Thursday, December 11, 2014
Tell Me When It's Over, a/k/a How A Career Ends: Bobby Holik, part one
Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series with retired athletes talking about the moment they knew their playing days were over. The vast majority were published over at Deadspin. Every once in a while I stumble across the inevitable, unpublished stray, like this interview with former hockey center Bobby Holik from just about two years ago, which I'll post here in two parts.
Holik, a Czech-American, coach’s son, and professional athlete since age 16, was the number 10 overall pick by the Hartford Whalers in 1989, six months before the Velvet Revolution. After two seasons in Connecticut Holik was traded to New Jersey, where he played the next ten years, winning the Stanley Cup in 1995 and 2000. Holik signed a big money contract with the Rangers in 2002, but had moved on to Atlanta for the three seasons following the 2005 lockout, including the last as captain. He returned to New Jersey in 2008 for what would be his final season in the National Hockey League.
Holik played his last game on April 23, 2009, Game 5 (a Devils win) of the Conference Quarterfinals. He was a healthy scratch for both Games 6 and 7, which New Jersey lost to the Carolina Hurricanes.
I had other interests. My dad said, Hockey is great. Give it everything you have. But it is not everything. So there was time where, you know, it was time to give it all, and there was time to get away from it, too. And my interests were always, as a kid growing up, history, geography and the out of doors. So I read tons, and when I had the opportunity to spend time outdoors, whether it was at the cottage or with my grandfather, that’s what I did, too. I dedicated my life to hockey, but you can’t do it every day, 24 hours a day, all year round. That’s not going to make you better. So I always had an outlet to get me away from the game, and when I came back, whether it was a day later or a week or two weeks later, after vacation or in the off-season, I felt that much better and stronger and more hungry for the game. And I think it’s important to have that balance.
I believe it made me a better player, and more successful in the long run because, yeah, we have to learn to focus and give it everything we have, but again you don’t play hockey 24 hours a day. You don’t train 24 hours a day. This all or nothing focus on the game is, I think, overrated in my opinion. It worked for me to have diversified interests.
Also, you can only play hockey for so long. Or you can only be a professional athlete for so long. I was very fortunate. You know, I started playing professionally at 16 in Czechoslovakia, playing for the national team, and then I played 18 years in the National Hockey League, so I played a very, very long time. But still, if all is good, it’s probably only a quarter of my life. There’s a lot of life to live afterwards, and so diversified interests are important because now as we get into post-career, it makes you a lot happier afterwards.
When you’re good enough, nothing will stop you. And I firmly believe that our generation of players, or, you know, the players around my era, they were motivated by proving that nobody will stop them from doing what they really want to do.
The Velvet Revolution came. It couldn’t be better timing. I was drafted, still from behind the Iron Curtain, but six months later the government changed and all that stuff had improved. So I couldn’t be more fortunate in that sense. But whether the Velvet Revolution happened or not, I was leaving. I was going to defect, sooner or later, if I had to. Because my parents raised me, not knowing that the democratic changes will come. They were like, This is no place for you. You go where the best play, the best compete. And so was the regime going to limit me? Ultimately no, because I decided, my parents decided that for me to have a better life and the opportunity to compete against the best in the world was to defect. Fortunately the timing of the Velvet Revolution couldn’t happen any better.
It was definitely not certain that I’m going to be able to play there anytime soon, so there was this certain level of risk involved, for sure.
They never contacted me before, but the kind of in I had was Ivan Lendl, the Hall of Fame tennis player. He was a multiple U.S. Open winner. He was on the board of directors there, and he grew up watching my dad play in the Czech Republic. And from what I understand he told them that, If his son is half as good as his dad, you’ll get yourself a great hockey player. Again, that’s what I heard. That’s how it came down to being drafted by Hartford. I was young. I was 18 years old. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I was just playing hockey and trying to be the best I could be. I wasn’t concerned about anything else.
It’s much easier to leave when you’re young. I didn’t think about it before the Velvet Revolution. I didn’t think about it afterwards. I came as a 19-year-old, and from Day One this country feels so blessed for me. You know, I still can’t put a finger on it, but I feel so at home. And a lot of it has to do with I’m a small fish in a very, very big pond. And it would be completely opposite in the Czech Republic.
