Almost everyday I am asked the same few questions from people I interact with, “Are you going to play hockey again?” “Why did you stop?” and, “Did something happen?”
I have never really spoke about it after my sudden decision back in October to walk away from the game that I grew up to love, hockey. Despite all the questions I got everyday about it, I kept it all in to myself but I feel that now is a good time to sit back and reflect on it all and what really went down.
I grew up in love with the game like almost every other boy that is born in Canada and spends their Saturday nights watching Hockey Night In Canada. Before the game, I would have my own game in the afternoon. I practiced every day during the week and played on the weekends, it was my life; eat, sleep, hockey. Repeat. I would sit at my desk at school and draw backyard rinks on paper while the teacher talked (not like I was going to understand a word the teacher was saying anyways, right?) and I would dream about scoring the overtime goal for the Stanley Cup.
I was so fortunate to grow up playing hockey with my hometown buddies and had success every year by making it the OMHA Championships every single year for 8 years. Throughout all those years, I still remember vividly the roadies for tournaments where we got to stay in hotels and play mini sticks in the hallway. I remember the long quiet rides back home after games where I shit the bed or we lost. Let’s not even mention the times when I was last out of the changeroom (Sorry Dad ). I remember the team Christmas parties and the celebrations we had after we won. I remember the cold bitter nights practicing for 2 hours; but it was still the best part of my day. Hockey was my getaway my whole life growing up. I was surrounded by people who understood my life just as much as I understood their life. We were all in it together.
One of the coolest parts of those 8 years of minor hockey is to look back and remember some of the players I played with and against and see where they are now; Jeff Skinner, Tyler Seguin, and Erik Gudbranson to name a few.
As I got older, it started getting more serious each year, more business-like. That comes with the territory of being an elite hockey player; the recruiting, the agents, the questionnaires, the spotlight, etc. It’s so hard to not get caught up in it all when you’re only 14-15 years old. However, you just train harder, you play a little more hockey than usual, you travel a little more, and continue to grow as a player and person everyday with the experiences that come with being a hockey player at this level.
Next thing you know, you’re in the most critical year yet of your hockey career; the Draft year. It was only a few years ago when you were playing for fun, with your hometown buddies, travelling everywhere for games and tourneys. At the age of 16 years old, I was drafted 11th overall to the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League. My hockey career turned a page; it’s a business now.
As soon as I joined the OHL, things changed. Big time. At just 16 years old, you move away from home to a family’s home that volunteered to take care of you for the duration of the season (these people are called billets). New city, new school, new people, and a new team. You’re not playing with your hometown buddies anymore and playing against local towns but, you’re playing against some of the top 16-20 year old hockey players in the world who all share the same goal of playing in the NHL. Shit just got real.
Until you’ve ever been in that position, it’s really hard to put in words the pressure that comes with joining a new team as a first-rounder, living with a different family, and going to a new high school. It’s safe to say that it took me awhile to adapt, but as my GM that year said, “You come into the league as a boy, you leave as a man.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
My billeting experience was a struggle until I was placed with the Easterby’s in the latter part of the season. I had billets trying to change the way I lived; cutting my internet off when I’m trying to do homework, take my cell phone away, and eat foods that I had no desire to eat. However, it wasn’t all bad when it came to my billeting experience. I was actually very fortunate to have good billets when I played for Mississauga St. Mikes Majors; Steve & Pat Hartery. Steve & Pat were extremely experienced billets and it showed. I had a great billet in Saginaw too, John Skulley, this man was an absolute stud and he made my last year in the OHL a real treat.
There is one billet family that sticks out though; the Ferguson’s.
I was extremely lucky to have lived there with my great friend, Ryan O’Connor (currently playing for HC Davos). Rob and Mary Ferguson, along with their daughter, Meg, made my one year in Barrie extremely special. I still keep in touch with Rob weekly and go for dinners with him every once in awhile. It wasn’t until living with the Ferguson’s that I found my home away from home. I love these guys and couldn’t thank them enough.
