30 Thoughts: The challenge NHLers face in retirement

NHL on Sportsnet analyst Nick Kypreos and former NHL player Eric Lindros comment on raising awareness on the effects of concussions.

The 2014-15 season was underway and Paul Bissonnette didn’t have a job. Months later, he would be skating with a huge smile on his face, holding the Calder Cup as a member of the Manchester Monarchs. But he didn’t know that then.

He was testy and disappointed. Angry and worried. Now, he’s making sure everyone knows how he felt.

“I think in general I’m an open book,” he wrote in a message this week. “I wear my heart on my sleeve. The Let’s Talk stuff really helped me and the hockey community have a better understanding that opening up is a good thing. If people don’t open up about things and discuss them, how are we supposed to learn and grow, not only as athletes, but as a society? We aren’t talking about athletes, we are talking about people. I think it’s headed in the right direction.

“I didn’t open up about it for people to feel sorry for me or have sympathy. I did it in hopes the next guy who might deal with it might have read my comments, understand he’s not alone and things will get better.”

Dan Carcillo understands.

“As a group, (hockey players) don’t like to ask for help,” he said Tuesday.

Brantt Myhres gets it, too.

“No player wants to be raising a red flag on his name,” the newest Kings employee says. “The more red flags, the better chance someone hinders his ability to make money. They think, ‘Anyone that’s related to management, I don’t want to talk to you. The least amount of strikes against my name, the better.’”

I’ve thought a lot about this since Todd Ewen’s suicide last weekend. People who knew him in St. Louis thought he was in a good place. Few saw the signs. He’s the fifth former enforcer to die a premature death in the past few years, and a common question being asked is, “We’ve got a problem. What are we going to do about it?”

The debate usually centres on fighting and/or concussions, and those are important conversations. But, even if fighting was banned tomorrow, that doesn't help retired players at all.

I’m about to turn 45, and still have trouble asking for help. So, I understand the challenge of changing the mindset. That’s what it’s going to take, and a movement is underway to try.

Myhres, banned by the NHL in 2006 after four positive drug tests (and several others where he cheated to beat the system), was hired by the Kings to advise players where necessary. He’ll spend 20 days a month with the club, the rest back home with his family.

“It’s the same role I had as a player,” he laughs. “With the team, but not playing.”

He’s introduced himself to the players, letting them know why he’s there. He says they are receptive, and sensitive to how they are perceived after what happened last season. The key is that if a player confides in him, Myhres can keep it confidential. He doesn’t have to relay anything, until he believes it becomes necessary.

“Give players an option without hindering their career,” he says. “It could have made a difference for me back then. Instead, it festered, festered and affected my ability to play hockey.”

If this works, more teams will try it. The NFL adopted the idea league-wide.

Carcillo, newly retired, has made it very clear he wants to help with post-career transitions. He is in the process of creating a non-profit foundation, Chapter 5 — in honour of former teammate Steve Montador, who died last February.

He said players are already starting to reach out, but he’s not yet ready to launch his project.

“It has to be right,” he said. “It must work properly. If it doesn’t…” he pauses. “You have to build relationship trust. One of the things you have to prepare for is what if you find someone who discovers what (he) doesn’t like before what (he) likes?”

Carcillo, given purpose in retirement, says he’s in a good place.

“I miss my teammates, I don’t miss being sore from working out,” he jokes. “But I see the mental struggle to handle it. There’s a loneliness, a loss.”

The NHL and the NHLPA are working together to create their own program, but Carcillo says there has been little contact. In a video for The Players’ Tribune, he was critical of the union’s role in helping with post-retirement careers.

“They are not as enthusiastic about the ideas you bring, just the ones they come up with themselves,” he said this week.

The NHLPA will bristle at that quote, since the Blackhawks’ presence in the Stanley Cup Final prevented Carcillo from attending meetings last June in New York City. At that event, there were deeper conversations about how to structure the joint program, including making certain it began before retirement. The plan is to create learning opportunities while playing, so NHLers can have a better idea of what they might enjoy before the time comes. It is investing a reported $3 million in this project.

There was a survey on the union’s intranet site, which was completed by 92 players. Then 29 did a more in-depth phone interview.

Carcillo and the NHLPA agree on two things, though: First, nothing will be launched before it’s ready. Second, more help is needed.

