THE HOLE: Retired Athletes and the Void of Life Without the Game By: Brandi Awad

“You just don’t know what you’re going to do, everything else is foreign. I know go to the rink, I know put my skates on, and I know pass the puck. I just know skate, shoot, pass.”

This is something P.J. Stock has known since he was five years old living in Montreal with his family. Hockey was routine for the former National Hockey League (NHL) forward. It was something that was embedded into his everyday existence – until it abruptly stopped in 2004 when Stock was injured in an American Hockey League (AHL) game against the Springfield Thunderbirds.

Being forced out of the game he’s known and loved since he was a child, after only seven professional seasons, was never part of his game plan.

“It’s one of those things that you just think is going to go on forever. You just think it’s never going to end; you just think the party is never going to end. And, I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes that a lot of professional sports athletes do – they never really prepare for tomorrow.”

"I just know skate, shoot, pass" - P.J. Stock, retired NHLer

Whether professional athletes like it or not, the game will go on without them: new players will be brought in, new stars will be made, and quickly, they’ll be replaced. But, how they go on without the game is often a tougher challenge than anything they ever faced on the ice.

According to Martine Parent, a sports psychology consultant and counselor, moving forward is one of the hardest things for professional athletes to cope with.

“Athletes create their identity with their sport – the more you do it, the more you tie yourself to that identity,” Parent says.

“When you do your sport, you’re eating considering that, you’re sleeping considering that, you tell yourself ‘Oh, I’m not going to do this because it’s going to effect my sport’ – everything revolves around their sport. So, when the sport is not there anymore or it’s changed in someway, they have an identity crisis. More than that, it’s a grieving process. When you grieve, you’re not only necessarily just losing someone that you love – you’re losing something that you love”

Retired NHL enforcer Matthew Barnaby experienced just that.

“You kind of lose your identity, your identity as a person, because since you were seven or eight years old, you’ve been a hockey player,” he says.

“It’s taken away from you. You lose something that you’re very passionate about, something that you really love. Knowing that you can’t do that ever again, that you can’t step onto that ice – it’s really hard.”

The “identity crisis” described by Barnaby and Parent can also feature an influx of other emotions, such as depression, denial, anger, and confusion. They feel… lost. These feelings are only heightened when dealing with forced retirements.

Martine Parent, a sports psychology consultant and counselor, preparing for her day ahead. Photo taken by Brandi Awad.

“It really depends on why they’re stopping. Are they stopping because they feel like I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve and I’m ready to move on to my next chapter in life, or is it because I need to retire, I need to move on because of an injury, I’m at my max. but I don’t want to be at my max.? Are they retiring because they want to, or because they have to?” Parent continues.

“When they have to [retire], it’s a bigger crisis because they haven’t thought about what it’s going to look like in the future, what type of things I’m going to do, what type of identity I want to create outside of my sport. They haven’t started the process of thinking those things, so there’s just so much shock. It can be traumatizing for them just because they’re like ‘What am I doing now? Who am I? What’s going to happen with me?’.”

This is a feeling Stock knows all too well.

“At first, I had no idea what in the world just happened or what to do – I think that’s harder than seeing your career start to slow down or fall as you get older, slower because you could kind of see that day coming even though you think you’re going to play forever," Stock, who played 203 NHL games says.

"When I get hurt and they say you’re done, it’s like ‘okay, you’re done, see ya, go do something else’ – well, I’ve only known one thing... It's like going back to square one.”

Along with this emotional trauma, Parent says the loss of routine and lack of structure in their lives is the next big obstacle professional athletes have to conquer.

This is something both Barnaby and Stock admit to struggling with.

“For me, that was the biggest change, that was the hardest thing,” Stock explains. “You’re trying to come up with a new routine – first it’s what is the best routine for me, and then what is the best routine for my family.”

Barnaby echoes this thought.

“You’re just so used to being in a structured life,” he adds.

“I was so used to – at the time since I was 16 – being on my own, training the way that I did… I had a set schedule everyday. I was so used to being in that structure, so when it wasn’t there, I had nothing to do and that was a part that I found really tough – not having that structure anymore.”

Then, they feel the void – like a huge part of their life is missing.

Chris Moynes, the managing director and senior financial advisor of ONE Sports + Entertainment Group, and author of “The Pro’s Process” – a series of books that examine life after sports for professional athletes, describes it as “a hole.”

“I think there’s a large void in one’s life after they leave a certain profession – especially at a young age when all they’ve known, from day one, is that sport and the routine of that sport,” he says.

“I deal a lot with hockey players and I think that from a very young age, these athletes identify themselves as hockey players in the world and that that’s their sole purpose in life.”

