Call-ups apparently don't get to chose their number. Go Ovi, I guess?

Call-ups apparently don’t get to chose their number. Go Ovi, I guess? (By the way, Marc Danis stuff this deke with his left toe against the right post)

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.

…Tomorrow.

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.

jb with Grizzlies

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?

Comments (33)

  1. Thanks for sharing. I am far from any type of professional athlete but sitting in my office on a Friday looking at my gym bag, I might be mentally prepared to actually work out today. Thanks for inspiring a 30-something boring Attorney who usually lives life vicariously.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I am far from any type of professional athlete but sitting in my office on a Friday looking at my gym bag, I might be mentally prepared to actually work out today. Thanks for inspiring a 30-something boring Attorney who usually lives life vicariously.

  3. I like these articles the best, Any blogger can write about stats and analysis but very few know what the players are really going through. Thanks

  4. This is really good stuff. Motivational and insightful.

  5. Again Justin, you’re the best.

    I went to the gym for off-ice training with a bunch of AHLers ( including Mark Barberio who was named best D in the AHL that following season ) in September 2011, then on the ice that same morning, a total of 3 hours of training. I’m in good shape for a 38 yo, but boy oh boy that was something. The guys were of course going back at it the next day, in fact for 5 straight days each week. There was no way I could do it again the next day, even 2 days later.

    It was a great experience for a fan of the game/beer league player. And it really shows the kind of commitment it takes when you’re an average player who can’t cruise for a couple of weeks and has to play hard all the time.

  6. I’m a runner. (And not a young one.) In the past 7 years, i’ve run 4 full marathons, around 15 halfs, and countless 5 and 10k races. I’ve loved every second of it; the races, the training, how it makes me feel alive and strong, and like maybe I’m keeping old age at arm’s length. I’ve had numerous injuries over the years and always found a way to come back, to keep running and working out.

    I ran a full this past September, and then another full in January. I never stopped training in between races. And then I sat down and have barely gotten up since. I dragged myself through a half in May, but otherwise, the very idea of running or working out makes me want to go back to bed. (And in February, I mostly did.)

    So I get what you’re saying. I know very well what it’s like trying to find the mental energy to start again. (I still haven’t.) I can’t imagine what it’s like for a professional athlete.

    tl;dr – sometimes burnout happens, and it’s exhausting to overcome.

    • That interesting, definitely a component of this for your “everyday” athlete too. Most of us operate in fits and starts. It’s just hard to get the “starts” part going.

      • The difference, of course, between professional athletes and recreational ones, is incentive to get started again. I don’t have either a career or monetary reason to get off my couch again. I miss it, in a distant, abstract “I could go for a run…” kind of way, but nothing immediate depends on me making a move.

  7. Your articles are always excellent, and then you write something like this that borders on brilliance. Thank you for a glimpse at what it really takes to be one of those can play the greatest sport on earth.

  8. Can you elaborate on what kind of stuff you and others did in the gym in the offseason? Exercises, sets/reps, poundages, weekly schedule, etc.

  9. Awesome. Being a lazy and unathletic house-leaguer my entire life this makes me respect NHL players a lot more, especially the older guys contemplating retirement now that I understand what they go through a bit more.

    With your pro hockey experience articles and system analyses, combined with Charron`s stats pieces, this is without a doubt the best hockey blog out there.

    • I’d through Etchingham’s cultural/sociological and historical pieces in to complete the trifecta. Bourne’s done a great job assembling talent (I assume it’s his doing. Apologies if somebody else deserves credit) with the backhand shelf.

      But yeah, the 1st person accounts are so so valuable compared to the normal talking heads bs you read elsewhere.

  10. Great read Justin, Nice work.

    Back in the mid 90′s, I spent a lot of time with some of the guys playing in Rochester for the Amerks, and was close friends with 3 of them. I spent time working out with them, we hung out outside the gym, went on vacations together in the offseason, typical guy friend nonsense. There was a huge shift when it came time to go back into work mode. You could just see it when it was time to “get to it”, when the break after the season was over was done and they had to start working hard again.

    A couple of the guys ended up doing very well (one had a DUI issue in Buffalo years later that you likely read about), and a couple of them were out of hockey in a few years. The guys that did well were the guys who could really flip that switch and go hard, even in the offseason, and it always amazed me the difference in the mentality between the guys that could, and the guys that would “start tomorrow”.

