In my 11 years in the NHL, I cannot recall a single season when two teammates didn’t fight each other at practice. I mean full-on taking swings. Then, when it was over, without fail, they would hug and skate away. The next day, they’d be laughing together. It was the best thing that could’ve happened. In pro hockey, you can settle small disagreements and bad energy with your fists. In the real world, everything is much more complicated. Imagine two State Farm insurance salesmen passing one another in the hallway, dropping their laptops and just going at it right there, all because one guy wasn’t giving it his all in the morning meeting.
This isn’t a joke. It’s the reason why athletes have a hard time with their second act.
At the end of every season, professional athletes have two realities: we’re either celebrating a championship, or we’re saying, “wait until next season.” But there eventually comes a third reality called “Transition Season.” You hang up your skates, and call it a day. There won’t be another season. There’s just the rest of your life. Even if you retire with $20 million in your bank account (and hardly anyone but a major-superstar-endorsement-deal-king does that), you still have to reckon with the fact that when next season starts, you’ll be watching from the stands. Or on TV. Or in the worst case scenario, closing your eyes and covering your ears, and pretending that it’s not happening without you.
But it is, and it will. So the question is: “How do you make the transition from the game that defined your life to a life that will keep you moving forward, and not wallowing in nostalgia for who you used to be?”
I decided to retire in 2012 because the game was no longer fun for me. Sure, I loved being on the ice, making a great play, putting the puck in the net — and winning. I did not love the abuse I got from my coach. I did not love sitting around in the locker room talking about cars and wives and girlfriends — or about hiding your girlfriend from your wife. And difficult though this may be for fans to understand, some nights, I did not love all the thumping music and swirling lights announcing “The New York Rangers!” as we skated out to play Game X in our 82-game season. Some nights, you just can’t find that extra gear no matter how loud the arena is.
But most of all, I didn’t love the constant uncertainty that my career could end at any moment. It’s difficult to explain to a fan, but your life as a professional athlete is colored by uncertainty. You worry about making a bad play, taking a bad penalty, missing a golden chance to score a goal. The pressure that we experience while we’re playing can be depressing. You know that you’re one small piece of a large machine, and there are guys in suits in the stands watching how you help or hurt that machine. They have pressures on them, too, and some general manager can panic about his own job, and suddenly you get a phone call saying, “You’ve been traded to another team.” It’s part of the job but it’s never normal.
It’s difficult to explain to a fan, but your life as a professional athlete is colored by uncertainty.
I handled the pressure partly by inventing a character — the tough, ornery Sean Avery that you think you know — and I’d put his game face on before I left for the rink, and I’d take it off when I got home. It was my way of handling all the demands on us to win. And to keep my job. I needed people to hate me. I needed players to come after me in order to stay motivated. Because honestly, playing in the NHL can become stagnant after a few years, especially if you have intellectual interests outside the rink.
I also tried to outwork everyone on the ice so that when I did have a slump or do something to hurt the team, I’d have money in the bank, as it were. I had quite a few missteps during my playing career but they were overlooked by management because of how hard I worked. Even so, I was still concerned that the next one would be the end of me.
It nearly was when I screened New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur by facing him directly in the 2008 playoffs, which wasn’t against the rules, but the fallout was intense. I woke up the next day to discover that I was being torn apart by every single person in the hockey world. As much as I played a great game and even scored a goal on Brodeur, the harsh criticism eats at you. And the desire to have it stop begins to accumulate. So if you don’t wake up on top of the world after playing a great game, then you know the clock is running out.
You need to remember that you’re a normal human being before it’s too late. It’s not just about the money.
Since I didn’t want to go play somewhere else, and as I was craving a day without those ups and downs, I started to plan my escape route. I opened my first bar, Warren 77, in 2009, while I was playing for the Rangers, and I began talking to an advertising guy about joining his firm when I left the game. A lot of people laughed when I took an internship at Vogue during the offseason. I schlepped clothes to photo shoots and picked up catering from 9-to-5. But I also got to see how some of the brightest minds in fashion worked and it gave me some legitimate work experience to take into my first real job.
