Not Done

Early in my career, I’d hear about guys with long scoreless droughts and just think, How’s that even possible? It made no sense to me.

But then there I was, sitting on the bench for the Montreal Canadiens, watching our home fans in the stands dancing around in sombreros and singing “Happy Birthday” in honor of my one-year goal drought.

By that point, I was fully aware of my poor play. My lack of scoring was the subject of TV reports, newspaper columns and, yes, its own website. But it was at that moment, serving as the butt of a bad joke for 20,000 fans at the Bell Centre, that it hit me hardest.

“Holy shit, I’m that guy now.”

Life and hockey kind of mirror each other in the sense that when you’re having good times, it’s difficult to imagine how things will ever go wrong. And when you’re having bad times, well, yeah.

One of the questions athletes often get asked is what profession they would go into if they weren’t playing their sport, and my honest answer is that I have no idea. I knew I wanted to play in the NHL when I was 5 years old, and from that time until now, it was hockey, hockey, hockey.

By the time I was eligible for the draft, I was considered one of the top prospects in the world. I ended up suffering an injury, which resulted in me falling in the draft. I was devastated at the time, but I realize now that it was one of the best things to ever happen to me because I ended up getting picked by the New Jersey Devils.

Talk about being spoiled. The Devils provided me with an Ivy League education in hockey. Larry Robinson, Slava Fetisov, Scott Stevens, Bobby Holik, Randy McKay, Jay Pandolfo, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko — not to mention the leadership that comes from Lou Lamoriello at the very top of the organization. I can’t think of a better group of guys to show someone the ropes in the NHL, and learning from them flat-out made me a better hockey player and person.

That’s not just lip service. I’ll give you an example.

Once when I was riding a hot streak, I remember being on the team plane reading about how great I was doing. Joe Nieuwendyk walked over, grabbed the paper from me and said, “Gomer, don’t read that shit.” And I was kind of confused and then he told me, “Get in the habit right now of not reading the paper, because one day they’re going to start writing things about you that you won’t want to read.” Joe was one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around in this sport. There’s a certain code amongst hockey players. When a guy like Joe Nieuwendyk tells you not to do something, you listen.

I had no idea at the time just how valuable his advice would turn out to be.

My greatest skill on the ice has always been passing the puck. The greatest joy I feel during a game is when I’m able to set up a goal for my teammate. When your best skill is passing and you play on a team with extremely talented players, you’re going to look pretty decent. There’s no greater satisfaction than knowing that you’re doing what you’re meant to do in the place you’re meant to do it. In those first seven seasons with the Devils, we won two Stanley Cups.

I remember when I was 23 or 24 watching a game in the training room, and during the broadcast they mentioned someone’s salary and I went, “Wow!” And the trainer looked at me and said, “You dumb ass, you’re going to be making that one day.”

Growing up in Alaska, my mom was a hairdresser and my dad was a construction worker. My parents came from a poor upbringing, but I didn’t grow up poor. They always provided me with everything I needed. I promised my Mom when I was 8 years old that I would buy her a house one day. That was certainly one of the motivating factors in wanting to make it to the NHL, but it wasn’t the only one. During my childhood, I wasn’t surrounded by money, so it was never really glamorized.

Regardless, when I was presented with the opportunity to sign my first big contract in 2007, I took it. Every player wants to stay in the league long enough to make it to free agency. You’re never going to make this kind of money again. Any vet will tell you that you should take advantage of the opportunity, and be smart with it. Four teams made offers, but the best one came from the New York Rangers, and I decided that I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to play in New York City at Madison Square Garden. To a hockey fan, signing a contract with the Rangers after spending several years with New Jersey probably sounds like treason. But the truth is that most of my teammates were happy for me. They understand as much as anybody that this is a business.

That’s not to say it was an easy decision. I played on the same team with some guys for seven years. We grew up together. We were like family. There’s no question that I felt a certain loyalty to them and the organization. But at the same time, we’ve all seen the other side of it. We’ve watched our friends get cut. We’ve seen guys buy a house and then get traded a couple of months later. When you see those things, you learn very quickly how important it is to take care of yourself when you can.

I didn’t really skip a beat when I moved to the Rangers. We had some success while I was there and I even made an all-star team. The Rangers were a great organization that played a style of hockey that I was comfortable with.

Alex Mogilny once told me, “You’re going to get traded at least once during your career, just hope it happens during the summer.” After a couple of years with the Rangers, my number was called and I was traded to Montreal. I was upset about leaving New York City but I was excited about the opportunity – who wouldn’t be?

The assumption might be that everything went to downhill as soon as I put on that Habs uniform, but that’s not really telling the whole story. My first season in Montreal, I led the team in assists and we made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. My stats might not have been as high as they were in previous years, but if your team is thriving, that’s what matters. You want to fill up a stat sheet? Go sit in the press box. If you want to win hockey games, focus your attention on the final score.

