Life after hockey an ‘abrupt reality check’

Chicago Blackhawks' Daniel Carcillo (13) is stopped by Edmonton Oilers goalie Ben Scrivens (30) during NHL hockey action in Edmonton, on Saturday November 22, 2014. In the wake of former teammate Steve Montador's death, Carcillo has launched the Chapter 5 Foundation to help hockey players and other athletes in the stressful transition to their next careers. (Jason Franson/CP)

Daniel Carcillo watched helplessly as his friend and former teammate Steve Montador struggled to adapt to life after hockey. Concussions had left Montador with memory loss so severe that the longtime defenceman carried multiple keys for the same lock.

He tried becoming a radio analyst, but when that didn’t pan out, he seemed burdened by an uncertain future.

"He just didn’t know what he wanted to do next," Carcillo said. "He was just searching for that. He was searching for a lot of things, as we’re all going to do when we move on."

Last winter, Carcillo was in the Chicago Blackhawks players lounge when he got the devastating news. Montador, just 35, was found dead in his Mississauga, Ont., home.

The cause of death has never been made public. An autopsy showed he had CTE, the progressively degenerative disease that has been linked to repeated blows to the head.

While Montador’s story is complicated and tragic, many former players also grapple to varying degrees with the reality of life after hockey. It’s a cycle that goes on every summer as contracts dry up, and in the coming weeks as training camps open, more players will be forced to hang up their skates for good.

In the wake of Montador’s death, Carcillo has launched the Chapter 5 Foundation to help hockey players and other athletes in the stressful transition to their next careers.

"It’s a very abrupt reality check when you get out of the game," Carcillo said in a recent interview. "You identify with being a hockey player and an athlete for so many years that you kind of not lose yourself but you forget who you are as a person and what your interests were in high school away from hockey and who your friends were."

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association team up for the NHL Alumni’s BreakAway Program, which aids in that process by offering education and career strategy, counselling, entrepreneurial training, seminars and other assistance.

But as several retired players know from experience, there’s no textbook on how to take that next step.

"No matter how much you prepare, you’re never quite ready for that moment," said former enforcer Stu Grimson, who practised law in retirement before becoming a Nashville Predators TV analyst. "Anybody, I don’t care if you’re a welder, a teacher, an accountant, a lawyer, whoever — if you do something for 15, 20 or more years and you’re forced to turn and then go do something else, that’s a traumatic life adjustment for anybody."

The transition from being a professional athlete to anything else actually begins while playing, financially and, perhaps more importantly, mentally. Many hockey players don’t have the college education of athletes in other sports, a product of leaving home as teenagers to play at the junior level or elsewhere.

"We all had the one-track mind at one time like, all we wanted to do was play pro hockey and we’ll do anything in the world to do that," said Rick Berry, a defenceman-turned-financial adviser. "You think at the time you’re just giving up maybe part of your youth and you’re sacrificing part of your teenage years, but little did you know that it’s a big catch-up period when you want to hit the stop button."

Former centre Jeff Halpern hit that button last year when he couldn’t latch on for a 16th NHL season. He has a degree from Princeton University but pointed out: "It’s not like I’m drawing supply-and-demand curves every day and doing microeconomics."

Practically, most players know hockey inside and out and little else.

"I was in the university of hockey for over 20 years," former goaltender and current broadcaster Martin Biron said. "From the time I played juniors on, I went to the university of hockey, and I’ve studied it."

The university of hockey has plenty of graduate students — players who remain in the game in scouting, player development, coaching, broadcasting or some combination of those. For those who can make that shift, hockey is a comforting small town where knowing people is often enough to stay in the game.

"When you’re playing, you’re in the player mode where you don’t notice anything that’s going on around you except playing," said former defenceman Eric Weinrich, who has worked in scouting and coaching. "I think that’s why you see so many guys just stay in it because that’s all they know and that’s what their expertise is."

Halpern is trying to stay in it now. He’s part owner of a fried chicken and donut shop in the Washington area and is trying to get into full-time coaching, but hasn’t found it easy.

"Not having that outlet of competing against other people has taken a toll on me just because I don’t have an outlet for that anymore," said Halpern, who recently helped as an assistant coach for the U.S. women’s under-22 select team. "I listen to Howard Stern and ‘Elliott in the Morning’ and when I get in my car it’s almost like that becomes my locker-room. It’s a poor excuse for one, but you miss that checking in with people and that routine of kind of waking up and going to a group of where you belong."

Hockey players are used to the structure of being at the rink every day. The free time can be unsettling.

"When you’re a player, there’s a schedule, there’s an itinerary, there’s, ‘Show up and here’s what you have to do," said former defenceman Sean O’Donnell, now a broadcaster with the Los Angeles Kings. "When you’re done, all of a sudden there’s no one to kind of guide you and you really have to figure out, ‘OK what do I do? Who do I try and speak to? What’s my next move?’ And I think a lot of guys have a hard time with that."

Former goaltender and goaltending coach Corey Hirsch thinks players should prepare for that during off-seasons. He’s all for players getting university education but considers summer internships and job shadowing more valuable.

"You should be doing something else to get a second interest going," Hirsch said. "Guys have played hockey their whole careers — their whole lives — and all of a sudden someone says, ‘You can’t play hockey for money ever again."’

Understanding that "unless you’re a Hall of Fame guy, you can’t really dictate your terms," O’Donnell did freelance scouting and had to figure out how to get to the press box in Tampa. Because there’s no "tryout" process for coaches, Halpern started working with bantam players to get some experience.

"You’re like a rookie again," O’Donnell said.

Carcillo seems on the verge of his personal transition, saying last week he was very close to calling it quits. The free agent has spent the past few months trying to line up support for Chapter 5 and has met with Wendy McCreary of the BreakAway Program.

McCreary said the BreakAway program, which is financed by the NHL Emergency Assistance Fund that gets money from every player fine and suspension, helps over 100 former players and "would like to reach a larger stable of recently retired players and their families."

Carcillo hopes to partner with that group and start the process while players are still young and enjoying their NHL careers.

"You have to kind of re-find yourself and then re-purpose your life and kind of look inside you to what your second-best interest is other than hockey," Carcillo said. "It’s just about preparing those guys and really just helping them and guiding them for when they make that realization that they want to move on."

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