As told to: Greg ThomasI didn’t manage my money very well. When you are young you don’t think it is ever going to end. It is a little easier for today’s players. When you’re making nine million dollars a year you don’t have to worry about spending it all in 40 years. You have to teach young players and even mid-aged players that, at some point, this shit is going to end. There are many more obstacles in life. Being part of your family is tough. The hockey family of the team is very different from your home family. A lot of us aren’t used to being around our children and our wives. That is why so many guys get divorced. When they quit playing, they don’t know what to do and can’t handle the pressure of their own life. That is why a lot of former players turn to drinking or other things now. There has to be some kind of school. I think you need to remind the players every year or maybe even twice a year that you have to prepare yourself for life after hockey. Then, at least maybe two out of 20 players might think about it.
My problem when I retired was that I had such high expectations of myself. I wanted to do only huge things; I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything less. But, with time, I realized that it isn’t about that. It takes time to find things in life. It is hard to find the middle. When you’re playing, you are living a hectic life in a bubble: practice, games, dinners, people, attention. When you retire, you’ll miss that initially, but you’ll find peace. You have to figure out that you are not an 80-year-old man. You are still 40 and you have to have some kind of drive in life. I’m happy I had a couple of years to be part of my children’s lives and think about many of these things. Initially, I spent time as a stay-at-home dad, which was the hardest job I have ever done. Now I work in the development business in Florida. I really enjoy what I have in life: a little peace and a little serenity. Because when I played, I didn’t deal with reality. I had one goal: to be in shape and to be ready for the games.
My problem when I retired was that I had such high expectations of myself. I wanted to do only huge things; I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything less. But, with time, I realized that it isn’t about that.
EATING: Listen, I gained some weight, maybe 20 pounds when I retired, but I really keep myself in shape. I train a lot. I go to the gym and play hockey two or three times a week. I run. I just ran last week, 12 miles. It took me almost two or three hours but I did it. The hardest thing for me is the eating. When I played, it was such a painful feeling always watching what you were eating and how much you weighed. Al Arbour used to check my weight all the time. That’s why I got a complex right away when I came to the NHL. He was obsessed with my weight. I used to be 205 pounds, for example, and then I’d go to Brighton Beach and eat all this Russian food. I’d come to practice the next day and be 215. So now, I train a lot but I eat a lot too. But I can’t eat ice cream and chocolate every day. This is not the proper way for a grown man to eat.
HAIR: I grew long hair and I played well. I cut my hair and played poorly so, I knew I had to grow my hair. It was my strength, like Samson. But then in Pittsburgh, I got so sick and tired of being recognized everywhere I went. I cut it off.
HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA: My first game on Hockey Night in Canada, the boys were so pumped. They would always say that if you want to have a name in the game, you gotta play well on Hockey Night in Canada because everyone is watching. I didn’t care. I didn’t care what Don Cherry had to say about me. It probably wasn’t anything nice, anyways.
GINO ODJICK: I took Gino Odjick fishing one time with Pavel Bure in Long Island. The next year, I was playing for Pittsburgh against Odjick and the Islanders. He skated up to me and sucker punched me with a bare fist. I didn’t see him coming; he came from behind and whacked me. He got suspended for 8 games. He did it, he said, because I hit his teammate, Marius Czerkawski. I called Pavel Bure the next day and said to him, “Hey, what the hell is wrong with this guy; I took him fishing and he’s doing this stuff.” Pavel told me that Gino didn’t really care that I took him fishing. But I thought we were friends.
REMORSE: Before I moved to the Rangers, Eric Lindros called me just as free agency started. He encouraged me to come and play for them, saying that he’d really love to have me on their team. I was shocked. I had given Eric a very bad concussion and I felt weird going to a team with a player I’d injured. He reassured me that I didn’t have to worry. He said, “It’s a game and people get hurt.” He didn’t hold any kind of grudge against me. Ever since I was a kid, if someone get injured or you ended up fighting and beating up another player, I always felt a kind sadness inside me. I felt bad. It just wasn’t a nice thing to do. It was the same thing with injuring a player on a hit. I think you have to be gutless and have no soul if you celebrate someone else’s injury.
THE STICK SALUTE: The (stick) salute happened for the first time after the Rangers’ shootout victory over the Capitals. I was so nervous on the bench because I was the last guy left to shoot. I was relieved when Marek Malik scored. Jagr kept nominating me on the bench, but Tom Renney ignored him (thank God!). After the game, he told me he would have had the backup goalie shoot before me. We were so excited that we won the game. The fans were going absolutely crazy. I came up to Jags as we were celebrating and said we should go to the middle of the rink and salute the fans and say thank you. We do a similar thing in Europe, only not always at centre ice. Jags agreed and we did it. The crowd went nuts, so, we kept on doing it after home wins. In that moment, our accomplishments are recognized as a team. The fans loved it because we appreciated their part in our victory. It makes me very proud that we, the Rangers, did it first.
MOM’s FIRST VISIT: My mother came to visit me in the early 90’s during my first year as a New York Islander. Lithuania had only just become independent and it was still very much like living in the Soviet Union. There was no food on the shelves or clothes on the hangers. So for her it was shocking to come to the United States and watch her son play in front of 17,000 at the Nassau Coliseum. I remember the first game she attended, I blocked a shot. The shot got me in the knee and I was in a lot of pain, screaming on the ice. They took me to the locker room. I will never forget looking up from the trainer’s table as my mom walked into the room to make sure I was okay.
TEACHING THE GAME: I think the game of hockey has to be fun. Of course, you have to work on skills like skating and it doesn’t come easily, but it’s a game – a fun game. Today, hockey is a huge business. It’s all fitness-schmittness and kids feel the pressure to perform. When I was a kid, you just threw on your skates and played. Nobody told you to do squats, lunges, or build this muscle and that muscle. Your body grew naturally. Now we have private programs and kids get confused about why they are doing it. It isn’t just a game anymore. Every parent wants their child to be a pro athlete, but there are only about 600 players in the NHL.
When you play, you worry every year. You worry that you won’t be good enough to play on the team, no matter what kind of year you had. For me, there was always pressure; that is why I don’t miss hockey right now. I miss the camaraderie with my teammates and being part of the team but I don’t miss the pressure you experience on a daily basis. Watching your weight, watching what you eat, having to do this, having to do that, but not knowing what is going to happen. It all takes its toll.
What bothers me today – in any sport – is that, when a guy gets older, they aren’t treated with proper respect. When I went to Russia after leaving the Rangers, I was treated with a certain level of respect as a veteran. They appreciated me no matter what. But now, in professional sport, the moment you hit a certain age, the expectations become too high. You are constantly trying your best to perform but eventually, you know they are going to come to you and say, “We are going to go younger”. It is a young man’s game right now. You very rarely see a 38-year-old in the League anymore. It used to be you had to play 10 years to earn, but now you get the money and after 10 years you just don’t have to play anymore. Look what Kovalchuk did – he just took the money and left.
GREG THOMAS is an accomplished actor and playwright from Nipawin, Saskatchewan.
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