F

For most people, leaves falling from the trees signals the end of summer and the beginning of a short fall, which leads to winter and its sprawling blanket of snow. But for many Manitobans, myself included, falling leaves mean something much different from a deep freeze. The week after Thanksgiving is around the time when most hockey leagues in the province start their seasons. For local hockey fans, a year without watching friends and family play Canada’s game is sacrilegious. That is why this season is so significant. Finally, after waiting nearly a year and a half, Manitobans have returned to the rink.

While I am glad to see kids roll their hockey bags into arenas, players pack tightly onto buses for road trips and parents huddle around the entrances of rinks, I’m also happy to watch from afar.

I quit hockey in November 2019 and I haven’t looked back since. After being a goaltender for 10-plus years and playing at a variety of levels from high school to AAA to Junior A, I felt completely comfortable walking away from the game I was obsessed with for over half of my life.

For many athletes, the decision to retire from their sport is one of the most difficult decisions they face in their lifetime. So much emotional currency is built up after years of training, pushing and grinding that to let go of all this hard work at once can be overwhelming.

Luckily for myself, it was much easier for me than most. When I quit, I was basically at a crossroads in my short-lived junior career. I could request a trade, sending me to a team on the other side of the country, head to the United States or go play for my former team in a lower-level league in Winnipeg. None of these options were attractive to me. I did not want to drop out of university to go to a small town in the middle of nowhere. I had already tried playing hockey in the United States and after being put in multiple compromising situations on and off the ice, I was compelled to stay in Canada. Beyond this, I did not wish to go back to the team I had played for previously.

Mentally, I had checked out. I was tired of bouncing around different teams and exhausted by the daily grind of trying to balance workouts, ice times, work and school.

Walking away from the game was a relief not only to my mind, but my body. In the final year of my athletic career, it was common for me to be laying in the tunnels wrought with pain from a groin spasm or squirming in my classes due to the chairs wreaking havoc on my bruised hips.

Physically, my brain also needed a break. Suffering a concussion during my last practice was the nail in the coffin. After receiving treatment for my head injury and missing numerous classes because I was unable to write coherent notes, my body decided it was time to call it quits.

I was also sick of the toxic side of the game. Hockey is a sport that historically has lacked inclusivity in the dressing room and the culture within the rink is often unaccepting of different races, ethnic groups, genders and sexualities. Since the first time I strapped on the pads, I personally experienced and witnessed enough instances of this disgusting behaviour from coaches, players, parents and fans that I could write a book about it.

I figured that as I got older things would improve, but in my final year, intolerance still defined my days at the rink. As a person of colour, a sociology major and a brother to two sisters, I felt relieved to escape that atmosphere.

So, I quit. Now what?

Well, I was finally able to catch up on my schoolwork. I was able to pick a major and minor and find a career. I rediscovered my love for writing and found new interests in photography, running and lifting weights. The full extent of my wardrobe was now in use. I was no longer forced to cut my natural hair to a coach’s standard. In short, I gained freedom.

I’m lucky I was able to transition out of my sport with such ease, but I know for most people it is not that easy. It is hard to find things to do after leaving something you devoted seven days of your week to.

Thankfully, I already had hobbies outside of my sport. When I played, I knew when to bring hockey with me, and when to leave it at the rink. My interests never revolved around the game. I only have a few friends from hockey — the majority have never played.

Balance was imperative to my success as a player and as a person. If I didn’t spend enough time away from the rink, my play, schoolwork and relationships would suffer.

I lost a lot when I quit hockey, but I gained so much more after I left. The game gave me long-lasting friendships, incredible memories with my parents and life skills that I wouldn’t be able to acquire anywhere else.

It provided me with the opportunity to leave and grow as a person, discovering new passions that have brought me back into the game as a part-time coach and a sports editor.

With a healthy balance, a diverse pool of personal interests and incredibly supportive family and friends, I was able to transition into the next phase of my life with ease.

Any athlete heading into the twilight of their career should make sure they find that balance, so when it comes time to leave the game, they not only land on their feet but have a head start on the rest of their life.

Posted 
Nov 3, 2021
 in 
Editorial
 category

More posts

Matthew Merkel

View All

Join Our Newsletter and Get the Latest
Posts to Your Inbox

No spam ever. Read our Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.