Jody Shelley didn’t know what to do when his professional hockey career ended.
The former National Hockey League enforcer spent his career focused on what he was doing on the ice, rather than thinking about life afterwards.
“When you play hockey, you just play hockey,” said the Thompson, Manitoba native over the phone. “It’s not even fun to talk about the end of your career, you don’t even want to think about it.”
Eventually, however, one must.
The Break Away program, formerly known as the Life After Hockey program, is facilitated by the NHL Alumni Association to help provide and develop resources to assist professional athletes and their families post-retirement.
To become eligible, players must register to be a member of the association and must have played in at least one NHL regular season game.
Shelley doesn’t remember how, but he stumbled upon Break Away, got in contact with Wendy McCreary, the program’s director, and took advantage of the opportunity.
“The channels of assistance range from education and career enhancement, mentorship, business strategy and marketing, resume and interview assistance, job and career exploration, and counseling,” said McCreary.
The NHL Alumni Association is governed by retired players and knows the challenges faced by those who no longer play the game they love. NHL careers come to an end in many different ways, some more sudden and unexpected than others.
“I was really lucky because I wasn’t really playing near the end of my career,” said Shelley, who played for 14 years. “But I was still inside the ropes and realized that there was going to be a day when I’ll have to do something else, and to be involved with something like hockey would be great.”
While working in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ front office after retirement, Shelley was approached by John Davidson, the president of hockey operations for the club, about working in broadcasting.
“I did the broadcasting course (in) two and a half days and it really opened my eyes about what broadcasting is and what it is that these guys do besides wear makeup and suits and talk about hockey,” he said.
Shelley now works as a colour analyst, covering Blue Jackets games for Fox Sports.
He credits McCreary and the courses provided by Break Away for giving him the confidence to begin a new career.
“I think that’s what’s great about all of these courses and what Wendy does,” the husband and father said of the program. “The greatest fear is the unknown, and it takes away a lot of the unknowns in this, or any business ... it’s an avenue that needs to be used.”
Clint Malarchuk, former NHL netminder and goaltending coach, already owned his own business in Nevada when he found Break Away.
“I wrote a book and then I started getting asked to speak (publicly),” Malarchuk said, “so I took a couple of the courses, and there was one directly related to public speaking that I took probably five years ago. It was a course called 'Communicating With Confidence' and then they had an advanced course this summer that I took and those have been really helpful.”
Malarchuk wrote an autobiography with Dan Robson called The Crazy Game where he opened up about his struggles with mental illness and substance abuse.
Much like the stigma that surrounds mental illness, Malarchuk believes another stigma exists around current and former players reaching out for help from a program like Break Away.
While the program offers a number of different resources, they are of little help if players are unaware of what is available to them, or if they are hesitant to reach out to the Alumni Association.
“That has been a struggle for a lot of players and we’re just starting, right now actually, we had our first phone call with Wendy and there was about five of us starting this support group,” said Malarchuk.
Like Malarchuk, who feels the most important task facing Break Away is getting the word out, McCreary has a passion for helping others and wants to continue to grow the program to reach even more alumni.
“Our goal is to provide more exposure to the Break Away program and the foundation of assistance it has provided to so many players and their families in transition, and later retirement,” said McCreary. “My job is to help them succeed in a career in a new arena upon retirement, and help ensure that the players and their families experience an easier transition.”
Each year, new programs are added at the request of the athletes, or if McCreary feels they can benefit players' post-hockey careers.
McCreary, who has been with the Alumni Association since its inception in November 1999, said that there are roughly 100 players who utilize Break Away.
Keith McCreary, Wendy’s late father, was one of the founders of the organization. He served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors before passing away from pancreatic cancer 11 years ago.
The former NHL veteran always had a passion for helping his fellow athletes and was a player rep and captain on each of his teams.
“He wanted to see an organization in place for players to reach out and stay connected upon retirement and help to make their transition more seamless,” said Wendy of her father. “I promised him that I would carry on his legacy and see his vision come to fruition.”