Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Welcome, Life After Hockey

Welcome, Life After Hockey

Dear Ryan,

Congratulations on a fantastic and fulfilling hockey career.  Your story inspired thousands of hockey players, parents, coaches, siblings, grandparents, and many more that have been involved in the sport…It truly reminded us how much we love the game, loved our journeys through it, and how much we owe so many people for the amazing experience we had.

I had a similar story to you, about 5 years ahead.  From the 6 a.m. practices, through youth hockey, juniors, college (I played at that place that threw fish at you), and eventually battling through the minors for a couple of years, reading your story brought back great memories I shared with a lot of incredible people.  The way you captivated the “hockey experience” was remarkable, and we thank you for conveying it with such truth and relevance.

We owe everything we have to the game.  It gave us life-long friends, an opportunity to pursue our dreams, and many life lessons that will help guide us to success in whatever path we choose once the game has passed us by.  Well, five years ago the game passed me by.  In your post you said that your decision to move on was “sad, scary, and exciting”.  I’m here to tell you, that life after hockey certainly is…sad, scary, and exciting.

I have to admit, I have not walked away from the game completely.  I have the privilege of coaching at my Alma Mater, and I still get the opportunity to go to a rink for “work” every day.  But, it’s not the same.  I miss playing.  When I have dreams about hockey, I’m still a player…not a coach.  All us coaches were players first, and what we wouldn’t give to be able to lace up the skates in that way again…

As many who have walked away from the game will tell you, life after hockey is…different.  No longer do we have the daily camaraderie and preparation for battle with our best friends.  No longer do we have that daily pursuit of becoming a better player in helping our team to a championship.  No longer do we have the countless hours forming friendships with guys that we know will run through a brick wall for us without hesitation or question. No longer do we even have the daily aches and pains from the physical toll that this lovely sport deals us (and the way we are wired, that’s something we actually do miss). 

So many of those little things we take for granted when we are playing, and we don’t even really appreciate them until they are gone.  Those nuances and daily habits that we formed for years…what do we do with them now? How do we cope with the fact that our identity is not that of a hockey player anymore? That’s all we have known.  That’s all we ever wanted to be.

I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy.  I’ve had my share of dark days.  I’ve been happy, sad, confused, fulfilled, self-assured, and self-critical all in the same day.  Heck, the same conversation.  Finding a new purpose in life and the path it takes to get there can be slow and painful. It took me a long time to discover my purpose, and I’m still trying to figure out the right way to achieve it.  But I’ve learned a few things along the way that I’d love to share with you as you embark on your new journey.  I hope it can help you or others in your pursuit of happiness in life after hockey:

          1.   Find an outlet for your Competitiveness

The most important value to any hockey player is our compete level.  It is our badge of honor and epitomizes who we are.  For ice, for pucks, for time-and-space…you name it, we competed for it.  Everything we did was based in some form of competition, and we would fight tooth and nail for that competitive edge in every battle we faced.  Well, it’s not easy to just turn that off.  I learned that pretty quickly after my wife told me she had to start letting me win in board games because it wasn’t worth me being miserable for the rest of the day if I lost (I don’t think she actually let me win…). I think it’s important and healthy to find another outlet to enjoy using your aggression and competitive nature. 

Some of my teammates got into Crossfit, some have used it to get ahead in their careers, some play semi-serious recreational sports, just to name a few.  I trained for and completed a 12 mile “Tough Mudder” last summer which was really beneficial to my physical and mental health.  It gave me an obstacle to try and beat and I had to set goals and get dirty to try and overcome it.  As I trained, my goal was to out-train everyone else doing the race.  When I raced, my goal was to win.  Getting those competitive juices flowing was purifying, maybe even a little therapeutic, and it gave me a new way to enjoy competing again.  Our will to win is what defined us as hockey players; it’s what makes our sport the best.  But once the hockey fades to the background…for the sake of you and your significant other…try and find a healthy way to enjoy competition.

