Beyond Hockey

In Canada and in many parts of the world, we grew up watching hockey. It’s a sport yes, but it’s also a passion, a lifestyle. Those who had a chance to play it or had kids playing the game will tell you that a hockey season ties so much of your time, your parents’ time too. How many sports require you to spend that much time with your teammates? Getting dressed and undressed before and after practice, before and after games, sharing time and making lifetime friends. The camaraderie, the laughs, the teasing, the jokes, the cries… and even the fights. You often hear that a hockey team is like a family. Some you like, some not as much. But ultimately, you have a group sharing the same passion, pulling in the same direction to beat an opponent.

It cannot be more evident that at the professional level. In the NHL, a season starts with a development camp for young guys. Later, you have a rookie camp for those in hope to earn a shot to be invited to the team’s main training camp. Then it’s either back to junior, to the AHL training camp or, for the select few, an invitation to be with the big boys, the stars of the game. A chance to “make the show”. All of this time, sharing a dressing room and activities on and off the ice. While competitive, you get to know these guys. You get to establish relationships from the very start of your career. But then again, there’s the business side of it, and that’s what fans – and often media members – don’t get to see, or too often forget or ignore.

You see, these guys have a life outside the rink. They have families, significant others, many have children who have their own activities, many outside of hockey. The players share friendships which carry off the ice too. Wifes and girlfriends also spend a significant amount of time together and many also establish connections and friendships. For those with children, it’s a whole other dynamic. Kids establish relationships with the other players on the team. Many players’ children bond with the kids of other players. They see each other at home games. They have play dates, sleep overs, just like our children. It’s an extended family.

Just recently, I was listening to Brendan Gallagher talk about Jeff Petry‘s boys, how much time he spends with them. Yet, Gallagher is single with no children. The Prices, Webers and Petrys hang out together not only during the season, but in the summer months in Kelowna, BC. They are joined by another good friend and his family: former Habs’ heart and soul and Kelowna next door neighbour of Carey Price, Josh Gorges, who made the trip to Montreal this weekend to catch a game and see his buddies on the Canadiens.

The business of hockey

But then, the ugly side of hockey points its nose. Players know what they’re getting into when making hockey a career. They know the risk of injuries, time away from their loved ones and, with it… the separation anxiety though the risk of being traded or having a friend on the team getting traded. It’s easy for us to sit here and say, “Hey, that’s why they’re getting paid big bucks” but it’s not easy. Often, they don’t even need to be traded to feel that pressure, that anxiety. Come summer and trade deadline day, rumours are everywhere and even if players often try to shut those down, they hear about them. Family members hear about them. Their wife and children hear about them.

They have a home. Kids are in school. They have their friends and activities. Yes, hubby, dad, makes good money allowing them some luxury other children don’t have. But all of their stability, their growing up, can blow up in flames in front of their eyes in one phone call from the team’s General Manager. When a player is traded, an entire world is affected.

Just ask Gorges how crushed he was to leave the Habs’ organisation. Dale Weise how he felt being traded from the Canadiens to Chicago. More recently, ask Nate Thompson – nicknamed “Uncle Nate” by his teammates – about having to leave Montreal. Have you read Chris Nilan‘s book yet? If not, do it. See how affected he was to leave the Canadiens. Ask them what kind of impact it had at the time on themselves yes, but mostly on their family.

Just recently, Ilya Kovalchuk was talking about the rare outstanding team spirit and closeness of this Canadiens’ team. He referred to it as a family. And you saw team GM Marc Bergevin accommodate him by giving him a choice of destination. That can go a long way to get players to play in a place or not and Kovy seems genuine in wanting to come back next season. Whether he does or not remains to be seen but players do appreciate such gestures.

You saw Bergevin do that in several occasions since taking over. The last one was Tomas Plekanec, giving him a choice of teams to be traded to, and whom he even brought back to allow him to reach a milestone in a Canadiens’ jersey. You see, the GM was once a player and he knows what these guys are going through. Yes, hockey is a business but in that business, they are human beings with feelings and needs too. Let’s always remember that. Go Habs Go!

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