Aside from billets, the rest of my experience in the OHL was a rollercoaster and unfortunately, it had more downs than ups. That doesn’t take anything away from playing in the Memorial Cup, or winning Gold Medal with Team Ontario U17 or Team Canada U18, or being drafted to the Buffalo Sabres in 2010. However, the bullshit that happened tends to overshadow the good experiences; the injuries, the trades, the treatment, the politics, the coaches. I would love to go in detail but that would require a book. Let’s just say that there are some individuals that pollute the world with shadiness and a lack of respect. That’s the nature of the business though. It’s all about business and that’s where my love for the game started to fade away.
It all became a business really quick. After I was drafted to the Buffalo Sabres, I was 18 years old and fighting for a contract. Literally. I had it made pretty clear to me that I wasn’t going to get anywhere by being a scorer like I had been in minor hockey, so I converted to a grinder; hit everything that moves and fight. Yes, there is a thrill that comes with that, but game in and game out, it wears on you. I couldn’t tell you but there’s probably a good chance that I played with concussions some games without knowing it. I played with a separated shoulder too. I would show up at the rink in a sling, get 3 needles to freeze it up, and play. I had to. I had a contract on the line and my chance was dwindling as each game went by. It didn’t matter though because I was always going to be relegated to 3rd-4th line duty and fill that grinder role that was handed to me.
Then I got a text from my agent saying I wasn’t going to be signed by the deadline.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table, feeling numb. It hit me. Here I am, 20 years old, with no contract in hand, busted up knuckles, 3 shoulder separations, 6 concussions, an ankle that had been torn up to shreds, chasing something that was a boyhood dream turned into a job. That’s okay though, I still had one more crack at it. After another summer of political bullshit that cost me the first couple weeks of the regular season with the Barrie Colts, I ended up with the Saginaw Spirit.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am for having finished my career with the Saginaw Spirit. After playing 4 years in the OHL, I finally had the best year of my career; not statistically speaking but I had the most fun. Surrounded by some of the greatest guys like my roommate Steven Strong, Garret Ross, Vincent Trocheck, Nick Moutrey, Eric Locke, Justin Kea, and Patty, all guys who I still keep in touch with today. Not to mention Brandon Lindberg who was my center for most of the year. Lindy was a 16 year old rookie, and I did everything to make sure that he had a better start to his career than I did. The entire organization including head coach, Greg Gilbert, Toby, BA, and the Garber brothers were phenomenal and I still keep in touch with them all as well.
I didn’t put up great numbers but that’s not what it was about for me in Saginaw. I had fun again. It wasn’t a business for me. I enjoyed every single day there because I was playing for fun again, and I felt like I was playing with my hometown buddies.
Fast forward to this year where I started off at York University, playing for the school team. It wasn’t fun for me anymore, I had my last good run with the game of hockey when I played for Saginaw, and that was that. The thrill of playing the game was gone, and it started to feel like I was just wasting my time so ultimately I made the biggest decision of my life; move on from the game.
With an incredible support group which included my girlfriend Shannon Hastings, Steve Walker and his fiancée, my very own family Keith, Kim, and Tanya Sutch, Ryan O’Connor, hometown buddies Brady Jarvie and Ryan Napoleone, my former agent, Murray Kuntz, I was able to move on from the game with peace. I thank them all for their support and love all ya guys.
For those who are asking, yes I will get back on the ice one of these days, and I still love to watch the game. I just don’t have the desire to play at the level I was once at, because I was in it for the wrong reasons.
If there’s one thing I want you to all take away from this, whether you’re a hockey player, student, nurse, or a chiropractor, is to not forget to have fun.
I know it’s easier said than done, but man, life is way too short to let things become too business-like. Find the balance between business attitude and having fun. I see too many people stressing every day and hate what they’re doing, and it drives me crazy.
Find what you love and stick with it. Hold on to it.
Kids who are playing the game, don’t forget to have fun with it, because that’s when the results will come. The best players in the game today, Sidney Crosby, Drew Doughty, and Carey Price, are all playing because they love the game, not for the coin. I know we say it all the time, “Work hard and have fun.” but it’s so true. Seriously, have fun and work hard at it. Don’t take the game for granted, have fun with the game.
This applies to anything you do, and this is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from my experience in hockey;
Do what you love to do.
If that means you love to take care of people as a nurse, be a nurse. If you love to serve people dinners, be a server. If you love to teach people, be a teacher. Do it for the right reasons.
Whatever you choose to do, don’t forget why you chose it in the first place.
Cheers guys, hope this answers some of your questions!