Preface To Leaving the Game
When will you know it’s the right time. Some just know, while others have no choice. 11 years ago I was running a summer women’s league out of the Superior Propane Centre in Moncton.
I’ll never forget asking one young player what her plans were in the game.
I wrote about that conversation in 2013.
Leaving the Game
I recently had some discussions with some players that are attending a weekly Summer League in our community. These discussions have been very difficult for me. These players are going to make a decision with regards to the future of their hockey careers in the upcoming weeks. These recent discussions definitely created some time to reflect on the end of my playing days.
My competitive playing days ended with a loss in O.T. while killing a penalty and losing a one on one battle in front of our net.
For many years I would replay the sequence over and over again in my head and regretted every second of it. I quickly realized after that play that my competitive organized hockey career was over.
I played on some great teams and won Provincial titles an Atlantic Championship and countless tournaments, but at the time you are really too young to realize how special and rare winning championships really are. Nonetheless, the realization that my playing days were over definitely hurt at the time and I was really disappointed that I couldn’t get that elusive Provincial Title at the High School level.
I never considered playing or trying out for Jr. Hockey because of my academic plans to attend university that fall and some self doubt that I couldn’t actually play at that level.
I quickly realized how much I truly missed the game and being part of team when hockey season rolled around.
Sure my close friends reassured me that I could play intramural hockey at university for the next few years, but I knew by far that it wouldn’t be the same. Upon some recent reflection the self doubt that I was feeling at the time with regards to continuing my competitive days was just my way of preparing myself for the next facet of my life, which in turn was university.
As a former coach, having the conversation with graduating players or players that have aspirations to continue their career is very difficult and I have always mentioned one word when discussing their future plans in the game of hockey.
I always try to covey the importance of feeling no regret in your decision to stop playing at arguably the person’s highest level.
When discussing regret I always refer to Larry Bird!
I will never forget watching a great documentary on Larry Bird called “the Legend”.
Bird had actually quit Indiana University due to many issues in his life at the time.
Bird found himself back in French Lick, Indiana working for the local Sanitation Dept.
Bird was challenged by a childhood friend and a great basketball player in his own right that had packed it in too soon saying that “Larry, no one will ever know how good you are if don’t go back to university and play. Bird’s decision to attend Indiana St. University would help mold him into the player he became and put that school on the map.
Some athletes innately know when it’s time to step away from a game that they have dedicated so much time and effort while others hang on too long.
In Bird’s case he lived on the competitive spirit of the game and the challenge of the NBA on a nightly basis.
Bird’s motivation was directly correlated to Magic Johnson’s success as the two would seemingly battle for the Championship on a yearly basis. Bird would admit that he should have retired a few years earlier in his career, but he always wondered if there was a chance that Celtics would face the Lakers one last time.
I often wondered and have written on numerous occasions how difficult it must be for any athlete to know when it’s time to retire from a sport that has defined them for so long.
The most difficult part for me having these conversations with hockey players during their off season is the fact that they have already made their decisions.
Whether to continue or pack it in, but yet they continue to train in their off season due to the fact that’s what they have done since they were 10 years of age.
The really upset part is the fact that most of these players still have the skill set to compete at high levels of hockey, but have made that personal decision to go in a different direction.
Looking back now, I probably could have played Jr. B somewhere after my high school career, but some part of me realized that my skill set wasn’t good enough anymore, but that certainly didn’t make the decision any easier.
To look at an 18 year old hockey player that has the talent to play at the next level and decide not to compete, just because they have grown tired of game that has given them so much over the course of their career is difficult to comprehend.
Nevertheless, judging someone’s decision to leave the game of hockey can be detrimental to the player on countless levels both athletically and personally.
I found myself this past Tuesday night asking a question that put a player in a very tough position and by the look on her face I could tell that she had already made her decision.
What made this specific case unique is that she had already discussed her future in the game with her former coach at the prep school level.
In hindsight I should have never asked her the question; “So have you decided about next year”?
I never wanted to be that coach that would pry into a players personal decisions on their hockey career only if they really wanted me to give them advice or direction.
I left the rink on Tuesday wondering if I was too forward and since that moment in time I have regretted my actions. Who am I to weigh in on her decision to play university hockey next season. Part of me always wonders if my skill set was good enough for the next level would have I given it a shot. The regret from my last experience in competitive hockey affects every aspect of my coaching and involvement in the game of hockey today.
This topic reminds me of recent off camera discussion I had with Wendel Clark about the end of his career. We were waiting for the TV truck to get set up for the interview and had some time to kill so I asked him the following question, “it must be difficult leaving the game of hockey after a successful career”. Wendel’s response was simple and to the point “it’s just like anything it’s a different stage in your life, and you move on,” Clark said.
Leaving the game of hockey on your own terms is a sort of rite of passage for a lot of athletes and every player should experience that on their own terms.
Nevertheless, in some ways we all have to move on, but for some players regret is their passenger.