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Hung up on hangin' 'em up

Sunday, 09.28.2008 / 10:00 AM / Season Preview

By Eric Stephens - NHL.com Correspondent

It's a 10-letter word that many professional athletes often fear, sometimes dread, and, on the occasion, readily embrace.

Retirement.

NHL players certainly are not immune. Eventually, the rush of speeding up ice, the sensation of delivering a hard body check, the thrill of scoring a big goal or making an important save and the jolt of energy felt from the home crowd fades, ultimately disappearing to memory.

Most face the end of their careers either seeing that they're unable to keep up with younger players or having someone make the decision for them. Some are lucky to call it a day on their own terms.

"There're not many hockey players that can go out there and say they're deciding to retire," said Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, who spent 17 seasons as an NHL defenseman with Toronto, Pittsburgh and Winnipeg. "Other people usually make those decisions."

But if that player is a star, the decision itself can cause consternation on a wide scale, with the player himself at the center of attention. Everyone wants an answer -- coaches, management, teammates, fans, reporters, wives, children.

Last summer it was Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne. This summer it was Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin who added themselves to the list of high-profile accomplished veterans who have seriously dealt with the retirement issue.

Each has handled their decision vastly different.

Sakic, the 39-year-old Colorado Avalanche icon, took much of the summer to decide on his immediate future before announcing in late August that he would play season No. 20.

"Ultimately, it came down to the fact that I still enjoy playing and competing," he said at the time.

Now 37, Sundin has yet to define his plans for 2008-09. As several teams with offers in hand wait on his word, the Maple Leafs' star and long-time captain has said he isn't close to choosing whether he wants to play or retire.

Niedermayer understands the position Sundin is currently in, having sat out the first 2½ months of last season as he wondered if he had enough motivation to continue on following the Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup triumph.

"I would have been bad-mouthing him a couple of years ago," Niedermayer said. "I can't do that very well anymore. I do have a new understanding of what the process is like. And maybe for some guys, it is an easier decision. Some are going to keep going as long as they possibly can. They love it and that's what they want to do. If that's so, that's great. Good for them. But other players, it will be a bit more difficult.

"There're probably a lot of different things a guy like Sundin is considering right now. Where does he want to go? What's important to him? Obviously he's been in Toronto a long time so he's got a lot of roots there. There's a lot on his plate, a lot of things I'm sure he's thinking about that are important to him. And that's what he's trying to do."

Niedermayer removed any doubts about his return to the Ducks -- at least for this season -- when he said he would play all of 2008-09 following the birth of his fourth child.

As he was conflicted during his sabbatical, the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner said he knew his own decision impacted everyone around him and that their thoughts carried weight.

"Everybody likes to say that it doesn't matter what other people think," Niedermayer said, "but you obviously have teammates that are a little more (important). They're teammates. There's a special bond there, so what they think does matter. Coaches, fans, the whole thing.

"It does affect you, there's no question, as you go through it. At least it did me."

“After the Stanley Cup, I was just so empty. There was no decision to make. There's no way I was going to play anymore. But as I started coming to games, I'd get that feeling again. It was hard coming to games and seeing your teammates out there. … It was funny. I never felt that I wasn't playing. I felt like I was there, just only watching the game. I would get really into it. At that point, I knew."
-- Ducks forward Teemu Selanne

It did Selanne, as well. The Finnish star and long-time Ducks wing also was prepared to end his career after the Cup win, but began to feel the pull of competing at the highest level when he attended some Anaheim games during his sabbatical.

"When I wasn't playing, I was thinking while I dropped the kids off at school," he said. "How would I feel if I drive to the rink right now and practice? After the Stanley Cup, I was just so empty. There was no decision to make. There's no way I was going to play anymore. But as I started coming to games, I'd get that feeling again. It was hard coming to games and seeing your teammates out there. … It was funny. I never felt that I wasn't playing. I felt like I was there, just only watching the game. I would get really into it. At that point, I knew."

It's those feelings that competition brings out, the feelings that date back to childhoods on frozen ponds from western Canada to Europe and Scandinavia, and the bond that is created and exists between teammates that makes playing hockey hard to resist.

Despite being put in a tough spot as a coach, as a former player Carlyle could understand what Niedermayer and Selanne were going through.

Carlyle said the reality of retirement hit him when he became an executive for the Manitoba Moose, when it played in the International Hockey League.

"I was up and down the highway in a car by myself," he said. "Whereas before, I was traveling on airlines and you were making plans to go to dinner (with teammates). There was the first team function that you had and you weren't part of it anymore. But you worked for the organization.

"It was a shock. It was like I didn't get invited. I wasn't on the list."

If the player is fine with that, Carlyle said, the transition into retirement will be smoother.

"Those are the things that they have to be comfortable with," he said. "I think it's important for them to be, in their own mind, what is best for them. If you don't have peace in your mind, then you're going to battle with it."

Selanne wants another chance at a Cup so bad he is skating with the Ducks in camp while the team attempts to clear salary cap space to sign him. He's even hinted at sticking around until 2010, when the Winter Olympics are in Vancouver. He understands the varying emotions older players have as they near the end of the line.

"If you can't enjoy this as much as you used to and you can't play at the level you've been playing at your whole career, then I don't think it's worth it," Selanne said. "But if you're still healthy, you still can play and you enjoy it, (retiring) is harder than people think."

Niedermayer won't tip his hand on when his day will come, but he does know he'll have to cross that retirement bridge at some point.

"It's not in my mind now," he said. "I'm here and ready to go. But probably going through it a little bit now will help me figure it out when the time does come. I'm thankful for that.

"But you're never really totally ready for it. That's a big change. You just have to make the commitment and go forward."


 

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— Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk after a win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday
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