Daniel Tkaczuk played on several pro teams, including the Duisburg Foxes of the German Ice Hockey League. (Photo by Patrik Stollarz/Bongarts/Getty Images)
So you want to become a pro hockey player? Follow your dreams of making it to the NHL and winning the Stanley Cup? Make a living playing a sport that you love? Live in the spotlight?
Growing up and going through the Canadian minor hockey system, players get a wide array of advice on the world of hockey. The usual tidbits include the need to get an education, the length of a hockey career and the small percentage of active participants who get to make a living from this game; pretty standard and very repetitive.
Unfortunately, hockey and other pro sports have become akin to Hollywood movies. A pyramid scheme with those at the top making tremendous amounts of money, while supporting players/actors are replaceable and lead a much different life. Aside from the NHL, players can make a living at hockey in the American League, ECHL, Central League, Europe or Asia. Each league and situation varies in style of play, salary and format. Every individual player’s experience inside the game is different. However, there are some noticeable trends, both positive and negative, for those making a career as a hockey player that can also affect you later in life. Here are just a few:
Culture And Travel - As a pro player you get the opportunity to travel a little bit more and usually live in a different culture. When you live in a different city and country, you begin to learn about its history and customs that are different than your own. You may learn there is more than one way to do things, speak an entirely different language, try drinks and foods that you have never heard of and take in different festivals. You will also likely get to see how other parts of the world view the game of hockey and North America.
Adaptability - Every year you pretty much have a new set of teammates and friends that come from different backgrounds, are different ages and have different religions and values. You must be able to be a part of a group and work towards a common goal. This makes a hockey player more open-minded and communicative. This is part of the reason why pro players are great dinner guests and usually do well in a sales career.
Ability To Work Through Challenges In A Group - Having to work through high-pressure circumstances with a team gives a player the ability to accept a role and stay focused on a specific task. They develop inter-personal skills, become mentally tough and learn leadership values. These qualities are being lost as more and more youths interact behind a computer screen in the Internet era, but these assets are great for any company in a competitive market that values teamwork and requires its employees to work together to solve problems or issues. And this is partly why many former hockey players have made their way towards being a police officer or firefighter.
Job Skills/Resume - Unfortunately, to advance to the pro levels players must make sacrifices that demand most of their time and energy is spent towards developing their game. This leaves very little opportunity for an individual to build easily recognizable skills that relate to the regular working world. Players end up exiting hockey mostly between the ages of 25 and 35 and lack real world job skills that can be put on a resume.
Public Image - There is no escaping it. The more success you have as a player the more friends and popularity you will have. But this is a double-edged sword: cost the team a victory or stop putting up points and it must mean you don’t care or you’re a bad person. People will judge you without ever meeting you.
Personal Relationships - One thing you never hear as a young player is the amount of strain a career in hockey can put on your existing relationships. For long periods of time you are away from your friends and family. You may not be able to attend family gatherings on holidays or at weddings and funerals. Having a relationship while playing the game is also difficult for a partner/spouse who usually will not be able to work or attend school and is displaced from their own support network of friends and family. This can put a lot of added strain on a player as the sole provider and on the relationship in general.
Habits - Some habits are great inside the game, but can be detrimental outside the game. Hockey players have a need to compete on the ice and off it. It is no surprise players turn the habit of playing cards on the bus into a serious gambling addiction fueled by uncontrollable, competitive emotion. It is extremely hard for players to transition to life outside hockey. Punching the clock from nine-to-five and reporting to a boss day in day out is a difficult lifestyle hurdle for most players to accept after they have spent years on a different clock. Most don’t survive past the first month inside their first post-hockey job.
Life as a pro hockey player can be great. There are many hidden advantages and unfortunate trends players must seriously consider before choosing it as their career path. Players' unions are trying to provide support programs that make the transition from a playing career easier, but they have a long way to go.
Get educated and be prepared for the challenges that lie ahead with a pro hockey career.
Daniel Tkaczuk was Calgary's first round pick in 1997 (sixth overall) and has been playing professionally in North America and Europe for the past 12 seasons. He is currently president of iHockeyTrainer.com, an online hockey school for skill development.