“Admitting weakness is a strength,” Myhres said. He’s been sober seven years, and he knows the battle never ends. But there’s motivation.

“I went to rehab February 2008, and my daughter was born three days later…”

He is interrupted. “Wait, you weren't there for her birth?”

“No, I didn’t see her for eight months. Doctors crushed me. They said if I won’t get better, she won’t have a daddy. It’s a constant reminder, because whenever it’s her birthday, my anniversary is a few days prior.”

Does she play hockey? “Ringette,” Myhres answers. “Is she aggressive like her father?” “No, but she’s got her dad’s bow legs,” he laughs.

Bissonnette is tough and took on all comers. Carcillo is tough and took on all comers. Myhres is tough and took on all comers. Now, they want to show a different kind of toughness — it’s okay to ask for help.

I can’t stress it enough. If you need to, take their lead.


1. One final note from Carcillo and Myhres — just how worried are they about what active players are doing away from the rink? Carcillo: “Guys are so focused on hockey they don’t give a (bleep) about the other stuff. You read about the ‘80s and ‘90s, post-practice lunch turning into dinner…there’s none of that, zero. There are players who won’t go to a concert if there is a game two days later. I tell them you can still enjoy life, there are amazing cities like Chicago with a lot to offer. But a lot of guys are solely committed to being an athlete, they don’t tap into that any more. In some ways it’s sad to see, but they are so focused, determined to be in shape, to make it now. They are more healthy and more in tune with their bodies.” Myhres disagrees slightly: “The guys you worry about are not in their first three years, not in their last three years. It’s those between 24 and 30, who think, ‘I've made it, I’m secure, I’ve got enough money to last me the rest of my life.’” I didn’t ask either about summertime, but that’s where most teams worry.

2. The Columbus Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline updated Jack Johnson’s bankruptcy case last weekend, a situation even more complicated than we realized. But there was another wrinkle being discussed behind the scenes — is there any possibility Johnson’s contract could be voided if his assets were liquidated? And, if so, would that make him a sudden unrestricted free agent? The NHL’s position is no. Should that happen, Johnson’s previous deal would be replaced by a commitment with the precise remaining terms of his existing one. I did check to see if anybody disagreed with the league’s thinking. So far, nada.

3. There’s doubt Islanders GM Garth Snow is done dealing. Michael Grabner is in Toronto, but the Brooklynites still have an excess of forwards.

4. One of the follow-up questions about the Islanders is, will they give up on Josh Ho-Sang? Snow was not available for comment, and plays his cards close to the vest. He traded up to get Ho-Sang at the 2014 draft, so the logical thing is to wait and see how the player handles his training camp banishment. His trade value would seem to be low now and Snow has time to let this play out, if he wishes. He refused to trade Brock Nelson during the recent contract stalemate, and when at odds with Nino Niederreiter, waited to deal the player until he found a move he liked.

5. In a lot of ways, Ho-Sang is like any other person leaving college for the workforce. No matter your past, you have a chance to change previous perceptions if you desire. Kelly Hrudey would say that moments like these are when an agent is important, because a good one can get the team’s message across to you in an effective manner. Ho-Sang’s rep, Ian Pulver, wouldn’t comment, but he’s a big believer in his client. At some point, though, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. It’s what you do.

6. Word is Winnipeg was another team taking a long look at Kris Versteeg. Not exactly sure what would go back the other way, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if something creative like injured Grant Clitsome’s contract was part of the conversation.

7. There’s more than one NHL exec who thinks Lou Lamoriello would love to get his hands on Travis Zajac.

8. Not surprised Colorado got Erik Johnson signed before the final year of his contract. Last year, when the NHL asked who should be the Avalanche’s All-Star Game representative, they felt Johnson was most deserving. (He did not play due to injury.) Talks heated up when Johnson attended Andy O’Brien’s annual fitness camp earlier this month in Vail, as agent Pat Brisson took a side trip to see Joe Sakic. It settled in the last week when Johnson, who did not want this going into the season, met with Sakic and Patrick Roy. “They wanted to keep the average salary at $6 million because there are players they have to sign, and I was willing to do that if they agreed to a longer term.” Presto, seven years and $42 million.

