If I’m being honest with myself, a slapshot to the face probably didn’t end my hockey career. It probably gave me an out.
It’s not that I didn’t want to continue playing hockey for a living, it’s that it’s really f***ing hard to be a pro hockey player if you aren’t born with the talent of Alexei Kovalev. It’s a ton of physical work for the lessers.
Every summer after the hockey season guys take off a certain amount of time, depending on when they’re eliminated, before talking themselves into returning to the gym and getting back to work. As much as the guys who went deep in playoffs need the most rest days, they get the opposite, because the next season is upon them quickest and I’m telling you, you cannot go to training camp in bad shape or you fall behind the eight-ball. You look unimpressive, you drop down the depth chart, and you start in a hole that feels like the bottom of a well, and you’re staring up at the light trying to figure out how the hell you’re going to get back to level ground.
Something like this happened to me, which is why I say a puck to the jaw hardly ruined some bright career. When I realized the NHL was not a league I would be playing in, I went into self-sabotoge mode during the summer of 2008.
The tough part around now for most players (and way earlier for those whose teams didn’t make playoffs) is that they’re through their 2-3 weeks of post-season rest, and it’s tough to kick it out of that gear. They’ve had their mini-bender, they’ve gone to their cabin, or taken their vacation, or holed up at home. Their bones have knit, their aches have soothed, and their bruises have faded. So…it’s time to get back in the gym then, eh? ...Ugh.
What’s the difference? You’re going to train for like, three more months, and the day you decide to get back in the gym, man…it’s on again. You lost a bunch of weight during the season, you lost strength, and the start of the summer lifting is unsatisfying and hard. You’re behind where you’ve been strength-wise in the past. You really have to be mentally ready before you grab those first weights, because if you’re still burnt out, you’re never going to get it going, and you’re never going to be able to properly commit.
Plus, your friends are going to the beach. Oh and s**t, you’ve got that golf tournament Wednesday, so start Thursday. Ahh, might be a little hungover after a golf tourney with the boys, maybe set your sights on the following week. Not gonna start on a Friday, after all.
I had just come off the 2007-08 season where I went to Islanders camp, signed a two-way AHL-ECHL contract in their system, and had a pretty good season. After tallying one point in my first 20 ECHL games, I put up 30 in my next 30, made the all-star team, and spent a few months with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the AHL, where I was healthy scratched more than I actually played, but whatever.
All told it was a pretty good year. But still…I’m a smart dude. I was 24-25 that season, and going to be 25-26 the next. I wasn’t even an established AHLer.
That summer, the Islanders offered me the exact same contract, which I believe was for 45k over the hockey season, which offended me somewhat, more because it was obvious they had no grander plan for me than to let me fill a roster hole. So, I figured I’d do what a lot of players do – avoid the two-way AHL/ECHL deal, sign a one-way ECHL deal. That way if you’re playing well, any AHL team can call you up. Why limit yourself to trying to take the job of four right wingers on one team when you can go after 100-plus around the league?
The reality that I would be going back to start the season in the ECHL was bleak for me, because again – I’m fairly perceptive. Not moving up at that age meant I wasn’t seeing the big time, and honestly, at that point I felt I could’ve matched my rookie totals in the ECHL with a wrong-handed stick.
So…I didn’t train very hard.
The mental hurdle that was “getting back in the gym” at this time of the year in 2008 was one I never truly cleared. I tried to force myself in the gym too soon, and that set me farther back. I had just been in New York then Salt Lake City then Connecticut all winter, on planes, trains and automobiles grinding it out daily, and the last thing I wanted to do when back at home in Kelowna was walk into my gym off Harvey and Spall and get on the bike.
I jogged around our neighborhood.
I played racquetball.
I walked the golf course.
But at no point did I find “it” like I had in the past.
I was offered an AHL tryout with the Hershey Bears that year (I was actually invited back to Islanders camp too, but declined because I genuinely didn’t think I’d represent our family well enough), who had just come off winning a championship, so there was no hope I was going to make their squad. But, I signed my ECHL deal with Reading (also Pennsylvania) of the ECHL, and Hershey was close, so I figured I’d tryout there and show them what I could do, then when they needed someone during the year, hopefully I’d get the call over Random Guy A.
I remember the one conditioning drill Bob Woods had the team do, which was start in the circles at one end, then skate down and touch the far glass and come back three times…in under 45 seconds. It’s a shift simulator, and if you can’t do it in that time, you get to do it again after a rest until you push it hard enough.
I almost f***ing died.
For your average human, I was in excellent shape. For a guy trying to be a pro hockey player, I was pretty pathetic.
It was at the end of a 3-on-3 low battle drill at practice the next day in Hershey, a drill in which I had my best few moments of camp (aside from tucking one beside Bobby Goepfert‘s ear earlier in the day), when it happened. I was tired, a guy went to hit me, and I was too rundown to avoid contact, so I just took the hit and didn’t push back. My skate caught a rut, I twisted, fell, and tore my MCL.
I was off to Reading, PA for a month of rehab. I played one game and got traded to Boise, Idaho. I tore my MCL again. I rehabbed. I returned. I took a puck in the face. I became a writer.
I really believe that my inability to clear the “Okay, time to man up” hurdle in June of 2008 was a large reason I never played a pro game past 2009. I showed up to camp in s**t shape and got hurt.
Most guys have been at it for months by now, while the players from the later playoff teams are just having that conversation with themselves this week. Is today the day I jump the hurdle and commit to the 2013-14 season? Is it tomorrow? After the long weekend?
There’s never a “right” day.
The work you put in today affects everything about next season. Which day is the right day to recommit yourself to your fitness?