Friday, December 12, 2014

Tell Me When It's Over, a/k/a How A Career Ends: Bobby Holik, part two

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 Every once in a while I stumble across the inevitable, unpublished stray, like this interview with former hockey center Bobby Holik from just about two years ago.

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 published the first part one of my interview with Bobby Holik yesterday. This is part two.

The first year after I retired from playing was just wonderful. I mean, it’s still wonderful, but in a sense you actually, for the first time in 20 years, you don’t have a schedule day to day. Even in the off-season you have your own schedule in your own mind. Like, Okay, tomorrow is aerobic work and sprints, and the next day it’s anaerobic and weightlifting. It’s every day. And when you have a day off, it’s like, Okay, today’s my day off. Every day, since I was like five years old, I had a goal for the day, for the week, for the month, for the year. And suddenly it wasn’t there. And I felt mentally spent, because you always think about what you need to do. Listen: physically it’s easy. Mentally, you always have to think about what you need to do next to be at your best. So suddenly I retired and I started living day to day.

I started watching a lot more hockey towards the end of my career. As soon as I retired it was a kind of a relief to be able to enjoy the game without really having to get ready for one. So basically, from the first year on, I watched sometimes three games a night. There have been times where, like on a Saturday when I’m out west and afternoon games on the East Coast start at 11, I can watch games from 11 in the morning until midnight. In the middle of winter, every so often I had to climb on the roof and clear the snow off my satellite so I could watch the game. It was caking up, you know, and when it falls that fast you lose the signal, so I have the ladder by the garage and I climb up there. I always liked, especially after I retired, watching the games because suddenly the pressure, the physical pressure was off of me, not having to really get ready for the game. Last year, sometimes I watched eight, ten games a week.

Ultimately I would like to see myself getting involved in the game, whether it’s mentoring younger players in some way or working for a team. Because it’s just, it’s in me. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s just part of me. You know, I have so much to share.


Any earlier would be too early, but any later I would be asking for trouble, whether a serious injury or not being able to play on my . . . Not asking for trouble, but you know what I mean. Yeah, I could probably have played longer, but it would not be the same. It was time. I think the timing was right. Any earlier would’ve definitely been too early, and any later I felt like I was asking for trouble. Towards the end of my career, the last year or two, I found that the pucks were hitting me more often. You know, deflected pucks. I was actually getting hit a little bit more than I used to, and I'm like, Hm, maybe those are signs that . . . I was fortunate during my career, as many games as I played. I was not injury free, but minor injuries. And suddenly I started realizing that there’s nothing I can do about certain aspects of my game. The reflexes, or intuition. You’re just losing a tiny, tiny bit of edge, and it starts showing because the game is so fast and so physical and so, so intense. And so I kind of started reflecting every so often. I’m like, This usually doesn’t happen to me. And maybe that’s why I started thinking . . . Again, it was a combination of many things that I said, Okay, it’s time.

It wasn’t like suddenly it started happening. It happened every so often. Every few weeks or months I would get hit with the puck in the face when I rarely did before, because I couldn’t get out of the way. I didn’t just . . . You know, the reflexes . . . Then in my last year, when I went back to New Jersey, I really felt good about going back for one more year, and I was coming into my own, and then a game in Washington, DC I almost lost a finger because I got hit with the puck. It was a true accident. So suddenly I’m out for two months because I had surgery. I almost lost the nerve where it’s . . . I mean, the finger was hanging on the tendons only, so they basically reattached it. Big surgery. I came back. And, you know, at age 38 it takes longer to come back from injury than in the past, when you’re younger, and when I finally came into my own and started playing as well as I could at 38 years of age, suddenly I kind of realized, Wow. I think this is it. Because I was not getting the same high out of it. You know, I worked my way back from the injury, come back to the form and suddenly I just wasn’t . . . My heart and stuff suddenly was like, I think this is it. And so, you know, there was so many weeks left in the season. I’ll give it everything I have as I always did, and when the season was over it was like, Yeah, this is it. So it kind of just happened.