  11. This is the Justin Bourne we all enjoy reading.

    Write more pieces like this, even if you’ve already written about it in the past, it’s still great to read.

  12. As an Over-40 E leaguer, I was thinking “Man, the Cup was just won on Monday, it’s only Friday, I’m not ready to even READ about getting in shape for NEXT seasont!!”

    Then again, Bryz has been bought out (like d’uh), the Canuks and Rangers have traded coaches, and Vinny won’t be wearing the C anymore in Tampa Bay, so I guess next season is already upon us. Oh yeah, draft is tomorrow.

    OK, let the non-lockout-2013-2014 reading begin! Or continue…

  13. Good read, JB. Love your articles like this, awesome to read.

  14. This is a brilliant article.

  15. Donna, you should get a workup. Often, there’s other bodily changes that would cause a person to go from one way like that to another. Thyroid changes, among other things. Just a small, anonymous piece of advice…

    • Some of it is due to seasonal affective issues, I think, although having a half to run in May usually gets me through that. The marathon in September was in brutally hot weather that exacerbated my exercise-induced asthma, and the January race was also in hot weather. I think I just wore myself out, and now it’s mental. Okay, and maybe some respiratory glitches.

      You’re probably right.

      • I am not a runner much but I bike a good chunk (at least five days a week) and I found switching other things in briefly got my motivation back up when I am worn out – mix in a run here and there, maybe a swim. After about a week of something different I am motivated again.

        That and forcing myself into the situation where I have to do it – bus to the office and run home etc.

  16. This article seems particularly appropriate on the day that Alfredsson announced that he’s coming back. Part of the announcement said something to the effect of him needing to take a few weeks off and see if he still had the desire to get back to working out.

    I am curious if you experience a similar problem of motivation and inertia as a writer. That also seems like a profession where people go through real fits and and starts.

  17. Great read. Frusterating subject matter for people who train for “not the NHL” on top of work, school, parenting or some combination of these.
    I look at guys like Jagr, Brind’Amour etc. and they strike me as people who truly grasp how blessed they are to recieve the pay they do for being really good at a sport. Whether they typically enjoy being a gym rat, or do it because they realize they may as well extend how many years they play, those are the guys I have a ton of respect for.

  18. Even as someone who hasnt played league sports in years this made me think about hitting the gym like I used to as a teenager.

    It would be cool to see a post about the “average” (not that thats possible) NHL players workout routine.

  19. Thanks for the great article. And for clearing up the “I wonder if I coulda…..” question that occasionally comes up in my mind when I watch pro hockey. Nnnnope.

  20. I ran a 12K Spartan race… the few days following, I couldn’t bring myself to get back to the gym. Then all of a sudden it was 2 weeks later, 3 weeks later…

    YOu start to get down on yourself because you know you need to get back to the gym, but that motivation is just so hard!

    I finally got back yesterday. It was tough. But mentally, I feel so much better because the guilt is gone, I finally just got back to it.

    I can’t imagine what it’s like to get back to it after a full NHL season, knowing that whatever strength gains you make will just be depleted again next year, and year after year after year, it’s just like starting all over.

    • So much yes to all of this. And speaking as someone who’s getting older, age can take away whatever gains you make, especially if you stop for any length of time. So you work harder but never catch up to where you were last year.

      Good for you for getting back to it.

  21. You should write a book, Bourne. This blog is so good, I want to read it on paper, in my bathroom (or wherever)(probably the bathroom though).

    Not that I am like Bourne-fit let alone NHL-fit, but I have learned that mental hurdles to fitness are everywhere. It’s not just the lure of other people or events, it’s the lure of defeatism. “I ate a piece of cake, that means my diet is over.” “I missed a workout, my program is over!”

    But give yourself some credit too, you lived in Kelowna. That’s a hot place to bein the summertime. I remember melting in Mr T’s gym and thinking, you know, I could be at Gyro in 15 minutes. Then I would go to Gyro.

  22. Bourne, do you have Penner’s email? Maybe he should read this.

    Sincerely,

    Every LA Kings fan, ever.

  23. Great insights and hockey chit. Hope you write more and more.

    It also justifies why I became a goalie, Reason #7.

  24. Thanks Bourney was gonna blow off rugby training tonight with a 2 day hangover but think I’ll go now

  25. These stories are the best and the most fun to read! thanks for sharing and keep em coming!

  26. Great article, thank you for putting in the time and the effort, hockey needs writers like you and there are just so few of them.

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