9. If Johnson has another All-Star calibre year and hits the market at age 28, he’s looking at a higher payday. But, “I’m happy here. I love Denver and love my teammates.” What’s even more important is Johnson sees “so many good players not in their prime yet. I want to play with Nathan MacKinnon when he’s 27. Tyson (Barrie) is 24.” Matt Duchene is 24, Gabriel Landeskog is 22. And Semyon Varlamov, “who always gives us a chance,” is 27. “We have a group good enough to grow and win. That’s why I want to be here.”

10. The Avalanche play an exhibition game next Saturday in Las Vegas. “I walked into the dressing room (after signing), and everyone was saying dinner in Vegas is on me,” Johnson laughed. “That’s going to be expensive.”

11. Johnson said Roy told him his partner will be Francois Beauchemin. The two will debut together on Thursday. As for style, “The biggest thing (Roy) is saying is, ‘I want us to be playing fast. Not just skating fast, but thinking fast.’ He wants activating d-men…we can never get up into the play fast enough.” Biggest thing for Colorado, though is “we got every team’s best game last season” after making the playoffs in 2013-14. “We have to show we’re for real; prove it again.”

12. One other potential extension to keep an eye on: Brent Seabrook. Information is tight, but it appears to be moving in the right direction. At least one GM eying the defender for next summer believes he will not hit the market.

13. Anaheim GM Bob Murray sealed a deal with goalie John Gibson, and is looking to close a few others — as various levels of conversation continue with his younger RFAs. Murray told reporters Gibson will likely start the season in AHL San Diego, but injuries can happen. (So can trades, and if Frederik Andersen doesn’t sign, get ready to hear a million rumours.) The Ducks did discuss a couple of things with Gibson — some different training to help with groin injuries that have bothered him and fine-tuning his equipment. Last season, they wondered if an injury to his catching hand was caused because of problems with his glove. Whatever the case, Anaheim believes very strongly in Gibson’s ability and future.

14. In a league where people love to rip things anonymously, there wasn’t much hatred for the seven-year, $29 million-ish contract Edmonton gave to 77-game veteran Oscar Klefbom. Rocky Thompson, who spent the last three seasons coaching the defender at AHL Oklahoma City and in Edmonton, liked the move. “Ninety-five per cent of the time, we faced a 2-1-2 or an aggressive 1-2-2 forecheck. Oscar trusted his legs to get back in enough time to make a good breakout pass to the winger, or to make a move allowing him to get the puck to the centre through the middle. His value doesn’t measure in points, but he does things that allow you to get points.” Thompson said Klefbom also doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to recognize when an attacking player stops with the puck at the Edmonton blueline or in the neutral zone to wait for support on a line change. “He knows how to cut off that player and stop the play.”

15. Dallas signed John Klingberg, who’s played even fewer games (65), to a seven-year, $29.75 million contract after his strong rookie season. How comparable is Klefbom? “From the opposing blueline in, Klingberg is a terrific player,” Thompson said. “Oscar doesn’t have that. But, when he first came to North America, (Klefbom) shot with his head down, watching the play through his peripheral vision. So, we worked with him to keep his head up while shooting to improve his ability to walk the blueline and read the play. Look at him now…he does it. Very coachable.”

16. Thompson now coaches OHL Windsor. He was sorry to see Nashville sign Trevor Murphy. “Our best player. He’ll be a good pro.”

17. So, John Tortorella, answer the question: What is your favourite dolphin movie? “Is that what that question was? I couldn’t tell,” he said. “You can put down ‘Flipper’ if you want.”

18. Tortorella admitted he did not get any calls about NHL coaching vacancies last summer, but threw cold water on the idea he pursued the Team USA job to get back in. “Seriously, who wouldn’t want this job? You’re coaching the best players to win a tournament. I don’t know how to do anything else. You’re not sure if you’re ever going to get back in the game, but I’m refreshed and can’t wait. I’m ready to play Canada right now.” I’ve got a theory on him. He was so stunned and hurt by his firing in New York that he should have taken a year off instead of going to Vancouver. But, coaches want to coach, so he did it, even though he wasn’t in the right headspace. The other thing I’d bet: he believes he’s got one more successful NHL coaching run in him and wants to prove to the world he can do it.

