‘I had a difficult period:’ Former Blackhawks adjust to life after hockey – Chicago Tribune
A professional athlete’s career, filled with many twists, has one certainty: At some point it will end.
“It definitely didn’t go smooth for me — it was very difficult,” said Nick Boynton, a member of the Blackhawks team that captured the Stanley Cup in 2010. “I was very depressed. I had some head issues and I was very fortunate that I had a good family to stay on me and stick with me.”
Boynton, 37, now a radio analyst for the Coyotes, says he is at peace after working through dark times.
In recent years, former NHL players Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Todd Ewen and Steve Montador — all who played similar physical, hard-nosed styles — have died after post-playing struggles.
“I knew a couple of those guys and they didn’t make it, so it is scary,” Boynton said. “That could have easily been me with the path I was on. I’m very fortunate to come across the people I did at the time I did. Otherwise, who knows?
“You’re told when you’re playing you’re supposed to be tough. It’s tough to ask for help and it was probably the hardest thing I ever did, and I’m glad I finally did it.”
Even if they sensed the end of their careers was coming, some former NHL players are ill-equipped to deal with the real world.
“I knew I wasn’t going to play forever and I accepted it,” Ben Eager said. “It’s nice to have a little break from the game, but suddenly you’re not around the guys and you don’t have the same routine and schedule. No nice planes and buses.”
Eager played for five teams during nine seasons in the NHL and was a key member of the Hawks’ 2010 champions before they traded him to the Thrashers after the season.
After the Oilers released him in 2014, he kicked around the KHL and AHL before concluding his career with the Wolves in 2015. Playing hockey was Eager’s life, but when he could no longer call himself a hockey player, life had to go on and the next step was to find things to fill his days and nights.
“When you’re playing, all you hear about is setting yourself up for retirement and saving your money,” Eager, 32, said. “Obviously it would be nice to retire with $20 million — which I don’t have — but even if you finish with $20 million or you have all the money in the world, you’re still sitting around and your investment guys are doing all the work.
“Now it’s about getting out and learning different things so when you’re done, you have a reason to get out of bed and not sit around with nothing to do.”
For many athletes, the difficulty is often finding that new path. Daniel Carcillo retired after helping the Hawks win the 2015 Stanley Cup, and the way forward was at first unclear.
“In transition, you’re searching,” Carcillo said. “My brain was telling me: ‘OK, go try something else. Go do some music or just go down another avenue other than hockey.’ But then you put on your thinking cap because you have to feed your family.”
Like Eager, Carcillo played for five teams during a nine-year NHL career, including two stints with the Hawks.
“I had a difficult period,” Carcillo said. “Every year you’re familiar with a routine and structure and you have a purpose, and now you’re kind of searching for what to do next and what will motivate you.”
Many players also deal with cognitive issues after sustaining concussions throughout their careers. Like many of their fallen peers, Boynton, Carcillo and Eager each had multiple concussions. Such head trauma can lead to those “difficult times” Carcillo referenced, including alcohol and substance abuse for some.
“It was just isolating and not really wanting to hang out with anybody,” Carcillo said of the days after retirement. “Staying inside or going to the park with your kid and just reflecting a lot.
“But being alone all the time isn’t the greatest, and then you have to learn how to interact with your spouse and you’re getting in the way of her routine. Some things are an adjustment.”
All three former players said family helped their post-NHL transition. Boynton is married with two young children and has two older children from a previous relationship. Carcillo is married, and he and his wife have a 2-year-old son with another baby due in April. Eager is separated and shares custody of his 2-year-old daughter.
“If I didn’t have my daughter, it probably would have been a lot tougher,” Eager said. “She’s a big reason to get up in the morning.”
Becoming physically and mentally healthy was the former players’ top priority, and then they began to take the next step in life. Like many, Boynton, Carcillo and Eager gravitated back to the sport that sustained them.
“My father-in-law gave me some great advice,” Carcillo, 31, said. “He said, ‘Do what you know.'”
That would be hockey.
That explains why Boynton is an analyst and why Carcillo and Eager make the trek to West Dundee — Carcillo from downtown Chicago and Eager from the west suburbs — three to four times a week and often hit the road on weekends as coaches of Team Illinois, a gathering of teenagers with lofty expectations and a love of the sport.
Carcillo and Eager have also filled their days and nights by becoming businessmen, having bought and renovated Jet Hockey Training Arena in Glenview, where they offer skating lessons, hockey leagues and open skates. Carcillo is also the founder of Chapter 5, which he created after Montador’s death to help former NHL players transition to post-hockey careers.