When the real battle begins: the trials of life after hockey

Jed Ortmeyer is one of many retired NHL players who has used the BreakAway program as a resource to help adjust to life after hockey. 

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor/USA TODAY Sports

When players retire from the National Hockey League, it normally marks the end of their story for fans. But retirement is the start of a long and difficult transition for players who have lived, breathed — and bled — hockey from the time most were toddlers.

The NHL Alumni Association currently offers one major resource, the BreakAway program, as a way to help players either avoid or navigate the dark days of retirement life. It offers support for players’ emotional, financial, vocational and educational needs, because retirement issues impact players in nearly every aspect of life.

Without hockey, players suddenly need to establish a new identity. Players experience issues which range from a simple fear of flying without a team to the more complex problems of divorce, financial management and mental health problems. Most are forced to find a new career path in an unfamiliar world. But many have no resume outside of hockey, and aside from a small percentage who have finished their college degrees, most do not have secondary education to fall back on.

"You’ve done something your entire life, 20-30 years, you wake up with the same purpose and same drive and then all of a sudden, it’s over and now you’re like, ‘Okay, now what?’" said Jed Ortmeyer, who played eight seasons in the NHL as a center before retiring after the 2012-13 season.

The physical nature of hockey can further complicate matters by causing lasting health issues that can affect players physically and mentally long after their playing days are over. Recent research has shown a high presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease researchers believe is caused by repeated blows to the head. Enforcers and highly physical hockey players are especially susceptible to CTE and are also exactly the type who typically don’t make enough money during their NHL career to not have to work after retirement.

Researchers say CTE can cause a variety of issues, including impulse control problems, impaired judgment, aggression and depression. When mixed with the typical post-retirement issues, the cumulative physical effects of a hockey career can have a dangerous effect on players’ lives out of the game.

Since 2011, five former NHL players — Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard, Todd Ewen, Steve Montador and Rick Rypien –€“ have died after allegedly struggling with either depression or addiction issues in their off-ice lives. Although the reasons behind each death were unique and will never be fully understood, a number of former players said they could easily see how retired life could cause a player to struggle to cope with life after hockey. Colorado Avalanche assistant coach Dave Farrish, a former player who retired 25 years ago, said the mix of concussion-related issues and general retirement issues leaves many former players vulnerable.

I just think that that’s kind of a dark area that nobody has really exposed right now.

Dave Farrish

"I just think that that’s kind of a dark area that nobody has really exposed right now," Farrish said. "The day you retire and you’re out of hockey, everybody forgets about you. They move on to the next player or the next new guy. These [retired] players get forgotten. A lot of them are afraid to ask for help or aren’t really sure how to ask for help."

Retired athletes who have been part of a team for their entire lives suddenly have to confront the sense of being truly on their own for the first time. Dan Hinote, a veteran of nine NHL seasons split between the Avalanche and St. Louis Blues, said the lack of social support post-retirement was difficult to cope with.

"When I first retired, there’s a little part of you that believes somebody along the way from the past when you played is going to take care of you, whether it’s an old team or an old organization or a buddy, and then all of the sudden you realize that no one is there to hold your hand," Hinote said. "Then real life kicks in."

That’s also when BreakAway kicks in. The program is funded in part by the NHL Emergency Assistance Fund, which collects money from suspended players to help support programs to assist current and former players with a variety of issues. Wendy McCreary, the senior director of BreakAway, is the daughter of former NHL player Keith McCreary and has worked for BreakAway since 2000, shortly after her father founded the NHL Alumni Association. Her passion for helping former hockey players adjust to retired life comes from watching her own family members try to find their way.

"Some of them are just simply lost when they do come out of the game," Wendy McCreary told FOX Sports. "Their focus is on hockey so they don’t really know what they want to do. "The one thing that we try to encourage is that they’re not alone. Everyone loses their identity when they come out of the game. What we really try to build are curriculums where they’re team-oriented so players continue to build their confidence but remain in that team environment."

BreakAway offers a range of seminars that address everything from public speaking to restaurant management to broadcasting to the business world in an attempt to help former players find a new passion in the post-hockey world. Ortmeyer, Farrish and Hinote have all participated in the program to varying degrees. Hinote now serves on the retirement committee for financial lifestyle within the program. Ortmeyer said he hopes to partner with the program as he starts a headhunting firm to help players find jobs outside of the hockey world. Farrish, meanwhile, simply attended a few seminars.

Although all three followed different career paths — Ortmeyer is an entrepreneur, Farrish is in the coaching world and Hinote is a sales trader for a securities firm – all found relevant seminars within the BreakAway program. In addition to seminars, BreakAway hosts a mentorship program that connects anyone who might be struggling with a former player who has been successful in retirement.

