What Happens When the Game Ends
Before you Google my name – I’m not famous. You might find stats from my U14 or U19 seasons in the Tier One Elite Hockey League. Maybe an article about when I committed to play (club) at Miami of Ohio or that time I made honor roll. My last name pops up a lot though. If you’re hardcore you’ll recognize it. I come from a hockey family. My dad and my uncles were always on the fringe of the NHL regular season roster. Dad was usually one injury away from making the team, so I grew up as a minor pro-athlete’s daughter. A minor pro-enforcer’s daughter. I was at my first game when I was 3 days old. I moved nine times before I started kindergarten. My life was measured in hockey games.
I’ve felt small town fame. In elementary school, I was only popular because kids wanted to say they came over to Topper’s house. He was a legend on the Illinois and Iowa border. I was 11 years old when he got his blood clot that became a pulmonary embolism. I understood that it could kill him, but I understood that retiring could kill him too. Things changed at home. I don’t think he knew what to do. I didn’t know what to do. All of a sudden my dad was home all the time. My parents fought all the time. We weren’t legendary anymore.
Now, my younger brothers are getting to the point where they choose their path. One of them went major junior, he plays in the WHL, but he’s an average player and sometimes thinks about college instead of trying to go pro. The other is only 16 years old, but is being asked to make decisions that would stress adults out. I try to talk with them about their options, but they say I don’t know what I’m talking about because I never did it. Not “for real.” So, I help them with homework and tease right back that they’ve never had to hold a “real” job like I have to.
I help them with their homework because I’m the student. In reality, I entered college a complete wreck, without any interests or clubs because all my life I had been a hockey player. I didn’t think I could drag nagging injuries through four more years of D3. It’s been three years now and sometimes I still accidentally say, “I have to go to practice,” instead of “I have to go to class.” I feel like I never left the sport — and so do my knees. As I’ve gotten older, hockey has gotten harder and crueler. The world has gotten harder and crueler. I’ve dated guys and played with girls who get cut from national teams, college teams and junior teams. I’ve dropped out of college. My closest friends have been forced to quit after too many concussions or because the real world is calling. The real world. We don’t even know what that is.
When I quit playing the game, my outlet for (at the time undiagnosed) severe depression and panic disorder was gone. My daily routine — when I ate, showered, slept, exercised and socialized — was all gone because the other team scored one more goal than us in a game on a late March, Sunday afternoon. I spiraled. Exercise was the first thing to go. At first I was too sore, then I was too sad. Socializing was next. Eventually I just ate and (barely) slept due to really bad nightmares. Nobody wanted to be around me, which was fine, because I didn’t want to be around anybody. I went from being captain of hockey teams and a social butterfly to shutting myself in a room. I wasn’t me anymore; I didn’t want to be. I remember saying one time to a friend, when in a really dark place, that I hope there’s hockey in Heaven and I hope I get to play again soon. Perhaps it’s not life or death for everybody else to be done with the game, but it was life changing for me.
Now that I’ve entered life after hockey, I worry mostly about my brothers and my good friends – -the ones who are still playing hockey when I’m working full-time and (should) be in my senior year of college. The guys who are up in the middle of the night flipping out over an injury or what to do next year. Next year. Personally, next year I want to be healthier with a better grip on my illness. I want to have let go of my pain and the grudge I hold towards the sport. I want simple things; simple things that are so different than a few years ago when all I wanted was to beat our rival, play a good game and hang out with my boyfriend afterwards.
I’m not famous, but I’m still a hockey player that the game chewed up and spit out. I’m still a daughter, sister and friend to people at a loss of what to do with themselves when the third period ends and there’s no next game. Hockey has influenced my life as much as it has anybody in the NHL. Maybe I’m exaggerating.
Either way, that’s why I’m here. I’m here because there are a lot more people reading this who’ve been in my position than in a professional athlete’s position. I’m here because sports are supposed to bring out the best in us, so what do we do when that’s gone or when it hurts? I’m now a big fan of Project Semicolon. It’s for people struggling. It’s a reminder that life can go on. A semicolon represents a sentence that the author could’ve ended, but chose not to. The author is you and then sentence is your life. I want to bring this to more athletes.
I know that there will be hockey in Heaven, but these days I hope I’m decades away from playing it again. Until then, I’ll cheer for the winners until their last game. I’ll be by their side when every weekend is an off weekend. Hockey was a game of good and bad bounces. Now I’m learning that so is life.
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