How often have we heard athletes—in all sports, but most certainly in hockey—say the famous words: “I’ll know when I’m finished and it’s time for me to retire…No one will have to tell me…”.
The fact usually is, the player himself is the last to be able to be objective, look in the mirror and acknowledge they aren’t what they once were, and should probably leave the game while the memories they hold are fond ones—and while their fans remember the good times, as well.
I guess what triggered this today is a piece I read this week by Peter King on the Sports Illustrated web site. He wrote about a former NFL player who retired though he might have been able to earn one last contract for this coming 2012 season. But this particular player was able to leave the game healthy and with a lot of money in the bank. Given the likelihood that his really big-money days are now behind him anyway, it was easier to “walk away”.
I posted a piece here recently that referenced (albeit superficially, I’m sure) the difficulty an athlete faces when they leave their athletic career behind. The collision of fame, big-money contracts, huge fan expectations and our macho culture—whereby fans and teammates expect our athletes to be “tough” and constantly play through injuries—can be a dangerous and tragic one. Too many “ex” athletes face loneliness, a loss of identity and also the loss of companionship as they struggle to find meaning in their life. Nothing measures up to the excitement of their life in sports. Even with "quality" family time now available to them, no one is there to care for them and plan their days, etc. As the Peter King story related, even agents often ignore the calls of players who once made them handsome fees.
When I was a kid, back in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, you’d see guys hanging on in the NHL because at least they made more money playing hockey one or two more seasons than they likely would at some other job that they weren’t prepared for. I don't know that anyone was keenly aware of things like the long-term health impact of injuries, including the issue of concussions. Individuals like long-time Maple Leaf defenseman Tim Horton (players who planned a career in business or a venture of some description) were fairly rare. Most guys had little or no clue what lay beyond “retirement”. Horton did look ahead, and he established a business that bears his name to this day. (See the great old Harold Barkley photo of Horton in action in the early 1960s at left...)
Athlete salaries picked up in the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, but not everyone preserved the money they earned for the future. Many players did not even want to consider what would come "next"- retirement was such a big adjustment for so many of them.
Nowadays, most players earn huge incomes, even if they only play for a few years. They are provided with financial guidance and various other support mechanisms. But many still find the transition to a post-career situation troubling and difficult to handle successfully.
Sometimes, guys who were top income-earners in the prime of their career are suddenly willing to play for the league minimum (Owen Nolan springs to mind), just for one more shot at the lifestyle they don’t want to walk away from. Not every former player can become a coach, or a media personality. Many do, but there are not enough of those jobs to take care of all the ex-players.
Perhaps this is why we see so many athletes, in all sports, “hang on” when it is clear to everyone else that their best days are past them. Rickey Henderson, one of the best baseball players of all time (combining speed, power, etc.) played well into his 40s, ultimately signing with independent leagues, still hoping for “one more” last chance with a big-league team.
Is it fear of facing an uncertain future, even if they have more money than they could ever spend? Is it anxiety over people asking, “Didn’t you used to be….so and so…?” Golfing every day isn’t for everyone, it seems.
Do these players not see when they have lost foot speed and that their “smarts” can no longer adequately make up for the gap? Some would argue that even Wayne Gretzky got out of the game a bit too late. Though he was “only” 38 and still in good shape in his last year (with the Rangers), the once magical offensive superstar netted a grand total of 9 goals in 70 regular-season games, despite playing more than 21 minutes a night. The tide had turned. He finished his last NHL season a minus 23.
Dave Keon, to this day my favourite all-time player, not just my favourite Maple Leaf, scored 8 goals in his final season with the Whalers, at the age of 41. It happens to just about everyone, if they stay around long enough.
What do you think drives players to stay in the game, beyond their “best before date”?
I look forward to hearing from you.