I never properly mourned the end of my hockey career

My hockey career died several small deaths before finally dying for good at the end of 2019.

The first death was when I decided to stop playing AAA and go play for my high school instead. The second death was when I played my last college club hockey game at the end of my Junior year of college. The final death was when I received three concussions over the course of a couple years while playing beer league hockey in NYC and DC.

It’s somewhat sad that I managed to play many years of elite hockey (AAA), then several more years of not elite, but still highly competitive hockey (high school and college club) with only superficial injuries (other than a shattered collarbone in high school) and it’s the old man version of hockey that ultimately made me have to step away from the sport for good.

Then again, I probably had lots of undiagnosed concussions. I had my “bell rung” lots of times and lost consciousness after a hit more than once. “Shaking it off” and playing hurt were, and remain, part of hockey culture.

What’s it like to have a concussion?

At first, not a big deal, really. None of the concussions I had were truly catastrophic, I don’t think. I’d have a bit of a headache, maybe a sore neck, and that was it. But the last couple, in my 30s, were something different. In addition to the usual headaches, these ones had symptoms that set in later. Weird symptoms. Symptoms like feeling like I was on the verge of tears, all day, for no reason.

Feeling like I was watching my life as a barely interested observer. Feeling like I was kind of floating a couple inches above my own head, all the time. Feeling like I was going through the motions until I could just go home and sit in the dark.

I noticed it was starting to get easier and easier to reawaken these symptoms, even after quite minor collisions. The death knell to my playing career didn’t even happen on the ice. It happened in the back of a Lyft on my way to a client’s office. We were involved in perhaps the lowest speed rear-ending of all time… but it was enough to bounce my head against the headrest, ever so slightly. And boom. Symptoms, back. Headache. Fuzzy vision. Emotional rawness. The realization that I I can’t keep doing this.

I had already mourned the end of my competitive playing career since I’m pretty far removed from those college days. However, I was surprised how a high enough level of beer league hockey could reactivate some of those same neural pathways as when I was playing with and against some of the best players in the world. Sure, we were much slower than we used to be, but to my brain it felt very similar. Reading the forecheck correctly in order to make a great breakout pass. Playing a 2-on-1 to perfection. Faking a shot and making a backdoor pass. These were all well-established connections in my brain and basically overnight they became completely useless.

But now that my beer league career has come to an end at the end of 2019, I realize I’ve been in the midst of one more mourning process. It was easy to ignore it when we were deep in the throes of COVID. The ice rinks weren’t even open for a long time so it didn’t seem like my decision to stop playing. But I can’t credibly tell myself that story any longer. My beer league buddies are out there playing. My brothers are out there playing. And, to protect my oft rattled brain, I am not. It sucks.

A couple months ago I threw away the vast majority of my equipment — everything except my skates, my stick, my helmet, and my gloves. I knew if I kept everything else around I would convince myself that the head injuries “weren’t that bad” and I’d be finding my way back to my beer league team and inevitably tempting fate again. So, like an alcoholic who wisely doesn’t keep alcohol in the house, I no longer have the shin pads, hockey pants, shoulder pads, and gloves that would let me go out and potentially risk a catastrophic brain injury again.

Looking on the brighter side, I’ve tried to use this decision as an opportunity to explore new hobbies. I’m training for a triathlon now and as long as I don’t fall off my bike, I think my likelihood of getting another concussion is quite small. I’ve done some lessons with a golf coach. Another low impact sport that might let me tap into the competitiveness that used to find its outlet through hockey, but is now mostly just churning around inside me with nowhere to go.

As far as getting older goes, not being able to play a specific sport but otherwise being in great physical shape, is a pretty good deal. Things could certainly be worse. I’m sure there will be other moments in my future where I look back at this “sacrifice” and wish for the day where this was the worst thing I had to deal with. If we’re lucky, I suppose we all get to experience that. Better than the alternative, right?

I don’t have a coherent end to this article. Most of my identity for most of my young life was tied up in playing hockey. That stopped being quite as true as I got through college, into my 20’s, and even less so into my 30’s. Even then, though, I played hockey at least once, sometimes twice a week, basically ever since I graduated from college. That’s gone now. It makes me sad. I used to be more sad, which is probably a good sign. But I’m still sad. Hopefully I’ll continue to be less sad the further I get from the last time I laced up my skates.

The end.

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Organization design guy at The Ready.

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Sam Spurlin

Sam Spurlin

Organization design guy at The Ready.

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