Why I Never Played in the NHL, and How It Made Me Better
As a professional hockey player I played in a handful of NHL exhibition games, and spent the rest of my time in the American Hockey League. I played 7 years with the Chicago Wolves and was treated extraordinarily well. I liked my coaches and general manager, we had consistently good teams, made a couple of finals appearances, and won a league championship. I consider the people there to be my family. At the time I was happy to be there, and maybe I got a little too comfortable. Here’s what I missed. I was one step from the promised land that is the NHL and I didn’t give myself the best opportunity to get there because I was unwilling to step out of my comfort zone.
The pro game is quite a bit different than the college game. Some of the differences suited me, and some I had a difficult time adjusting to. I was pretty good at “getting in the way,” a very important skill for a stay-at-home defenseman. I could out-muscle (or maybe just out-size) guys in the corners, I played the body well, and laid the occasional big hit. I was not, however, overly aggressive. Call it my mentality, but I never got so pissed off on the ice that I wanted to grab some one and beat the snot out of them. I knew from meetings with the NHL club that drafted me (Atlanta) that they wanted more of that from me, but I just couldn’t find a way to be that aggressive all the time. I was comfortable being effective, but I never made myself UNCOMFORTABLE to achieve more. I faired pretty well when I did fight, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it on a consistent basis, especially in the beginning of my career. I spent too much time trying to figure out the ins and outs, the hows, the whens, and the whys of fighting instead of just getting in and doing it. I understood all of that at the end of my career but at that point the window of opportunity had basically closed. I think if I would have fought 7 to 10 times a year from the beginning, I could still be playing in the NHL.
Here’s the lesson in all this… To be at the top of any game, you have to fight.
I’m not talking about punching co-workers or classmates, I’m talking about approaching every challenge as a fight you have to win. There is no declining the fight, there is no other way around it. Your only choice is to confront your challenge, understand it, and attack it with confidence. You might be uncomfortable at first, but after the fight you know if you have been successful or if you need to attack it differently the next time. For example, I keep tabs on other coaches and facilities in the area through social media and mailing lists, so I am constantly reminded that other coaches and trainers around here think they have the best thing going at their place. This is a constant challenge for me. In the past, hearing about all the “good” things other facilities are doing would have made me nervous and anxious. But now it spurs me to stand tall, walk into Advantage, and deliver the best programs and coaching I can so I make the biggest possible impact on our athletes and families on a daily basis.
I have chosen to fight my challenges, not by viewing them as threats, but by using them to step up my game. Mark Verstegen has a new book entitled Every Day is Game Day, and it’s a perfect analogy for someone who wants to reach the top of their game*. Every day, we rely on focus, habit, and grit to determine our success for the day. Keeping a close eye on my competitors reminds us that every day is a game day. I know if we get lazy, we lose.
A funny thing happens when you frame your challenges differently. You begin to expand your comfort zone to INCLUDE challenges, rather than seeing them as threats. You become more comfortable being uncomfortable. There is a great illustration of this shift in The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. In the book, the author talks about a summer camp he went to when he was young. The camp had an infamous diving board that was 25ft high. The rule was, if you started to climb up the tower, you had to continue up and jump off the top into the lake. Every week, new kids would get themselves psyched up on the ground, climb to the top and freeze. They lost their nerve when the 25 foot drop was imminent. Since they couldn’t climb back down they had to sit and wait until they gathered up their courage to step to the end and jump. One kid sat up there for 14 hours! The author explains what happens after the kids jump for the first time. “Amazingly, after that first jump, the deflowered leapers always do the same thing. They get out of the water, run to the steps, climb right back up, and do it again. Safety zone adjusted. Comfort zone aligned.”
The lessons I learned during my hockey career have been valuable in starting a business and my coaching career. I have become more comfortable being uncomfortable. I know that when I am challenged, I am going to fight because the last time I didn’t, I missed a major opportunity. Some days I will win, and some days I will lose but I know if I prepare and show up I give myself the best chance to succeed. Ultimately I know I can face challenges with confidence because I have the support of my family and friends. Time spent reflecting on why I didn’t play in the NHL has made me better at life after hockey. I consider myself very lucky to have had those experiences and to know what I know now. My goal in writing this article is to help others recognize the opportunities they have in front of them so they might fight to get what they want.
*For the record, Verstegen writes this while firmly implanted at the top. He founded Athletes’ Performance (now EXOS), one of the largest, most successful performance training companies in the world.