Chris Chelios. Dominik Hasek. Peter Forsberg. Teemu Selanne. Scott Niedermayer. Nicklas Lidstrom.
So, if injury doesn't do you in first, what would it take for you to call it a career?
I’m talking about you, the reader. Not them, the hockey players. But it all amounts to the same thing. If you got paid a comfortable (or more than comfortable) salary to do what you love, when would you walk away from it?
Would you wait until your body gave out, no matter how much your skill level had dropped? Would you want to go out at the top of your game? Would you wait until nobody wanted you anymore? Would you want to retire a champion?
It’s actually far more complicated than that. Because it’s not just doing something that you love, but doing the one thing that you’ve done all of your life. It’s all you know, and all you care about.
And then, there’s the fact that your co-workers are family – people whose lives you know like the back of your hand. People you’ve grown up with. They were there when you started working there, they might’ve been there when you got married, they’ve heard all the stories about your family and kids, helped you move in and possibly move out, giving you advice on the new town you’re going to. They’ve shared your joys, your pain, and your shame. And it’s the same back; you know all about them and have done what you can for them without even thinking.
And now you're supposed to walk away from all of that?
And since we’re talking hockey and not the other sports, where many hockey players came through junior hockey and did not go to college, there’s the question of what are you going to do now. All you know is how to skate, score, and/or block shots. Do you go back to school in your 30s or 40s? Maybe get your GED first? And what if school isn’t your thing? Then what? There are only so many coaching jobs to go around.
This isn’t about money, this is about life. You’re leaving everything you’ve ever know to start completely over from scratch in your 30s or 40s, with a family and possibly alimony to have to deal with. What would you do? Keep playing? If you do, everyone will think that you’re still playing because you need the money, instead of putting off the inevitable because it’s just too terrifying to contemplate.
So what would you do?
I’ll tell you what I did. While I’ve obviously never played professional hockey, I did used to play. I was a defenseman about to switch over to center when I blew out my ankle in a street hockey game. I was also at an age where I was too old to play with the team that I helped create, and the next nearest team was an hour and a half drive away (one way) from where I lived.
At that point, I had a decision to make, and I decided to stop playing hockey. While I don’t regret that decision, I’d give anything to play again – even though I know that I probably won’t. So I have some small idea of what some of these guys have to come to terms with. As does anyone who's decided (not forced) to stop playing a team sport that they love.
It’s easy to dismiss players staying in the game for longer than they should because of greed, but it’s probably far more likely that they do it because they just don’t know what they’ll do when they stop. Besides, these are hockey players we’re talking about here. How many of them hold out for more money? Sure, a few, but not too many.