Hayley Wickenheiser (Photo by Phillip Chin/WireImage)
Four-time Olympic gold medallist Hayley Wickenheiser was friends with Steve Montador, who died last week at the age of 35. She hopes his death shines a light on the difficulties athletes face when they have to leave the games the love.
By Hayley Wickenheiser
The last few days have almost felt like a fog, a total blur in so many ways. On Saturday, we said our final goodbyes to our good friend, Steve Montador. I truly believe in my heart that he is finally at peace, he certainly looked that way to many of us who paid our respects.
I have lost a few friends at a very young age, mostly tragic accidents or terminal illnesses. Steve’s death doesn’t really fit either criteria. It also hits home much more because our lifestyles were very similar. We have both played a game we have known and loved for our entire lives. The only difference is that Steve’s career ended before mine did and he was left facing the challenges of moving on and coping sooner.
Now the attention has to shift to what can we learn out of such a huge loss. The truth is, is that if Steve loved himself as much as everyone else loved him, we may not have gone to his funeral Saturday. The truth is also that the NHL is not the illusion it is cracked up to be. The average fan and everyday working person does not have a lot of empathy for pro athletes who might make $20 million to $30 million over their entire careers, then retire and struggle.
The reason I do is that no amount of fame or money can buy anyone happiness or fulfillment. Think about having a career since you were five years old and doing that career for 30 years, then stopping and having very few skills or real-world knowledge to move on and start something new.
Many of these guys are lucky to have finished high school and some post secondary education and it is almost impossible to plan and pursue other career options while you are playing as 82 games a season. It is a grind. Sure the hotels are nice, the meals are good, but the travel and fatigue is unrelenting and takes its toll on anyone. Mentally you need to have enough space to be able to recover and perform the next day.
It is easier for players like myself, elite amateur and Olympic athletes, to prepare for life after sport because we have no choice. None of us is going to make enough money to sustain us for the rest of our lives. I have been thinking and preparing about life after hockey for the last 10 years. I have gone on to do a master’s degreee and other education in order to set myself up for this. I have also seen teammates who have not had that thinking, and when they leave the game, they too struggle.
It is almost harder in some ways at the NHL level because of the money and lifestyle. Temptation lurks around every corner, the money they make allows them to take advantage if they so choose. It is in many ways the root of all evils. So too can be a toxic team environment, where the pressures of teammates on one another is the greatest pull of all. That can be either positive or negative.
I think the hardest thing for any athlete, pro or Olympic is the day it is over. Up to that point you were a valuable commodity, then suddenly overnight you are no longer a part of it. I have had teammates who were literally told, "Thanks, we don’t want you anymore," and guys have told me stories about being involved in conversations about trades and playoff runs in one instant and then being handed a garbage bag with their stuff and told "Goodbye" in the next.
Steve Montador is no longer with us and many will say it is because of concussions. In my opinion that is just one part of the story. There are so many factors in his life that led up to this moment whether it be addiction, depression, concussion, loss of identity, none of us truly really knows why - only Steve does. They are all compounding. I don’t know why Steve passed away and I really don’t care. What I do know is that this was an amazing person who deserves to have his life and legacy serve a bigger purpose to help others down the road.
Perhaps that purpose is to shine a light on the struggles that all athletes go through when they leave sport and leave the thing they loved the most. Yes, they have more money and fame than most, but they are still people deep down with the same struggles as you or I have every single day. This is what the public does not understand and this is what the NHL and the NHLPA need to get a handle on and continue to do more for the great players who give so much to the game and the fans.
It will be a failure to lose another athlete under similar circumstances as Steve. Let's hope his death brings forward a shining light on the difficulty athletes face when they leave the game. The public is so quick to jump on these guys and crucify them if they are not perfect in the media. Let's remember they are people too, they hurt, they struggle, and they are not invincible.
Editor's note: The preceding was posted on Hayley Wickenheiser's Facebook page Sunday night. It has been reprinted with her permission in exchange for a donation to Right to Play in Steve Montador's memory.