NHL, NHLPA struggle to get players to consider life after hockey

Derek Dorsett's hockey career ended prematurely due to a medical issue. Now, he's making use of the NHL-NHLPA Core Development Program to help transition to life after his playing days. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

Derek Dorsett's neck and back were unusually stiff. The 30-year-old Vancouver Canucks forward had felt this sensation before, undergoing cervical fusion surgery to correct it. That it had returned was a cause of concern and, as horrible luck would have it, a justifiable one: Dorsett's surgeon informed him that he had sustained "a cervical disc herniation adjacent and separate to his previous fusion," which is as bad as it sounds.

Then his surgeon informed him that his hockey career was over.

No rehab. No comebacks. "There is no gray area," said Dorsett, who had to tell his wife and two young sons that he could no longer compete in the NHL, where the physical toll put him at risk for permanent injury. "It was kind of a relief for them. A relief for them knowing that I'm going to be able to lead a happy life."

Dorsett was then forced to consider one of the most frightening questions any athlete must answer when it's time to step away from the game:

What comes next?

Compared to many professions, Dorsett was well-compensated. Compared to his NHL peers, his salary was on the low end of the spectrum: an energy winger whose last contract -- four years and $10.6 million with the Canucks -- was by far his largest.

"That's really good money, but it might not stretch all the way to your pension. There's a gap period, and you have to make sure that you and your family are taken care of sufficiently, to maintain a lifestyle," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

So Dorsett reached out for help and found the NHL and the NHLPA could provide it. He enrolled in the Core Development Program, founded in October 2016, which aims to facilitate the transition for active players to careers, and to give guidance on how to manage post-playing life.

"Great kid. Didn't see it coming. He's going through it now," said Canucks teammate Alex Biega, 29, who is also using the program. "It's interesting for him, because like a lot of players whose careers come to an end all of a sudden, you don't know what you want to do after hockey. Where your interests lie."

It goes beyond career decisions, said Steve Webb, who played 321 games with the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins before joining the NHLPA as a divisional representative.

"In talking to Derek, it sounds like he's got some options. But he's got some decisions to make. It's not just what you want to do after hockey. It's where you want to live. It's what your insurance will look like," he said. "There are a lot of decisions to be made as you head down that pathway, and we have to make sure the guys are aware of all of it."

That has become the most challenging and frustrating obstacle for the Core Development Program: making players aware of it, and convincing them of its necessity.

"In terms of engagement, it's a work in progress. It's a slow build. It's hard for the player that's focused on the ice to think about life after hockey. No one really wants to be in that position, especially as a young player," said Daly.

While Biega has bought in, getting young teammates like Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser to do the same will be the task for the Core program.

"After a couple of years of trying to get this up and running, it does create the unique challenge that current players are focused on their current careers and not what happens after they're over. Opening up a player's mind to the good use they could put to time on the road is a challenge," said Daly.

Zdeno Chara is a lot of things. He's 6-foot-9. He's a Stanley Cup and Norris Trophy winner. And he can sell you a house, because he has a license to do so.

In 2015, while out of the Boston Bruins' lineup with a torn knee ligament, Chara enrolled in a real estate program and passed his exam three months later. "We have so much free time while we travel on buses and airplanes, and I just don't want to spend all the time just playing games or watching movies or playing cards," Chara told the Boston Globe.

While Chara didn't go through the Core Development Program to begin dabbling in real estate, Webb uses him as an example of what the program wants to help players accomplish: to find out what interests them, to give them something to focus on off the ice, and to start working toward what the next phase of their lives might look like.

"When you're 23 years old and you feel like you already achieved your No. 1 goal in life in the work category, you're like, 'Why am I already looking at something different?'" Webb said. "Being an athlete is an amazing springboard into whatever you want to do in life."

The numbers show there's every reason for a young NHL player to start planning ahead. The veterans who maintain their health and effectiveness into their late 30s are an anomaly. The average age of players who have played their last game in the NHL is 28.26 years old. That might not mean they're out of hockey, but it does mean their opportunities for significant financial gain have decreased.

