FROM HOCKEY TO THE REAL WORLD
My name is Justin McCrae, though I seem to still be introduced by my family, friends, teachers and co-workers as the “hockey player” or “the guy who played hockey”. I have recently retired from the game and am currently entering my last year of law school at the University of British Columbia. For as long as I can remember, my whole identity has been defined by my successes and failures in hockey, and I have struggled with my self-identity since leaving the game behind.
Not unlike many small town Alberta kids, I grew up with a dream to play hockey in the National Hockey League. With the help of extremely supportive parents, I was willing to do whatever it took to make it to the NHL and made the decision early on to dedicate my entire life to that one goal. The sport has given me so many incredible experiences and most things in my life today are the result, both directly and indirectly, of hockey, which is probably why it has been so difficult to give it up.
I was fortunate to play 5 years in the Western Hockey League, win a Memorial Cup, win a gold medal for Team Canada, and get drafted to the NHL. Following a significant injury during my final year playing in the WHL, I was forced to revaluate my career path. Instead of signing the NHL Entry Level Contract that I so desperately wanted, I was forced to decide between testing my luck playing minor pro on a year-to-year contract or to use my WHL scholarship and attend a Canadian university. While my dream to play in the NHL had not changed, I made the decision to attend UBC with the goal of playing professionally once I had a university degree. Little did I know my career would be over four years later.
The decision to give up my dream and quit hockey was the hardest decision I have ever made and the challenges of adjusting to life without hockey have been profound. Even though I spent the last two years of my career in constant pain, the thought of giving up on my dream and becoming a “regular person” terrified me. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and my identity was so wrapped up in hockey that the thought of the real world only brought feelings of emptiness and self-doubt. I was a hockey player – what else could I do?
After taking the time to reflect, I can now say that I was fortunate to play my final two years at UBC in significant pain, as I was forced to consider alternative career paths. At the time, my reason for pursuing a legal career was so that I could help people, and law school was the best way for me to do that. While writing this blog and reflecting on my decision to leave hockey, it has become clear that my decision to go to law school was simply a way to delay the inevitable: the real world. I think I had hoped that law school would help give me a clear sense of purpose that excites me the way hockey did. Sure, it is a career I will no doubt enjoy (hopefully love), it has given me a new perspective on the world and has given me self-confidence to succeed away from the rink, but I am still unsure if I’ll ever have that same sense of purpose as I did being a hockey player.
Talking about the transition from sport to the real world with people has been challenging, especially with people who didn’t play high level sport and don’t quite understand what it’s like. Often, they will say things like “at least you have it figured out” or “it doesn’t seem like you’re having a hard time”. I can honestly say that I do not have it figured out and it has been extremely difficult adjusting to life away from the rink. There has not been one day since I stopped playing hockey that I have felt sure about the next step in my journey through life.
While I do not regret my decision, it has been difficult accepting the fact that I had to give up on my lifelong dream. There are still days when I wonder if I should have tried to keep playing and wonder what could have been. I miss the high of scoring a goal, wining a game, working towards and winning a championship. These are highs that fuel an athlete’s passion to strive for excellence and are also highs that are unlikely to occur in my future professional life.
Inevitably, the game comes to an end for all athletes. For some, it ends abruptly as a result of unfortunate or unforeseen circumstances and for others; it ends on their own terms. I respect the fact that my transition into the real world has been easier than some, as I was lucky to leave the game knowing I had a university degree and was accepted into law school. Many of my friends and ex-teammates playing professionally have young families and are playing year to year on one-year contracts, often in a new city or country each year. When your livelihood depends on your on-ice performance, the thought of giving that up to become a “regular person” and step into a new unknown career, often for less money, would be terrifying. Whether you are playing at the amateur, collegiate, or professional level, the decision to leave the game behind is difficult for us all.
Since leaving the game and as my new identity of a professional in the real world takes shape, I have learned that hockey has left me well prepared to have a rewarding and fulfilling life away from the rink. High-performance athletics, regardless of the sport, is a unique world that I feel special to have been apart of. Aside from the interpersonal, teamwork and leadership skills ingrained in an athlete’s identity, athletes understand how much work and sacrifice is needed to excel. They have the resilience, motivation and desire to learn and get better every day. As scary as it is to redefine your self-identity, athletes should have the confidence to embrace the real world and be exceptional at whatever they chose to do. While the sense of purpose outside of sport may not be entirely clear, hockey, or any other sport for that matter, has prepared us for the real world in a way that nothing else can. I have accepted that life will be different without hockey, but embracing that change and trying to grow as an individual has finally started to make that change great.
I was drawn to Higher Landing because I understand how difficult the transition from a life in sport to the real world can be. I believe that the exceptional team at Higher Landing can help make the transition that much easier and rewarding for athletes - athletes who deserve an opportunity to shine beyond the bright lights of a stadium.
Follow Justin on Twitter: @JustinMcCrae
EDITOR'S NOTE: If you are, or someone you know is an athlete who competed at the world, Olympic or professional level and has a transition story to tell, we want to hear it. Please send us your story using the About Us page or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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