I began struggling with the Canadiens at the same time when the team as a whole was underperforming. When you’re playing in a city as hockey crazy as Montreal and have a large contract, your bad plays become amplified. As noted poet Biggie Smalls once said, “Mo money, mo problems.” But I know that’s what I signed up for. I’m a sports fan, so I’m familiar with the stigma – guy signs a big contract and then starts taking it easy.

Let’s address that for a moment: It’s bullshit. This is the National Hockey League and the game has only one speed. We all work hard. That’s just the way it is. Over my last decade and a half in the NHL, I only saw one or two guys who I think weren’t as committed to the sport as much as they should have been. If you don’t put everything you have into this game, you open yourself up for injury and, the worst possible punishment for a hockey player, losing the respect of your peers. But, that being said, I also get the fans’ perspective. If I was sitting in the stands, I might have started booing me too.

Being mocked I could deal with. But having my closest friends and family feel genuinely sorry for me really got to me. Up to that point I’d had a proud career, and when I began slumping the people around me began acting like I’d contracted a life-threatening disease. Getting made fun of is one thing, but being pitied? That’s a hockey player’s worst nightmare. Teammates wouldn’t let it on, but I could tell that they didn’t want to play on my line. And that really killed me because I’m a guy who passes the puck and tries to set up other players to succeed.

I really started to struggle when Montreal employed a dump-and-chase approach. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not that kind of player. If you give me minutes on a line with guys who move the puck, I can help a team win hockey games. But if I’m getting limited minutes on the fourth line in a system that requires me to grind against the boards, I simply won’t be my best. And that’s extremely frustrating. Anyone who has ever been in a work environment where they feel their talents aren’t being properly utilized can probably relate.

With all that being said, I still can’t bash Montreal. The truth is that I loved it there and met a lot of people that I still consider to be really close friends. I just wasn’t a good fit for the style of hockey they wanted to play. The hardest part about my experience with the Canadiens was knowing how good we could have been. We had the talent to be a great team, but we just couldn’t put it together. That’s my biggest regret.

When the team hired Michel Therrien as the new head coach in 2012, I was excited about the opportunity for a new start. I worked extra hard during that off-season so that I could bounce back strong with the team.

The first day of training camp, I was going to the rink with Tomas Kaberle and I got a call from Marc Bergevin, the GM of the Canadiens, asking me to come to his office. I remember getting off the phone and turning to Kabby and saying, “Yeah, that’s not good.”

When I made it to the building, I passed by Michel and he kind of shuffled away into his office, which pretty much sealed my fate.

Bergevin basically told me that I wasn’t part of the future plans for the team. The Canadiens wanted to sit me for the shortened 48-game season, and then buy me out the following summer. They didn’t want to risk me getting injured and complicating the buy-out process.

I didn’t say anything in that meeting, because there was nothing to say. It was business. But at that moment, I kept thinking about all those times throughout my career when I’d seen a guy get cut or bought out. You never imagine being that guy, but there I was.

My agent stepped in to speed up my buy-out process so I’d be eligible to sign with a new team right away. They ended up altering the rule because of my situation so that teams can no longer stop a guy from playing hockey.

After that whole experience, I just wanted to get away. I got an opportunity to play in San Jose and decided to jump at it.

Lou was the first person I called when I made the decision to go to the Sharks. He tried to talk me out of it. He wanted me back in New Jersey. He said he wasn’t going to let me fail. I should have listened to him, but at that point I was so set on trying something new that I didn’t hear him out. I thought getting a new start would build my confidence, but what I probably needed was some familiarity. At that point my mind was made up and I just wanted to get the hell out of the east coast.

Sure enough, I had the same troubles in San Jose that I did in Montreal. Fantastic team, great organization but I just didn’t fit well with the style of play. We ended up making it to the Western Conference Semifinals, but I wasn’t overly surprised when they told my agent after the season that I wasn’t in the Sharks’ future plans.

My next stop was with the Panthers, and that’s about when things really started to bottom out for me. I knew pretty early on in training camp that it wasn’t going to work out.

The drive from my home in Boca Raton to the practice rink was about 35 minutes, which gave me a little too much time to think about how far I’d fallen professionally every day. Part of me wondered if I didn’t show up one day if they’d even notice I was gone. I was like George Costanza in Seinfeld.

I needed inspiration and I found it, of all places, with Howard Stern. I’ve always been a huge fan of the show. I’d listen to him during my commute and when I was at one of my lowest moments, I remember him saying, “They wanted me to quit and get off the radio. Everyone thought I was done. I said ‘f— you, I’ll have the last laugh.’”

And honestly I thought, Wow, he’s right. It gave me a little push at a time when I really needed it.

My former Devils teammates Mike Mottau and Scott Clemmensen were also with the Panthers and I was thankful for the opportunity to reconnect with them. They kept me sane on and off of the ice.

Throughout the entire time I was struggling, my focus remained on being a professional and upholding the standard I’d learned in New Jersey. Just because I wasn’t playing didn’t excuse me from my responsibilities as a veteran in a young locker room. When I was at work, I didn’t sit alone and sulk. I did everything I could to contribute to make sure those young guys got the education I received coming into the league. Handling things any other way would have been a slap in the face to Scott Stevens, Jay Pandolfo, Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and the rest of the players who taught me the correct way to do things.