I wasn’t thinking about it until I came back to full health and to full form after the injury. Suddenly I came back. I worked my butt off because, as I said, for an older player it’s very hard to come back from injury. It just takes that much longer. So I finally got back to where I wanted to be, where I wanted to be in October, but it was now in December, if not January, and suddenly I realized I came back all this way to realize that this is it. It’s really the end. You know, I’m glad I came to my full strength and full form, but suddenly my heart was like, Okay. You know, it’s just not the same anymore.

So after the New Year, I suddenly realized that, you know, I’m going to finish this season as strong as I can, but that was it. It was something that I felt inside that’s almost impossible to explain. When it’s your choice to be able to say, This is it, then that’s . . . I reached that point.

There were no thoughts of retirement before the last couple of years. You knew it was going to happen. I didn’t have any specific plan. I was coming back to New Jersey because the system that they played, and if it’s going to be my last year – actually I thought I was going to play two more years – you know, and if it’s going to be my last couple of years, it’s always good to be in a familiar place, to just be able to play your game. And what happened during the injury was the opposite. You know, I get hurt. A lot of people said, Hey, don’t worry about it. You get two months off. You rest up. You’ll be better afterwards. And I’m like, That’s not a bad point. Like, instead of playing the whole season you’re going to be playing, you know, 80% of the season, or 70% of the season. But it didn’t happen. Physically it happened. Mentally it happened the opposite. So I didn’t think about retirement. I didn’t realize that it came after I came back to full health and full form after the injury. Up to that point I was just kind of like, It’s inevitable. I don’t know when it’s going to happen.

You’re playing, and because you’re having such a good time it’s like, I don’t think I can think about it. I’m just going to play and do my best. And the opportunity of going back to New Jersey, it was like, Okay, I’ve played almost 20 years. I have the opportunity to go back where I was very successful, in a different role – more like a mentor, more of an experienced player – in a different role than I did in my mid to late 20s. But I wasn’t going there like, I’m going back to New Jersey and I’m going to retire. No. I wanted to go there because I thought I could be an effective player for that organization still.

I wanted kind of the dust to settle, and then I wanted to think about it clearly. I almost waited a month, maybe longer. I never felt like the game I'm playing is the last game I'm playing. Because you don’t want to say, I’m done, when you don’t know. First of all, I always wanted to make it clear, free of emotions. Kind of like, Clear your mind. I didn’t want to make it after a great game or a bad game or a great ending or a bad ending. I just wanted to walk away, separate myself for a few weeks and think about it and then make a decision. And pretty much it was a sure thing, but you still want to make sure. You want to get home. You want to clear your mind and then, you know . . .

I was never the player who had to have kind of the last hurrah and skate around the rink and shake hands. I was kind of an aggressive player. There was always, always something happening when I was playing. So I decided to make the retirement as quiet as possible [laughs]. Because who cares? You know, it’s just another player retiring, okay? I didn’t want to make a deal out of it. People watched me and they cheered for me because I played, not because I’m retiring, you know what I mean? That’s how I felt. I was playing loud as a player, but let’s just keep it on the down low when I retire.

I wanted to get home first, to think about it. We had exit interviews – we always did – with the general manager. You know, we sat down with the coaches and we hung out with the players, but I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it because I really wanted to make it low-key. Really just announce it over the phone, like, Hey, this is it. And I’m glad I did it that way, because as I said, when I played there was always something happening, and I was in the middle of it. But when I was retiring I wanted to make sure it was a nice, quiet way.

I have a couple of jerseys from the time we won the championship. You know, I always looked at it, when you win championships, that’s the pinnacle. Why save things from ordinary days? I kept both jerseys. I’ve got the Cup replica that we got. I’ve got the rings, and I think I have one or two sticks from my career. And that’s it. I only kept, you know, the good stuff [laughs].

I don’t have a room where it’s all displayed. I have a couple of nice pictures in the house, but other than that, life goes on. Great experience, a great life and great career for me, but life goes on.

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