  2.  Find a Balance

The 6 a.m. practices…the two-a-day lifts…the training camps…the long bus rides…Man, did we sacrifice and put in the time.  We embraced the daily grind in the pursuit of championships and an opportunity at the NHL.  It was never easy.  There were days where it took a serious toll.  There were days we were pushed past our limits.  But it was all worth it because that light at the end of the tunnel was being able to step on the ice and play the game we love.  That work ethic never leaves us.
I have teammates that work 90 hour weeks in New York City trying to climb the corporate ladder.  I have teammates that spend half the year on the road working in consulting and sales.  As coaches we spend countless hours on the ice, in the video room, and on the road trying to field the best team that we can.  We are programmed to work, and to not stop until we have reached our goals.  I love it.  But in the real world that can come at a cost.  We now have families to tend to and have to think about more than just ourselves.  I encourage you to always keep things in perspective and try to achieve a balance between work and life.  Find new hobbies, and embrace those of your friends and family.  I’m not saying to let the foot off the gas pedal in your effort to pursue new career goals. But make sure you take care of yourself and embrace all that life has to offer away from work as well.  You will be a better person for it.  You will be a better friend for it.  And I believe you will even be a better employee for it as well. 

3.   Surround yourself with Great People

As hockey players, we all understand the importance of having incredible teammates. We all know that our teams that went the furthest and won championships were undoubtedly the closest.  The emphasis our game puts on culture, character, buy in, selfless sacrifice…we have those by being surrounded by great people. 

We also understand the importance of having an incredible support system away from the rink.  We all know if it weren’t for the love, support, and sacrifice from our family and friends we wouldn’t be where we are today.  Their countless conversations and shared experiences have molded us into who we are. Being surrounded by these people in life after hockey is just as important as it was when we played.  They help to guide us through the real-world waters we have yet to wade.  They support us in our quest for a new dream in our new reality. They are there to push us when we need a kick in the butt and comfort us when we fail. 

And we do fail. 

A lot.

But that’s ok.

Because we have learned through hockey and the example of others how to pick ourselves up and continue to grow.  Keep those who challenge you to be a better person close. Keep those who support your new ambitions near.  Continue to surround yourself with great people, and you will have the opportunity to reach the incredible heights away from the game like you did when you played.  

      4.  Lose yourself in the Service of Others

In the pursuit of our goals, it was easy to look inward.  ‘What can I do to gain an edge?’ ‘Did I give it my best effort today?’ ‘What can I accomplish tomorrow?’ We focused so much of our time and energy into our hockey and our path to success.  And on top of that, because of our God-given gifts we received a heck of a lot more than others.  We got the best coaching and played with the most talented players.  We got special attention.  People wanted to do things for us because of the talents we had.  We got and got and got that we often lost sight of the gift that is the most rewarding of them all: THE GIFT OF GIVING.  John Wooden said it best:

“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you”. 

Lose yourself in the service of others.  If you can get to a place in your life where the happiness of someone else supersedes that of your own: That is what it’s all about.  And you will recognize THAT is True Happiness.  And again, we owe so much of our success to the many people who supported us throughout our journey.  Now that the journey is over, a great way to start a new one is to pay those people back with some time and sacrifice of your own.  Write your mom a thank you note.  Take your dad golfing or fishing.  Show up to a friend’s sporting event. Babysit your sister’s kids.  Whatever it may be, show those you care about how much you care about them.  Immerse yourself in a way of thinking that prioritizes what others want and need first.  I think you will find that the person who gets the most out of it will be yourself.

I will be the first to admit that life after hockey takes some time getting used to.  I’m still trying to figure it out. There are a lot of things that I still miss today.  But we hockey players have so many people, and The Game itself, to thank for teaching us the necessary abilities to succeed in whatever life throws our way. 

Adversity? Been there, done that.  Failure? We’ve seen you, learned from you, and beat you back many times.  Success? We’re not going to let you get to our head.   The real world is a sad, scary, and exciting place.  And you are ready to conquer it.  I wish you the best of luck. And if there’s anything I can do to help, even though you are a Harvard guy, please let me know.