The organization is also starting a retirement transitional call system to attempt to get in touch with some former players who are struggling but might not be willing or might not know how to ask for help. The phone call initiative is one former player Daniel Carcillo has said he would like to create in order to help reach former players who might be struggling off the ice. Carcillo was inspired by former friend and teammate Montador’s death to help prevent others from falling into similar issues.

McCreary said she spoke with Carcillo over the summer about his ideas for a new foundation and discussed the possibility of collaborating with him.

"We’re all part of the same family so we all want to help," McCreary said. "Our goal, bottom line, is to help the retired players so we’re working together and collaborating information about the different programs that we can do to help them."

The BreakAway program does have its limits. While the organization offers assistance for a wide range of issues players might face, it currently does not provide specific plans for players who think they might be suffering from the after-effects of concussions. The organization instead refers concerned players to doctors who are better able to help.

"We don’t know enough about [concussion issues]," McCreary said. "We leave that to the experts to use their expertise. But if we know that somebody is looking for direction in that area, then we certainly help with direction to the resources that they require."

Although there is not a specific concussion treatment plan within BreakAway, Ortmeyer said he believes the other services BreakAway offers can alleviate the mental health issues that both concussions and retirement can cause.

"Retirement is hard and whether it’s the brain issues or it’s just dealing with retiring and being depressed or whatever, if you have something that you’re excited about and you’re waking up with a purpose again and you’re moving towards your next career, guys are going to feel better about their retirement," Ortmeyer said. "They’ll enjoy what they were able to accomplish knowing that there’s something else out there and for them to move on to."

Another issue with the program is awareness. Farrish, Ortmeyer and Hinote all said they would like to see the NHLPA or the NHL do more to make players aware that there are resources available to help them in their off-ice lives.

"I think it’s a great program to educate a lot of guys who are looking for a new direction or something new to do or getting into a specific field," Farrish said. "It’s a very diverse program. They cover a lot of different areas and I just think it’s a shame more people don’t know about it."

In fact, Ortmeyer only found out the program existed through his wife.

"The BreakAway program was introduced to my wife through her company," Ortmeyer said. "I was not aware of the NHL Alumni Association at the time. That had never been talked about or explained to me. I don’t know if it’s the NHL in general or the (Players Association), but there’s definitely a disconnect. I should have known or should have heard more about it during my playing time, and I didn’t."

Farrish, who worked as an assistant coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs for three years before joining the Avalanche coaching staff over the summer, also said he believes more can be done by the league or the players’ association to help players off the ice.

I think there has to be a way where we can find out and help more people who are maybe going through [concussion- or depression-related] situations …

Dave Farrish

"I think there has to be a way where we can find out and help more people who are maybe going through [concussion- or depression-related] situations and don’t have the confidence to come out and ask people about it or tell people about it," Farrish said. "I just think there has to be something more from the inside of the alumni or players association where you can put people in place, maybe a small group of doctors that can reach out to people and make sure nobody falls through the cracks."

When contacted about the complaints from former players about the league and NHLPA failing to make players aware of existing off-ice resource programs, the NHLPA said in an email that it plans to create a program together with the NHL to help prepare players for life after hockey while they are still in the midst of their playing days. The program, which the NHLPA said it intends to launch jointly with the NHL later this season, will be formed from feedback collected from players after the lockout in 2012-13 about how the NHLPA can further support players. 

"We have reached out to current and former players in order to develop a program that fits their needs, and certainly better education and awareness of the programs available is something we are committed to doing with the new program," the NHLPA said in the email.

In the interim, Hinote said it is important to talk to as many current players as possible about preparing for retirement long before their final NHL game ever comes. Only then, Hinote said, will curbing post-retirement issues be more effective.

"I want to take it out of the players hands to make the decision," Hinote said. "I want it to be mandatory that the NHL players currently have some interaction with the BreakAway program before they retire.

"When you’re young and invincible, you don’t really think about retirement nor do you care because you’re going to play forever and you’re never going to get hurt and you’re going to make more money than God, so what do you care? But that’s when you have to throw water in their face with stories of nightmares, of the athletes that lost all their money. You hope you can wake them up that way where they at least listen to you and follow your advice.

"Nobody is doing this for personal gain. Everyone is doing this because maybe they’ve struggled or they’ve had teammates who struggled or they’ve seen the struggle and they want to help. We want you to take care of yourself because we care about hockey players."

EDIT: This story was updated to include that the NHL and NHLPA intend to jointly launch a program later this year to prepare players for life after hockey. The story originally stated that the NHLPA plans to launch a program later this year to prepare players for life after hockey.