this a dream?” I felt like I was enlisted in Red Army.

After the game, I met my teammates. All of them were Finns who had grown up together. I was the only American. If you’re reading this and you’ve ever been the new guy/girl at school/work, imagine that uneasy feeling, then multiply it by jet lag and imagine every person in the room is Scandinavian. I spent most of my time in the Finnish league like a bombing stand-up comedian trying to explain my jokes to unblinking teammates.

When I got out of the arena, a team official showed me to my car in the parking lot and pointed across the highway to an apartment building.

“There’s your place.”

Thank God. At least the apartment is close and I can finally get some sleep. Things are going to be fine. Europe! Living the dream! The official disappeared back into the arena, and I turned the ignition and started driving away.

When I pulled onto the highway, I noticed I was going extremely slow. I guess it’s the European engines? Yeah, that must be it. But on the other hand, the car sounds weird? I hit the gas hard. Nothing. Cars were creeping up behind me and beeping now. I got to an intersection and the car completely stalled out. I looked down at my feet and noticed … a third pedal? Wait a second.

I looked over at the stick shift and realized three things: 1) I was driving a manual car. 2) I do not know how to drive a stick. 3) I’m stuck in the middle of the highway in rural Finland and I’m completely f******.

People in the cars behind me were going nuts. They were yelling at me in Finnish and honking their little horns. So I popped the hood of the car and raised my hands in the universal sign of “Dangit, must be the engine I guess?”

I’m stuck in the middle of the highway in rural Finland and I’m completely f******.

I reached for the cheap little Nokia phone the team had given me and called one of the only numbers I knew by heart.

“Hey Chris! How’s Finland?”

“Listen, Dad, I don’t have time to explain, but you need to teach me how to drive a stick. Right now.”

*

I wasn’t supposed to be in Finland. Not exactly.

My senior year at Boston College, I was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and scored a hat-trick in the Frozen Four to knock out Jonathan Toews’ North Dakota team. My breakout season earned me an entry-level deal with the Boston Bruins. I remember laying in bed before my first training camp and thinking, Is this real? American kid. Boston College to the Boston Bruins. I made it!

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Then I walked in on the first day for our strength tests and witnessed the life-changing sight of 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara doing 33 perfect pull-ups in a banana hammock speedo. I’m pretty sure he could’ve done 50. He jumped down from the bar, turned and walked away like it was nothing. Holy shit, I realized. This is serious business. After training camp, I was assigned to the minors and had to face the reality that I was just one of hundreds of talented players in the ECHL, AHL and overseas leagues who had to bleed for a chance to break into the NHL.

And I certainly bled. After two years playing for the Long Beach Ice Dogs and Providence Bruins — a tour of duty that destroyed most of my front teeth — I got a call from my agent.

“Look, here’s the reality,” he said. “You’re not going to get a shot in the NHL right now, but you can make NHL money. Want to go to Finland?”

I loved reading the essays from Daniel Carcillo and Hayley Wickenheiser talking about the anxiety and depression that stems from the uncertainty of life after hockey. They’re dead on, but I can also tell you that there’s hundreds of players who never make it to the NHL, who struggle with the same complex question: When is it time to give up the dream?

I never made it to the NHL, but for the next seven years, my only job was to be a professional hockey player. My agent eventually got me out of Finland and onto the Augsburg Panthers in Germany, where I was given a brand new (automatic) BMW and pretty much had the time of my life. Every Sunday, our games would end at 5 p.m. and I’d change out of my gear as fast as possible, hop in the car and drive 140-miles-per-hour on the autobahn to ski in the Alps. In my downtime, I would think, I should probably learn a language? Or take an online class?

I had all kinds of vague ideas, but no direction. The culture doesn’t help. Once, an assistant coach on one of my teams saw me carrying a finance book to the team bus. He didn’t even say anything. He just looked at me like, This f****** guy.

Why don’t guys walk away to start normal lives while they still can? Because it’s a trap.