19. Asked Tortorella if there were any particular players he wanted to coach, and he wouldn’t discuss potential candidates. But he came up with a very interesting answer. “I don’t know him at all, I’ve never had reason to sit down with him, but I’d like to get into a room and talk with Jonathan Toews. To me, he’s the best player in the world. He’s not the best skater, not the most skilled. But he’s got an incredible intangible. He knows how to win, and that’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s interesting to me.” Pause. “It’s too bad he’s a (bleeping) Canadian,” he laughed.

20. He’s never explained to me how his process works, but Tortorella has a way of looking at games through scoring chances. Breaking down how they happen gives him a true picture of what occurred. In a Tampa radio interview, Tortorella said he spent last season trying to learn about analytics. So what did he uncover? “You know what, not much…There are so many red flags going on with analytics. Corsi, Fenwick…(The year he coached in Vancouver), we were 10th in puck possession and finished 25th. Last year, LA was fifth and didn’t make it. It’s so media driven, it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s not Billy Beane, it’s an instinctive sport. It’s who you are playing against, and on a shot anything can happen. You have to be careful not to be controlled by numbers. You can’t sacrifice your beliefs to get along with the norm.”

21. Finally, Tortorella said the NHL should go back to including zone time on their stat sheets. Totally agree with that. I think there are some teams who privately collect this information.

22. Team USA (Tortorella) and Team Europe (Ralph Krueger) went for non-NHL coaches. Team Canada didn’t want to interfere with training camps, so it’s unlikely the defending World Cup champions go that route. The IIHF Congress is this week in Croatia and work on paring down the list begins afterwards.

23. This item is a violation of a personal rule — that you shouldn’t pay attention to anything that happens in the opening week of exhibition play. Phil Kessel scored on two even-strength tip-ins during his first game with the Penguins. How many tip-ins did he have at even strength in 2014-15? Answer: one.

24. Opponents are watching the Rangers’ Oscar Lindberg, who must clear waivers to be sent down to AHL Hartford. He played centre in game one, and scored. He played wing in game two, and scored. He’s regularly in the middle, but New York is loaded there. The expectation (from outside) is he makes it, but if he doesn’t, extremely unlikely he clears. And the Rangers are well aware of that.

25. One impression from the rookie games between Arizona and LA? That Max Domi and Kurtis MacDermid sure haven’t forgotten each other. MacDermid was suspended eight games for a hit to Domi’s face in last season’s OHL playoffs.

26. A couple analytics supporters (not Glenn Healy) are curious to see how Stefan Elliott does in Arizona. He’s one of those players with good underlying numbers. New opportunity for him.

27. It doesn’t sound like we’ll get an expansion announcement at the Board of Governors meeting next week. That will probably wait until December. If this is going to happen, I’ll join the Las Vegas/Quebec City bandwagon (although my liver won’t). The biggest question is what the falling Canadian dollar means for the latter city. As of today, a $500 million (US) expansion fee is almost $675 million (CAN). Then, there’s the question of whether or not Quebec has to pay any kind of territorial fee to Montreal, as was briefly discussed at the original announcement. “Can it work at those numbers?” one governor asked.

28. Ryane Clowe was playing hurt in the 2011 Western Conference Final against Vancouver, but, as usual, it was difficult to pin down the exact injury. After one game, he was sitting shirtless at his stall, answering questions. At the end, it was just myself and ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun. We looked at him and said, “Shoulder injury, eh?” He was surprised, asking, “How did you know?” It was tough to miss the giant yellow bruise near his chest. “Guess I should put on a shirt,” he said. Clowe wants to stay in the game and will get an opportunity to do some work for Ray Shero.

29. The best Ryan Whitney story I can remember was after the 2008 Stanley Cup Final loss to Detroit. He had tried to prank Marc-Andre Fleury, apparently a master of the art. Whitney had bought a new truck, and, at the team party, the goalie asked the restaurant for a fish. Which he promptly hid in Whitney’s wheels. The defenceman refused to admit how long it took to discover the interloper, but it was long enough for a brutal smell. Whitney will be on television, guaranteed.

30. On Patrick Kane: the whole thing is a mess. Some of you complained I didn't address it last week. One of the questions I always ask is, “What don’t I know?” Undoubtedly, the answer is a ton, especially in this case, so I’m reluctant to weigh in, because so much has already been wrong. It’s clear the Blackhawks believe in his innocence. But I don’t understand why the organization believes doing any interviews — even hockey-only questions — is a good idea.