When I did go on vacation, I’d fly in economy class to harden myself for the real world. I once flew 20 hours to New Zealand in coach, even though my salary was millions of dollars a year (because, as I’ve explained before, NHL players only take home a fraction of that). Sure, people would say “Hey, look, Sean Avery is flying coach!” and some of them wanted to talk hockey and some were just mocking me, but the thing many players fail to realize when they leave the game is that they’ve been living in a world that’s only possible if you’re fabulously wealthy. All the private jets, the five-star hotels, the catered gourmet meals, the freebies in bars and restaurants, plus the crazy money for playing a game can make you forget that you’re really a guy from suburban Ontario and your parents are teachers. Sure, flying 20 hours in coach sucks. But you need to remember that you’re a normal human being before it’s too late. It’s not just about the money. It’s about keeping your expectations in check.
So what do you do when it’s time to leave the league for real?
The first thing every athlete leaving the game should prioritize is what skills they can add to their life. In fact, going back to school is the best thing a guy could do in his first year away from the game. For most guys, formal education ended at 16. In the NHL, there’s very little time for reading. In fact, on game days, your phone can’t even be in your hand from the time you get to the rink to the time you leave the locker room. So no iBooks, no reading financial news or answering e-mails. Some teams even extend this no-phone rule to practice days. The unspoken culture is “don’t think about anything but hockey.”
In your second life, you need to be able to focus on the small wins.
So go and learn something that interests you, and that you can use in the world. Even just refreshing yourself on some basic business skills, such as how to use Excel, Word and Powerpoint — stuff you’ve had no exposure to for 10 years — is worthwhile. I think it’s encouraging that the NHLPA is preparing to roll out a back-to-school program to help guys transition into second careers. If nothing else, hopefully it changes the aura of discomfort around education and outside interests in NHL locker rooms. But trust me, there’s a lot of situations you’re presented with in the real world that can’t be taught through a transition program (like the humbling experience of getting coffee for people who once made 50 times less per year than you).
If going back to school isn’t in the cards, you still need to put yourself in a situation so you can start acting like a regular person. Go get a job. Work part time if you have to. Let’s say a guy gets a job as a manager of a restaurant. A lot of useful life skills come out of that job that you were never exposed to as a pro hockey player. You’re managing a team, working with people and learning about balancing cash, but the most important thing about a civilian job is how it centers you and humbles you so you don’t need to be the guy that put the jersey on anymore. It allows you to escape the “character” you were on the ice. You’re not him anymore.
Some guys can’t handle this dramatic change right away. Most take a year to relax and “figure things out,” which in some ways is the worst thing you can do, because the the most jarring thing about the real world is the lack of structure. After having your meals, workouts, sleep and travel completely regimented for an entire career, suddenly you have all this free time and it becomes incredibly unnerving. Personally, the one thing that saved me was mimicking the same routine I had when I was in the NHL. From the day I retired, I would wake up at 6 a.m. almost every morning and run eight miles. But then I started to notice that when 7 p.m. rolled around, I would start to get really restless. I had all this energy that I didn’t know what to do with, and it was because my body was programmed to play a hockey game at night. So I started doing a second workout in the early evening to simulate a game and keep myself sane.
In your second life, you need to be able to focus on the small wins. I’m in the middle of building three houses right now with my business, and some days I just have to settle for winning the routine battles — the work permits were approved, my mason showed up on time, we laid down a hardwood floor. No, those things aren’t as exciting as scoring a goal at Madison Square Garden, but it’s a different kind of satisfaction and I try to approach it with the same tenacity I did when I was playing hockey.
I’m not saying I have it all figured out. Of course, when the new season starts up again, it’s hard not to miss it. When I feel a depression about not playing anymore is starting to come on, I take a moment and reminisce to myself about all the stuff I loved when I played, and then I feel better. I don’t shut down my life and think, I wish I was there, I wish I could do it. I think about how great it was when I did. And how lucky I was to have that chance, and now, to take what I learned and move on.
A lot of guys wish they could get back to where they were but that’s the first thing that has to stop. And once you realize that all the things that allowed you to play your sport at the highest level — all the discipline and commitment and perseverance and talent will serve you well after you retire — you’re ready to start training for the new season. It’s the one called “the rest of your life.”