There’s a moment when you’re walking away from the arena you just frequented for the better part of a year with your gear slung over your shoulder where you’re really not sure what to think.
The circumstances are never the same from year to year, but there’s rarely one dominant emotion. Are you coming back to the same team? Did the year go how you wanted? Did you leave with better relationships or worse? Will you ever be back, do you ever want to be back, did you win, did you lose… It’s just you and your bag over your shoulder and a loose plan for the summer, with uncertainty on the horizon.
Since you rarely know when your season is going to end exactly, all you know is that when it ends you’re going to go home, you’re going to do nothing for two-three weeks, then you’re going to start working on next season.
The only universal feeling for hockey players in that situation is relief.
Your average job is somewhere around 9-to-5, five days a week. You know you have two sleep-ins ahead on the weekend, and some people know that when they’ve had enough of the routine they can take a little vacation at their discretion.
The hockey lifestyle is not harder than that of your average lifestyle, but it is far, far more restricting. You get one day off a week tops, half your days involve attendance in the morning and at night (which also means the middle of the day can’t really be used freely), you travel on what would be off-days, and when you do get a free night you can’t exactly go tear it up because your job relies on your physical ability in the coming days. Oh, and Friday and Saturday nights are almost guaranteed work nights.
So, there’s a little bit of a feeling that you’ve been released from your shackles, and the feeling is amplified by actual locker clean out day and your exit interviews, because going through both is awkward.
I’ve written about both in the past, so allow me to quote myself.
In the minor leagues, by the time you come back to pack up your goods, the trainers will have already pilfered anything they can give out next year and not have to re-buy – the gloves, the helmets, the pants and beyond.
Often, you’re even offered a garbage bag to throw all your stuff in if you didn’t bring a different bag from your apartment. After all, it’s not like they’re going to let you keep the team one, right? They’d have to pay for another one if they did that.
It’s always a reminder that the concept of “team” is sadly temporary, despite what they try to get you to believe throughout the season.
The Bruins have been fortunate that the team that won the Cup a few years back has largely stayed intact, but that’s a luxury few teams are afforded. Some players find themselves skipping from dressing room to dressing room, being asked to give themselves to the logo of whatever sweater they happen to be pulling over their head that year.
Once you’ve gathered your gear, you have the distinct honour of waiting for what can seem like, or actually be, hours for your turn to talk to the staff. And oh man, is that a weird time.
The player walks in to the coach’s office, where his two assistants are awkwardly flanked and exposed, while the big cheese is behind the desk. After some awkward group greeting, coach will then proceed to make some even-more-awkward “Hey the year’s over we can be buddies now sorry about that time I called you F’ing loser” conversation.
“You and the boys get into one last night or what big guy? I bet you did. Haha, right on!”
With a segue like comedian Steven Wright (none), you launch into the season — “Did you enjoy the year?” “Were you happy with your opportunity?” “How do you think your season went?”
After those questions are launched, here’s where the coaches would put in their imaginary iPods, and set the dial to something cheery like “Just Call Me Angel in the Morning” (or whatever), and begin to hum along in their heads, nodding along with you. They’ve made it a “conversation” now, but in reality, the exit meeting is just their chance to tell you what to work on, so they’ll wait their turn.
When your mouth stops moving, they tune back in. “Yeah yeah, that’s great, totally agree. Annnnyway….”
And that’s when it starts. A semi-honest review of what you need to work on compliment sandwiched with stuff like “You’re a good team guy” and “Thanks for not making us deal with any legal issues this season,” which lead into questions about your summer plans/family/girlfriend/wife as things wind down. As those questions are being asked, you know the tough part is over and you can start to taste the freedom.
There are, fortunately, a few fun things that put a smile on your face as you throw half-used rolls of tape and old gym shorts into your bag before wading into the world of uncertainty. Here are three:
You try to “summer stock” throughout the season a little bit – grab some extra rolls of tape, bring home a few sticks that are “broken” (they aren’t) when you find yourself without any of the staff in the room, and pilfer some extra undergear etc.
This is to get you through the four or so summer months without hockey because quite frankly, you’ve become accustomed to not spending $4 on a roll of tape (it’s tough to fathom that anyone does once you haven’t), and you sure as hell aren’t dropping $200 on a stick if you break a few in the summer. And with the extra gear, there’s never any shortage of friends who’d love a free twig or a pair of shorts or whatever the hell it is you happened to get home.
So locker clean out day is the ultimate summer stock day…only the equipment guys know it. If you’re coming back next season they’ll hook you up, or if there’s half-used rolls of tape they don’t care if you grab them, but it can be tough to get much on that final day.
Fun fact: I once had a trainer say “bring your car around back when you’re done.” A certain NHLer-then-AHLer had ordered a bunch of sticks that came in a curve he didn’t love, so they ordered him a fresh stock. They had planned on using the “wrong” sticks for call-ups that were in need or whatever, so with the season over, he slid a dozen – still in packaging – into the back of the truck I was driving. My friends were very happy that summer.
Speaking of your buddies, some aren’t the same hand as you, some aren’t the same skate size as you, so you can make trades with players who have other-handed sticks and extra “old” skates to swap before the summer. “Old” skates have been used for like four months and seem (comparably) brand new to your rec league buds.
Pre-leaving town days
Of course, you spend all season dying to find an opening to go out with the guys you spent the entire season with, so when the year finally comes to a close, very few people hop on a plane to wherever they’re from the next day. Everybody builds a couple hang out days into their schedule so you can go out a couple nights before returning home. The bender begins, and your liver cowers in fear.
This is where the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks are at now. There’s no need to further treat injuries (unless you’re Patrice Bergeron) given you don’t play for so long, so everybody is getting to the rink for the final time with this group, grabbing their stuff and getting on their way.
And with that, the 2013 season is officially over.