Falling on empty; Do ‘Blue-collar’ hockey players fall on empty after pro career

Posted: February 23, 2011 in hockey, ice hockey, Sports
Tags: , , , , , ,

There’s been one thing that has been bugging me for a while and it started brewing again in the aftermath of the Penguins v Islanders fight fest. I’m not going to wade in on the fight and my final thoughts on it are that I agree 100% with what Don Cherry said during Coaches Corner on Saturday.

However, there is an example in the aftermath that I would like to use and that is the suspension of Trevor Gillies. Whether his suspension was too harsh or too light, I’m not going to comment on that, but the fact that he lost $30k+ as a result of the suspension. $30k is a lot to a player who is not earning the millions that many other players in the game are raking in and it leads me to a broader question of: How will the regular, blue-collar, players survive after their careers are over?

Where people who are iconic in the sport have their futures secured by the money they bring in from their contracts, sponsorship agreements and so on, the blue-collar players have an entirely different prospects for life after hockey. For an elite athlete, retirement is a tough place to begin with, as for years the body has fed off the adrenaline, a certain routine and friendships formed in the locker room and all of a sudden all of that is replaced with, well, normal everyday life.

Then there is the uncertainty of what do you do for money. Yes the salary and savings/pensions will keep you going for a while but not long enough to live the end of your days playing golf from earnings in hockey, unless you’ve struck lucky and played in the KHL for a ridiculously large sum of money. If you haven’t really made it out to be an icon like Yzerman, Lemieux, Gretzky, Shanahan and so on, chances are that your days in hockey are over. Finished. Gone. The only way majority of the players will be able to stay in touch with the game is by coaching junior hockey or watch games and let’s face it, neither is really a bread winner. Or then there’s the option that you become a pundit, if you’ve got the face for it. But again, it all depends on how likeable the player was during his career.

As professional players, NHL or other levels of professionals have spent their lives honing their skills and many have only a high-school diploma to their name. I know in America, a high-school diploma will get you a job, but many would prefer college education. So what are the options for a 30-something-year-old  retiree (Unless you’re a freak of nature like Nicklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne or Martin Brodeur)?

Many players choose further education after their playing careers or enjoy the spleandours of family life before looking for another job. Hockey, specially at the top level is so time consuming, players spend majority of the time away from home, so there’s the luxury of spending time with the kids and so on. However, there is a trend of players getting divorces after their careers have wrapped up. Soon after the skates have been hung and the family adjusts to the new routines, they can become overbearing to some and couples realise that the dynamics of the relationship are something they are unable to deal with.

Many have retired players are enjoying success in their post hockey lives, but the fact of the matter is that after a blue-collar hockey players’ career is over, there is a greater risk that he falls on nothing. As I said, their whole lives have been dedicated to the game and its the only thing they’ll know. The NHLPA and many clubs have programmes in place to ensure that their players are well off after their careers are over, though things have improved greatly since the days of Grodie Howe, but for some reason I have a niggling feeling that there could be more that could be done.

Here’s an example. I had a conversation years ago, just after Jari Kurri had reitred from hockey. Where everyone knew Jari was well off financially, there was one thing from that conversation that has stuck with me to this day. I was told that if Kurri didn’t have the money he had made from playing and investments he would have been in serious trouble. Apparently Kurri’s knowledge of every day life and things that average joe’s like me take for granted, was silch, but if you spoke to him about hockey, he knew everything there was to know. I would imagine that every pro hockey player is similar from the hockey point of view, but I have often pondered, how well adjusted, or detached in a lack of a better word, are the players from the toils of the life their fans lead, because effectively that is what the greater majority of players are facing after retirement. Don’t take it as a stab against Kurri in anyway. I grew up with his triumphs as my inspiration and he is one of the reasons why I started playing.

Of course this is not to say that the blue-collar players would be bad off, in fact there are a few of them who are well respected and earn a decent wage by plying their trade, for instance New York Rangers’ tough guy Derek Boogard. It’s not often that an enforcer surpasses the $1mil mark in salary.

Back in the 90s the Finnish SM-Liiga, the professional league, was full of players who had day jobs in order to ensure a comfortable income, though the most popular ‘profession’ was that of a student. There were only a hand full that were able to make a full living out of hockey. To a degree that is still true at the second highest level in Mestis. Reading the Finnish Jaakiekko Lehti (Hockey magazine), where the magazine carries a regular feature of past stars and where they are now. Many have found jobs in car sales, real-estate, technology and so on, but a staggering few work in hockey. The SM-liiga has a programme in place where it ensures that players receive proper qualifications after their professional sports careers end. Think of it like a high-school guidance councelor, except for hockey players.

Many top level athletes have fallen on empty after their sports careers were done. Outside of hockey I can think of Matti Nykanen, the ski jumper. Nykanen had a stellar, albeit short, career in ski jumping but after his career he was floating around. Despite Nykanen being a household name in the Finnish media, he has been mentioned more because of drunken antics, domestic abuse, his strip tease days and ‘singing’ career. Even Esa Tikkanen got his fair share of media attention after his career finished and he indulged in drinking. Same could be said of Kevin Stevens who was found in a hotel with a hooker and crack, though it has to be said it was during his playing career. Stevens is one of those fortunate enough to have had a successful career and now works as a scout.

I’m sure the same is applicable in football and other sports and as much as we would like it, our bodies deteriorate over time and aren’t able to keep up with the relentless requirements of sports, specially at the professional level. It is up to the leagues and national programmes to ensure that players do not fall on empty after retiring, regardless of their stature and reputation within the league.

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