A washed up athlete's agent has a suggestion for a new career.
“Sorry, Todd, but there just aren’t any spots left at the level you want to play.”
No matter how many times my agent said it, I’m not sure if it would ever really resonate with me. Jerry said this when I was released from my first national team, but much more diplomatically. He had said it when I was traded from their club team to the club team of another, and again to the club team of another, and another. He had said it when that last club team sent me to their club team, and just now in the latest round of setbacks.
Every time it happened I’d give the same canned response as if I had already moved past what he said and dismissed it.
“There’s always somewhere.”
And, as silly as such rhetoric sounds, it was somewhat true. There was always somewhere for me. There was always a minor league team in some small town that had a spot for a player like me or others that “could have been.” That’s essentially what I was anymore, just a label of something that might have happened had the theorists been running the karma in the world.
My entire life was one filled with hockey. In elementary school I was always that one kid that was obscenely good at floor hockey because I was on the ice after school every day and at least thrice on weekends. As we moved to middle school instead of dances my weekends would consist of hours of driving to play a game at some off hour of the day, and I spent each of my four years in different parts of the country to play for the most elite team I could. My mindset of living wasn’t the same as the baseline for what I was “supposed” to do. I wasn’t a kid. I wasn’t a student. I was a hockey player, first and foremost. And I was good at it.
I got a full athletic scholarship to attend the best state university hockey program in the country. I was recruited to the school with standing offers from nearly every program in every league and my name was among the top of lists that all included some variation of the buzzword “up and coming”. After my freshman year in school I finished third in the league in scoring, beating out veteran seniors on both my team and others. That summer I was drafted in the first round of the National League entry draft and was named captain of my university team for the upcoming year, en route to scoring more points and breaking more records. Like I said - I was good.
My senior year is difficult to reflect on because of such a whirlwind of experiences. I think I went to class a few times, but I was primarily focused on the sport. I had agents calling my coach almost daily and was approached by some of the top names in the business. Right after the Christmas academic break, I signed with the same one that handled the top players in the National League and he negotiated a substantial rookie contract. Like I said, again - I was good.
With just two months separating me from the professional world, I was walking around daily on the proverbial ninth cloud. I wasn’t planning on finishing out the semester and already had plans to join the professional team at the end of my collegiate season. I was the dominant player at the college level and found the games easy. I had developed so much in my time that, not to sound arrogant, I had no difficulty in handling the other players on the ice.
But such cockiness, as it has been in literature for some time, proved to be my ultimate downfall. Because it was so easy for me to skate around and between the other team I fell into the lull of complacency. I slowly stopped playing with the same grit that safeguarded me, but instead, more causally. I stopped turning my head to see where the defensemen were. I started skating to parts of the ice that were traditionally havens for concussions. I was untouchable. Or so I thought.
In the third game of the first round of playoffs my team was playing our rival state school in front of a home crowd topping twenty-thousand people. We played aggressively in the first period and were rewarded with a sizeable lead, and because playing cautiously towards the end of the game. Why take risks when we just had to run out the clock? I was one goal away from breaking the league scoring record for undergraduate point totals and became determined to leave the ice that day as the new leader for the Eastern College Hockey Conference. As time dwindled I frantically started to take over the game in hopes of getting just one more tally. Finally, with just a few minutes left, I found myself with the puck and charging alone through the middle of the ice, with just one defenseman between the goalie and me. I began to shift to one side of the ice so I could reverse directions and come back across, hoping to catch the defenseman of guard and flat-footed, allowing me to move to the goal unimpeded. Instinctively I shifted my weight quickly, and sure enough, saw myself about to slip through the now stumbling defensemen.
I woke up a few hours later in a hospital bed.
I was able to watch the scene on video replays after I had gotten the headache out. The plan that I just described had worked very well, but I was unable to see the defenseman fresh from the players bench and was caught awkwardly and unprotected. As I was checked, my leg buckled behind me and in the process ripped ligaments and tendons clean off the bone, and the next few hockey seasons would not be spent travelling luxuriously with the National League, but in rehabilitation trying to get back where I once was. It never truly worked, though, and I was still marked with a limp. On the ice, I never really got my agility back and began my decline into the perpetual minor league player, or, as I said earlier, the “could have been”.
“Come on, Jerry.” I begged. “You can’t tell me there isn’t ONE team out there with ONE spot open for a guy that’s played twenty years in the pros! I won’t believe it.”
“You’re right, Todd, there ARE teams out there with one spot. There ARE teams that want a guy with twenty-plus years playing. Unfortunately, there aren’t teams that are interesting in signing a guy that’s getting close to getting out of the league, especially one with an injury that’s getting pretty obvious.”
I guess Jerry had a point. For the first time after having this conversation, I could just sit and lean back. Though Jerry had tried to convince me to get out of the playing end for a while, I think this time his case had the most merit, and in complete candor, it was something that I had entertained for the past few seasons.
“You know what, Jerry? You might be on to something this time. So what are you thinking - getting into the coaching scene? Sports exec. type stuff?”
“Todd,” he began quietly, “I don’t think you’re really understanding the gravity of this. I hate to do this, but let’s go over the facts. You’re getting close to forty-five years old. You’ve never coached a hockey game in your life. Most of the guys you want to take jobs from have at least ten years experience in coaching. These are guys that have worked their way up from nothing. I’m not sure if I can just make calls and get you a job anymore. Ten years ago? Probably - your name still had some oomph to it. People knew you. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.”
“So what are you saying? That’s it? We’re done? ?Thanks for the years, Todd, but I’m not your agent anymore.’ Something like that?”
“Todd, go home. Get some rest. I’m not saying this is the end, but I am saying it might be a little difficult in getting you a home this time around. It’s not going to be a one phone call thing and it’s certainly not a guarantee.”
“Come on, Jerry. You’ve been in this game longer than anyone. I know if you pick up that phone, there will be, somewhere, someone on the other end that has an opening.”
I looked in Jerry’s eyes more sincerely than I had, I think, ever.
“Go home and get some dinner,” he said, “I’ll make some calls. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything.”
And so, as it was all I could do, I did.