Retirement Game Plan

What life after hockey could be.

Quick, what NHL teams did Doug Smith, Garry Valk and Steve Webb play for? Don't know? Don't worry; most diehard hockey fans would have trouble with that one. Of course, an even tougher question would be to ask, what are they doing now?

In their playing years, Smith, Valk and Webb were the workhorses of the NHL. On ice, they may not have set any records, but they're heading for the top in “retirement.” Smith runs a stainless steel factory; Valk sells Porsches, Harley-Davidsons and boats; and Webb, who is still an active player, has set up a company selling printer cartridges to large businesses. A few years in the NHL takes its toll on the body, but many players find it harder still to cope with retirement: some 70 former players currently seek help from the NHL Emergency Assistance Fund, 70% end up divorced after retirement, and others struggle with alcohol, drugs and gambling. By creating new programs to help players ease into retirement, the NHL is hoping for more of these success stories off the ice.

How do you help a bunch of retired 40-year-olds enter the world of business, after having had someone tell them what to do their whole lives? After all, less than 30% have taken university-level courses. The time pro athletes put into training to stay competitive leaves little time for anything else–even during the off-season. These guys may be talented on the ice, but what marketable skills can they offer outside the arena?

Faced with this issue, the NHL, NHL Players' Association and the NHL Alumni Association joined forces in 1999 to form the Life After Hockey program, to help players tackle the change. And in 2002, the program partnered with Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., to open the Professional Athlete Transition Institute. Think of PATI, as it's known, as a sort of entrepreneurial training centre for hockey players. Whether it's a player who needs a job or wants to start a business, PATI offers assistance through its Life After Hockey program, says the group's co-founder Joe Jackman, who left New York-based outplacement firm Drake Beam Morin almost two years ago to devote his full attention to the program.

Life After Hockey will soon offer internship programs, networking opportunities, business training and one-on-one help, and it continues to grow. Under the program's mandate, PATI recently tested the idea of working with active players to develop their careers before retirement. This was so successful, PATI is opening up the opportunity to active NHL players. The timing is perfect, as players will start the next season with considerably lower salaries.

It's a service players need. During their careers, most are treated fabulously. But ask any retired player and he'll tell you, he didn't appreciate the coddling until his career ended. Before PATI came along, a number of retired players were down on their luck. Take Derek Sanderson, or “the Turk” as he was known in his prime, with the Boston Bruins. In 1972, he was the highest-paid professional athlete in the world, earning US$2.65 million a season. But by the end of the '70s, a string of bad investments and a battle with alcohol forced him out on the street. It is rumoured that his plight was so desperate, he once waited for a homeless person to pass out on a bench so he could swipe his booze. It took a long time and a lot of help from the likes of Bobby Orr to help Sanderson get back on his feet; he is now an investment specialist with Boston's State Street Research Co.

Sanderson's story is not uncommon. Coming out of the game, players' expectations are not realistic, Jackman says. “They are almost naive, thinking they are going to walk into a job worth $250,000, without any real work experience.” It's easy to see why. The average salary of a hockey player before the lockout was US$1.8 million–roughly $400,000 more than Gordon Nixon earned last year as Royal Bank's CEO.

Salaries had yet to creep that high when the L.A. Kings picked Doug Smith in 1981. (As recently as 1992, the average salary was just US$368,000.) Today, Smith runs a million-dollar operation, but he's lucky to be alive. While playing in South Austria in 1992, Smith caught an edge at the goal line and skidded headfirst into the boards, shattering two of his vertebrae.

Smith spent a year in the hospital relearning how to walk. A decade later, a friend convinced him to co-found Arc Stainless Inc. The Ottawa-based company builds everything from steel encasements for electronic components, to stainless steel milk-monitoring units for the dairy industry. The idea was to have Smith invest and help run the front office, while his partner ran the shop floor.

Smith was about three months into the new company when Jackman called him up to see if he would like some help. “It was perfect,” says Smith. “It gave me the opportunity to take a company that only existed for about three or four months through the course, as something practical.” Smith was assigned a coach to help develop his business plan. He was also introduced to law firms, accountants and banks, who all picked away at his business until it was in top shape.

The coaching model has been one of the reasons PATI has been successful. “These guys have been told to be in a place and be there and everything is done for them,” says Jackman. “One of the big challenges is getting them to manage their own time.” The idea is to keep players in their comfort zones rather than thrusting them in front of a potential employer. With PATI's help, Smith's business went from 2,000 square feet and about $250,000 in sales to about 7,500 square feet and over $1.6 million in sales in less than a year, and it's still growing. “We're booked for the next six months,” he says.

Smith isn't the only entrepreneur to come out of PATI. After leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs, in 2003, Garry Valk worked a couple of days with a cousin, who once ran the largest auto dealerships in the province. Valk realized this was something he could do, while giving him the flexibility to pursue other passions, such as broadcasting NHL games.

For his new venture, Valk was intent on owning his own building, all of his own vehicles and backing all of the financing at Maxim Motor Sports in Richmond, B.C., so he wouldn't have to pay anyone rent or interest at the end of the month. He estimates he's now doing $1.5 million in business annually.

Valk works with his wife, Tanya. “She is my partner in this,” he says. Involving wives is something PATI tries to encourage, Jackman adds, since it increases the participation rate in the program. PATI helped them set out a series of short-term goals to achieve in a set period of time. “I'm like a rookie again,” Valk says.

PATI's successes notwithstanding, few players have learned to mind their future while still in the game. It's this scenario PATI is hoping to change with the new program stream geared toward active players. Dubbed Breakaway, it tries to get players thinking about retirement from the moment they step on the ice.

The new stream appeals most to active third- and fourth-line players like Steve Webb, a winger with the New York Islanders. “From the beginning, I was on the outside looking in when I made the NHL,” he says. Webb wanted to run his own business; he just didn't know what kind. “Everyone thinks of bars or owning big parts of big companies,” he says. Webb's plan was more modest. Two seasons ago he started chatting with a friend who had experience in the printer toner industry. Webb did his due diligence, then started up Cartridge Solutions International, a New York-based ink-cartridge manufacturer that targets large businesses.

For now, Webb isn't too concerned about sales. He simply wants to know why businesses use the suppliers they do. “If I don't get their business this year, maybe I will in three,” he says. With a little help from PATI, Webb, who has a Grade 12 education, completed online marketing and entreprenureship courses at Athabasca University. Now he has something to do whenever he gives up the game–or the game gives up on him.

Not all players have been so lucky. One ex-NHLer fixes garage doors. Others struggle after they tried to live off their celebrity, which inevitably runs out. It's a tough transition, given the hundreds of players who have tapped into the NHL's emergency fund over the years. Quite different from the days when players like Tim Horton, who, in his early years, made as little as $9,000 a season and had no choice but to hold down another job.

Today, rising salaries mean fewer players have any concept of money. Just ask Garry Valk. “I've seen guys spending up to $60,000 a month on their Visa bill,” recalls the former Leaf winger. Others, he says, simply leave their cash in their chequing account so they can admire how much money they have. “With no money coming in this year, it is a great wake-up call for the current players.”