"Some guys make enough playing where they can golf every day for the rest of their lives. But if you look at it realistically, the way the league is trending, the average lifespan of a hockey player is low," said Biega. "You give players the resources, so if they like to participate in something, there are different curriculums where they can participate. And then when they're done with hockey, you've established a way of thinking where they're not stunned when they leave the game."

Biega was drafted in the fifth round in 2006 by the Buffalo Sabres out of Harvard. He toiled in the AHL before breaking through with the Canucks in 2014-15. He recently signed a two-year extension with Vancouver.

But away from the rink, he's been preparing for the next phase in life, working with the Core Development Program. He earned his MBA through an online course with the University of New Hampshire. He's continued his education, believing that "work/life balance" is essential for any successful professional.

"It produces better results on the ice. For a guy, for example, finishing a college course online while he's playing, you establish that work-to-life balance, which I think improves results on the ice," he said.

How the CDP works: An NHL player interested in the program reaches out to the NHLPA, which partners with the NHL on it. Webb, former NHL defenseman Chris Campoli or someone else will make contact. The first step is taking a SuccessFinder test, which helps establish a player's personality, interests and career potential. That could mean anything from business to real estate to broadcasting to philanthropic aims. The next steps are establishing what the player needs to do to start down that path, whether it's continuing education, internships or mentorship opportunities.

The word often used by the NHL and the NHLPA is "customizable," as the program can be applied to countless situations, from family size to geography to levels of education.

The other word often used is "purpose" and how the Core Development Program can give players a sense of one away from the game.

"You see a lot of guys in every sport get out, and they're not doing the grind every day, and they're not playing in front of thousands of fans a night, and they wonder what their sense of purpose is getting up every morning," said Biega. "That's what the Core Development Program does. While you're playing, you have these resources at your disposal. It helps players understand their purpose after hockey."

I came across the Core Development Program while researching how the NHL and the NHLPA help alumni who are struggling after their careers are over -- specifically those who suffer from post-concussion symptoms. I hadn't heard of it since it was announced in October 2016 and was curious what became of it.

I've been interested in former NHL enforcer Daniel Carcillo's efforts with the Chapter 5 organization, which had similar aims -- seeking to help former players with mental health issues and financial concerns.

"I want to get guys internships now. I want to help guys find a structure and a purpose now. When guys are done with the game, the game shouldn't be done with them. We sacrifice too much for that to be the status quo," he wrote in The Players' Tribune.

The Core Development Program is designed for active players and recent retirees. The NHL and NHLPA have a two-decade-old program called Breakaway that offers Core Development Program-like assistance to retired players, helping to facilitate their transition to new careers. The Emergency Assistance Fund, to which player disciplinary fines are allocated, is used to help with medical care and financial assistance on a case-by-case basis.

But ex-players like Carcillo have been critical of the NHL's and NHLPA's work with retired players, with Carcillo recently having taken the NHLPA and executive director Donald Fehr to task over it.

The NHL is currently facing a lawsuit from dozens of players over alleged "failure to warn its players of the short- and long-term effects of repeated concussions and head trauma," a lawsuit that has helped bring issues regarding the aftercare for retired players to the forefront through personal testimonials.

Daly pushed back on the perception some have that the NHL and the NHLPA don't consider players' well-being after retirement.

"It's been a priority for the league, much longer than there's been a lawsuit," he said. "This Core Development Program, being focused on current players, doesn't jibe with that theory. The fact that we've been focused on career transition with former players for a long time goes to that point too. We do believe in, and value, our relationship with our alumni."

It's a priority, but it hasn't been perfected. Both the NHL and the NHLPA say that the Core Development Program is a work in progress. Webb said that players are aware of the program -- there's literature about it hanging in most dressing rooms, and it's a part of rookie orientation -- but might not be aware of what it does. So there needs to be more Derek Dorsetts and Alex Biegas, who are examples of its effectiveness and are able to voice its benefits.

Its ultimate form, and potential success, rests entirely on the players who utilize it.

"I think we've got a lot more work to do on these programs. I think we give ourselves a little positive look that we started it, and there are players that are accessing it. But is there a dream that this will be a lot bigger than it is? Of course. That's our goal. Put layers of value into this and constantly grow the participation," said Webb.

"We're in the infant stages of this. Over time it's going to mold and shape into whatever it's going to become. The guys that participate will have a hand in how that happens."