In every single locker room I’ve ever been in — whether it was in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania or Augsburg, Germany — 90 percent of the bullshitting revolves around the same fantasy and fear: What are we going to do in the real world? It starts out as a kind of Ferris Bueller wish list — “Oh man, if we didn’t have to go out and do the same stupid drills for the 900th time at this practice, I’d be at Coachella or at the beach with my girlfriend.” But eventually you run out of vacation ideas and you start to realize that if you really weren’t at this dumb practice or on this 12-hour bus ride through rural Finland, you would need an actual purpose in life to fill the next 50 years.

I don’t want to make it sound like hockey is a bad thing. Hockey has given me so many incredible experiences that I never would have been exposed to as a regular kid from Rochester, NY. Hockey is intoxicating. Even if you’re playing in a small town in front of 10,000 people, you feel like the man. For lack of a better word, it’s awesome. But that’s exactly why I’ve been in AHL and European locker rooms with 35-year-old guys with two kids who see the end coming and start genuinely panicking. There’s a danger of suspended adolescence in chasing the dream. The reality is that you enter a twilight zone where everything is taken care of for you (I’ve seen countless guys ask how to mail a letter), where you get to experience a rush of adrenaline every night (the feeling of scoring a goal, even in front of 5,000 people, is indescribable), and where your progress can be measured with stats (when you’re failing, at least you know it).

It’s an amazing and surreal world. Until it’s over.

There’s a moment that happens in every minor leaguer’s life when they hit their mid-20s and one of their real-world friends gets their first big promotion or gets engaged. And the minor leaguer is reading the news on Facebook from the back of a smelly bus in the middle of nowhere, thinking, Uh oh. Am I falling behind?

I was in the fortunate minority of guys who actually went to college and got a degree. Most NHLers, and even most minor leaguers, end their formal education at 16. But after moving from Finland to Germany to Pennsylvania, then back to Germany, then back to Massachusetts, I woke up one day and realized I was approaching 30 years old. On one hand, I was missing my front teeth and had spent the last eight years of my life not working. On the other hand, I had been to almost every single country in Europe and gotten to know some of the wildest characters you could ever imagine (for every crazy Finnish highway story, there are guys with hundreds more).

I was living the dream. But I could hear the alarm clock.

I think this is at the heart of why transition to the real world is such a complex problem in hockey. Even when guys do have the desire to learn, when is it too late to go back and be an intern? 25? 30?

Can you get coffee at age 35 after you’ve spent your entire adult life being treated like a God in small towns across the world? When most players talk about the future in the locker room, it’s all about coming up with ridiculous inventions or being real estate moguls or TV analysts. They can’t actually comprehend being in an office. When you get into the real world, you can’t just walk up to the office pest and start shaking your gloves like, “You wanna go?”

I’m not even trying to be funny. Guys crave the normalcy and stability of the real world. When they get it, they miss the feeling of being sore as hell and emotionally spent on the back of the team bus. They miss the stakes.

When you get into the real world, you can’t just walk up to the office pest and start shaking your gloves like, “You wanna go?”

I know because many players from my generation are now transitioning out. Last year, I made the decision to hang up my skates and start learning the ropes at a private equity firm in California. I tell everyone that it’s sick because that’s just what hockey players do. That’s what everyone does. Living on the beach. Killing it. And it is definitely a great opportunity. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I don’t stare at the computer screen sometimes and get punched in the stomach with memories of closing down bars in Prague or hearing the German fans chant my name after a goal.

The fact is, there are tons of hockey players every year — not just NHLers but minor leaguers and European players — who walk away from the game lost. I agree that there should be more concrete programs to help at every level (just imagine if companies started to mentor players in the offseason to groom them for the future). But we should also stand up for one another and be open about our experiences. When you don’t have that locker room anymore, you need someplace else. So let’s create it. I’m throwing out a line to Daniel Carcillo and Hayley Wickenheiser and any professional or minor league player. Let’s keep the conversation going, either here on The Players’ Tribune or on Twitter and Facebook. You can reach me @Colli17.

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