I really started to think Florida would be my last stop. There was no chance of getting traded – who would I get traded for? I wasn’t playing. And at that point, I started thinking about my legacy and what I left behind. I hated the idea of being the guy who slumped and then fizzled out. You get one shot at this, and I didn’t want this experience to be the final chapter of the most important thing I’ll ever be involved with.

My final six games with the Panthers, they had a few injuries and I got into the lineup. I figured this was my last hurrah in the NHL, so I went full-out balls to the wall. I decided I didn’t care about fitting in whatever scheme was in place; I just grabbed the damn puck and played my style of hockey. I figured in a few months, I’d probably be in a TV booth so I left everything out there. My ice time jumped from 6 minutes to 17 minutes and I played better than I had in years. At that point, the people closest to me got in contact and told me the same thing: You’re not done.

I got encouragement from guys I really respected, like Steve Valiquette. He knew I was sitting at 987 career games, and he was constantly in my ear about getting to 1,000. He was adamant about it. He said he wasn’t going to let one of his best friends miss their chance to get to that milestone. He knew I could still play in this league. That was something I really needed to hear, but beyond that, I believed it.

After that season I called Lou and said I wanted a shot. He offered me a try-out during training camp then told me to call Vladimir Bure, the same guy I trained with when I was fresh-faced 19-year-old who had no idea what it took to play in the league. I knew that if there was anyone that could bring me back to a high level, it was Vlade. Beyond being the father of two NHL stars, as well as an Olympic swimmer, Vlade was the longtime fitness coach of the Devils and he knew how to make you work. We’ve always had a close relationship, he’s kind of like a second father to me.

And so during the off-season, I was with him twice a day, six days a week doing intense, Soviet-style workouts. But it wasn’t just about the physical workouts, Vlade also spent that summer building me back up, essentially brainwashing me into thinking I could not fail. I would not fail. We knew that we were going to surprise everyone, it was like our secret.

I remember seeing old colleagues from the Devils around the facility and to them I probably looked like some sort of tragic figure. Aw, there’s old Gomer still trying to make it in the NHL. Used to be a great player, what a shame. But look at him trying, that’s pretty cute.

The tryout very well might have been a courtesy, but by the end of that summer with Vlade, I was back. I knew I could make the team. The greatest sports advice I’ve ever gotten was from my dad, who told me, “Make it to the point where they have to keep you.”

The roster was stacked at the forward position, but I told Lou that I was going to put him in a bad situation. I was going to force him to give me a roster spot. Call it arrogant, but after facing the reality of never playing in the NHL again, I needed to have that confidence.

Before camp, I remember having dinner with Scott Stevens, my captain. He told me that he thought I still had what it took to make the team. I knew he wasn’t the type of person that would say that if it wasn’t true. Hearing that from him really meant a lot.

During the pre-season, I felt like I was home. All the frustration I’d felt over the previous years and all the training I’d put in with Vlade combined to make me feel reborn on the ice. Hockey was fun again.

When I got the call from the Devils to join the team, I was ready. Once I got my chance, I made them keep me. A few months in, I’m a regular in the line-up. And even though I’m 35, I’m still learning new things about the game of hockey from my coaches Scott Stevens and Adam Oates. If you can show a professional player how to get better, they’ll do anything for you. There’s no question that both of them have made me a better hockey player.

I suppose the easy narrative is to chalk this up as a story of a guy getting lost before finding his way. That’s just not true, I never, ever lost my ability to play hockey. If anything, those experiences in Montreal, San Jose and Florida made me appreciate the game even more. If you never struggle, it’s difficult to appreciate success. I needed those experiences to make me a more well-rounded person. I knew I could play, I just needed a chance.

My story isn’t finished. I feel like I’m in control of my career and there’s still tread on these tires — after getting limited minutes the past few years, I feel fresh. I’m a smarter player too. I used to think I had to carry the puck end to end, but Adam Oates has taken that out of my game. He’s helped change my approach to hockey and that’s a big part of what has made this season so great.

Looking back on the entire experience, it’s difficult to pinpoint something I’d change. I’ve met the most incredible people in cities across the world because of this game. And I take a lot of pride in the fact that I can say that I’ve experienced just about every emotion hockey can give you. I’ve been to the peak of the mountain, and you can bet I’ve been at the bottom of the trash heap. Ultimately, I’m glad that I have these life lessons to share with young guys in the league trying to find their way.

I remember when I was with Canadiens and things weren’t going well, we had a game in Montreal against the Devils. We lost and I had a terrible game, but afterwards I asked a trainer if I could speak with Lou – we hadn’t talked since I left the Devils. In natural form, Lou had me meet him in some private room that he somehow knew about in the depths of the Bell Centre. When we were alone, I told him that I wasn’t sure what he might have heard about me or what had been said since I left, but that I wanted him to know that I still live by his standard every day I come to the rink.

I always will.