"I call it a drug - there is a drug in football and in sports that you can't get anywhere else" - Milt Stegall, retired CFL widereciever

However, this isn’t just a problem among professional hockey players – it’s something that can be felt and experienced by athletes in all leagues.

Canadian Football League (CFL) legend, former Winnipeg Blue Bomber, Milt Stegall understands this void best. In fact, he says trying to fill this “hole” was the biggest challenge he faced upon retirement.

Photos courtesy of Milt Stegall.

“I call it a drug – there is a drug in football and in sports that you can’t get anywhere else, in any occupation,” Stegall explains.

“There is nothing else like that rush when you’re on the field, you score a touchdown, you make a big play, they announce your name – there is nothing else like it in this world. It’s the reason you try to go back and play, it’s the reason you never want to stop playing, it’s the reason why Tom Brady says he’ll play until he’s 45 – because he has enough money for 10 lifetimes. So finding something that’s going to fill that hole, that gap, it’s impossible.”

While searching for this replacement and trying to recreate a new identity, Moynes notes that this is where several familial issues can occur.

“As soon as that contract is finished and you don’t have structure, or you don’t have purpose or a passion, all of a sudden you see guys who used to be up at the crack of dawn and get going with their families – now they don’t have anything to go and do,” he explains.

“That’s where we begin to see marriages break down because they’ve only known that marriage to be while that athlete was in that structure and in that whole lifestyle of fame and fortune.”

Barnaby, who faced a divorce following his retirement, believes there’s a correlation between retiring and divorce among professional athletes – referring to it as a “trickle down effect.”

“My focus was hockey and sometimes my family did take the backseat,” Barnaby admits.

“I think most people that are married to professional athletes, it’s a different lifestyle. You’re there for four days and when you’re there you’re focused on your game. Then once you retire and you’re there 24/7 with the same person, the things that might not have nagged you before starts nagging you… Now, you’re expected to do the dishes, you’re expected to go do the dry cleaning, you’re supposed to run errands and as a professional athlete you’re like ‘Well I’m not used to that, I’m used to people doing that for me.’”

Though, dealing with the effects of retirement can break down more than just the marriage. It can break down the entire home.

“They may not be as engaged with their kids because they’re dealing with their own grieving process. When you’re grieving, you’re in your own little bubble – you don’t feel anything, you see something is happening, but it doesn’t really reach you,” Parent says.

“More than that, they’re really not themselves.”

"My focus was hockey and sometimes my family did take the backseat" - Matthew Barnaby, retired NHLer

Jabari Greer, former cornerback for the New Orleans Saints and Buffalo Bills of the National Football League (NFL) felt retirement touch all aspects of his family.

“I was trying to love my wife, and lead my family, and love my kids without understanding who I was – a lot of my identity was tied up in the game,” he explains.

“Since that was done, a lot of my self respect and a lot of my self image was lost in that, as well, so I couldn’t treat my wife and my kids the way they deserved to be treated because I honestly didn’t know who I was at that time. I know I distanced myself.”

Athletes may also find themselves in financial distress – something Moynes, as a financial advisor, deals with on a regular basis.

He says the main difference between athletic and civilian retirement is the sudden cut-off of large salaries at a young age. Athletes can make millions one day, then nothing the next by the time they are 30.

“You have to be smart with the money you have at an early age and make it last forever,” he explains.

“The premise of how you invest your money in the early days as a pro is very different for the regular person because the longevity in retirement is so much different. If you retire at 25 or 30, you’ve got to make that money last until you’re 90. If you retire at 60 or 65, you’ve got to make that last until you’re 90, but it’s a shorter window than when you’re 25 or 30.”

Shaun Van Allen, former NHLer, found comfort in coaching during his retirement. Photo taken by Brandi Awad

One of his clients, former Ottawa Senator and assistant coach of the Carleton Ravens men’s ice hockey team, Shaun Van Allen describes financial stability as a major stressor when he retired in 2004.

“I didn’t have an education to fall back on – that was really scary,” Van Allen explains. “They say ‘At 36 you’re retired’ – well I retired from playing professional hockey, I haven’t retired from working.”

For athletes, retirement isn’t just the end of their 10 to 15-year playing career, but a decades-long love affair with a sport – something Stock says you should enjoy while you can.

“First off, take a moment: whether it’s today, next week, a month from now and sit down where you are, close your eyes, pour yourself a drink and sit down – just you – and be like isn’t this awesome? Like I’m in the f---ing NHL – enjoy the moment, appreciate where you are and what you’re doing. The other thing is, there is a tomorrow and you better damn ass prepare for it.”

Van Allen reflects on the glory days. Photo taken by Brandi Awad.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.