I didn’t know it at the time. I just kind of realized it over the last few years. This country allows me a certain anonymity. It allows me to live my life the way I want to live it. Some people would like more attention. I like it the way it is. You know, compared with the Canadian players from Canada, small town Canada, it’s quite different. It’s a quite different atmosphere or environment than it is if you were in the States.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been inside of the hockey arena or the locker room, but you take a few steps from the locker room and there’s a gate open, and you take those steps through the gates, from the hard ground, the regular surface, onto the ice, and suddenly you’re transformed into a fantasy world. And then you do what you do for two, three hours - with practice it’s 45 minutes or an hour - and it’s like nothing else matters but the game. And I was fortunate to appreciate that every day, every time that happened. And people are surprised to hear that, because they always think about the championships. And I say, No, it’s every day.
I call it an escape from reality. It’s not that I wanted to escape reality, but you’re leaving the real world behind and you’re going to play a game. And I did it for a long, long time. And I not only liked playing games or playoffs or championships, I liked practicing. I just loved being a hockey player. And I would say, The best life there is is a professional hockey player. You’re playing a great game for a living. You’re surrounded by great people who have sacrificed so much to be where they are. And they pay you a lot of money [laughs].
You know, we all are great at something. Most of us, and I believe all. We’re all great at something. Some people find it. Some people never do. Some people find it late. Some people find it early. I was fortunate. I think that I was put on this earth to be playing hockey, and given the opportunity to be the best I could be. It was up to me to accomplish that.
I always take the financial rewards out of the equation, because I would probably be doing it if they paid me half, or just a quarter of what they did. I didn’t know, ever, that I was going to make that kind of money. But I was shooting to be the best I could possibly be at hockey. I was put on this earth to be great at that. Unfortunately there’s a time window that closes for all of us [laughs]. And now we close that window and I will try to move onto the next thing.
If I had a recommendation for retired athletes: don’t try to replace what you did all your life, because you will never accomplish that. Find different direction. You know, there’s so many players who want to replace basketball with golf or football with whatever. No. You’re not going to replace what you did all your life. You just need to find something different, take a different direction.
The transition period doesn’t start when you finally hang up the skates. I think the transition period starts when you face the reality and say, Ok, I’ve got a year or two left. I might have more but I’m not going to be able to perform at the level that I would like to. So it was about two years left in my career and I’m like, You know what? It’s coming. I don’t know if it’s coming next year or the year after, but I will not be able to perform at the level I used to. I want, you know, to be realistic. So I started kind of going through the transition.
Not that I gave the game any less. It’s just kind of facing the reality at the right time. And so the last two years of my career, say maybe the last eighteen months and the first year or two after you retire, that’s the transition period, and that’s kind of the time where you have to give yourself time to reflect. You know, don’t dwell on your accomplishments as a player, because it’s over. Look ahead. What do you like? What’s important to you? You know, all that stuff.
I don’t want to be too philosophical. I never was. But it takes, say, a total of three years where you kind of find your new place and you start basically a new life. And that’s why I went out. Nobody wants you or you’re crippled or you suffer traumatic injury. Not that you can’t perform. Again, it’s all intertwined.
At that point of your career, the personal life and the professional life starts mixing. That’s one of the reasons I retired. You know, it was always hockey, hockey, hockey. Not that I didn’t love it, but you have that window of opportunity. And you’re going to give it everything you have. Well, the window was closing, and suddenly you’re like, Well, the window is closing. I still want to play. I still can play. Teams still want me. I’m still healthy enough, but I’m just not getting the same high out of it as I did in the past, because I want to go home and I want to see my daughter grow up. You know, she was becoming a teenager. And I’m like, This is a time of life that I will never have back. It’s just like, You know what? It’s enough. You know, it’s all good. Why not end it now?
So it’s not one thing or the other. It’s a combination. For me it was a combination of the things, because I never want to ask for way too much. Life is not fair, and I’ve had such a wonderful career and such a wonderful life, and my family, you know, I love being around them and I love being home. I’m like, Why push it, you know?