Geordie Kinnear was recently told that his hockey career is over because of the cumulative effect of a series of neck and spine injuries.
He is 27 years old and despite more than seven seasons as a professional player, he played only four games in the National Hockey League. Most of his hockey life was spent with the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League, where salaries are a fraction of those in the NHL.
There is no financial cushion from a big NHL contract to cushion the blow of a career-ending injury. Kinnear has a high-school diploma, a smattering of community college courses and the realization he has to find a way to support his wife and four-month-old baby.
"When you get up around seven or eight years in the minor leagues, you have to start thinking about what you're going to do [after hockey]" Kinnear said by telephone from his home in Albany, N.Y.
"The first few years, all that is on your mind is making the NHL and enjoying the benefits of pro hockey. But I can testify that eight years goes by pretty quick."
A few years ago, Kinnear would have been adrift, on his own, faced with a life of parking cars or working in a factory. But thanks to the Professional Hockey Players' Association (PHPA), Kinnear has been working on his own safety net.
Three years ago, PHPA executive director Larry Landon decided something was needed to ensure that the union's 1,300 members, who play in the American, International and East Coast hockey leagues, could look forward to a better life after hockey. Landon hired Phil Mazzone, a former teacher, and the PHPA's career-enhancement program was born to help players prepare themselves for the working world.
Under Mazzone's guidance, Kinnear has been taking correspondence courses in the sporting goods business from Sir Sanford Fleming Community College in Peterborough, Ont. He has four courses left to earn his diploma, and then he expects to find a job.
The publicity given to the career-ending injuries suffered by NHL players in recent years has made minor-league players more aware of preparing for a career outside of sports, Kinnear said. But "not enough young guys" are paying any attention to their future, he added.
Kinnear was also fortunate, when growing up in Delhi, Ont., that both of his parents were teachers. And he played major-junior hockey for the Peterborough Petes, one of the first teams to take an active interest in the education of their players.
"I was lucky that my parents made sure I went to college when I had the chance," Kinnear said. "If you play seven or eight years of pro hockey, you can get a lot of schooling in because of the long road trips."
But studying during bus rides takes self-discipline, and Mazzone is still fighting uphill to persuade players that it's worth the work.
Mazzone operates the program out of the PHPA's head office in St. Catharines, Ont., with the assistance of another former teacher, Rick Gorman. Of the 1,300 players in the PHPA, only 367 are taking part in the program, but that is a leap of more than three-fold from the 110 players who signed up in the first year.
The program is similar to the one operated by the NHL Players' Association, but Mazzone also works with active players since a minor-league salary means career preparation has to start early. The NHLPA's career program deals with former players.
"When I talk to teams, the first thing I ask is how many have played one NHL regular-season game," Mazzone said. "Usually, only a few hands go up, and in the East Coast league, no hands go up. So in the East Coast league, I ask how many have played one regular-season game in the [IHL]or [AHL]and only one or two hands will go up.
"Then I ask how many played for this team last year and only a few hands will go up. So I ask them where they think they will be next year, or how many of the guys beside you will be here next year.
"So the first thing I emphasize is that you don't own your own body. The second is that when you're finished this career, if you're fortunate you might be 30 years old, but you still have more than half your life remaining and you certainly don't have a lot of money in the bank as a minor-league pro.
"And the third thing is that you are in a job but it's a temporary job. It's stressful and demanding -- but it's a six-month job. When the season ends and you go home, what do you do? For most guys, they play some golf with friends and family, and then they worry about getting a contract for next season.
"These kids are still in a dream world, where most don't recognize the reality that they will never make it to the NHL and that they are a little fish in a big pond," Mazzone said. "Sometimes, when they are 25 or 26 years old, they realize they haven't been given a shot [at the NHL]and start to think of what they should do now.
"The biggest thing is that these players are afraid. They don't know what they want to do."
That, plus the fact the players have various levels of education, is why Mazzone made sure the program has several approaches. It ranges from aptitude and personality tests for those who don't know what they want to do, to working with a player's college about the best way for him to finish a degree, to arranging internships with companies. There are also lessons in preparing a résumé and how to handle a job interview.
Those who do not have their high-school diplomas are directed to programs that will bring one. It could be courses at local schools, by correspondence or a General Education Diploma (GED) program, which provides a high school equivalency certificate.
Others who have some university or college backgrounds are set up with courses to complete their degrees. The preference is to have the player graduate from his original school, but Mazzone works with the school to transfer credits, if necessary, whether it is to another school near the player's current home or to an on-line institution, such as Athabasca University.
The first thing Mazzone did after he was hired was to survey the players to find out the extent of their education. The players fell into three general groups: 40 per cent had up to a Grade 12 education, 45 per cent had received athletic scholarships and had some university or college education but no degree and 15 per cent had postsecondary degrees.
"But of that 15 per cent, I wouldn't want to qualify that all have meaningful degrees, such as credits that can be transferred to other universities," Mazzone said. "And even for those guys who have good degrees in business or management or information technology, what's happened is that their focus has been on hockey. So in their fifth year of playing, they haven't updated their skills or degrees and they're already behind the people they graduated with."
To ugrade existing skills as well as giving the players work experience, Gorman has developed several internship programs. There is a partnership with IBM in Canada and the United States for on-line education and a computer-purchase program, and a pilot project with a Chicago company last year provided 10 internships for players.
Dave Mackie, who played his junior hockey with the Sudbury Wolves, is now in the food sales business thanks to an internship. Another player with an accounting degree landed a full-time position with a Boston company after an internship.
A couple of the better-known participants are twin brothers Chris and Peter Ferraro, once prize prospects of the New York Rangers whose NHL careers petered out. The Ferraros are interested in modelling and acting careers, and Mazzone has lined them up with an old friend who went into the television business years after Mazzone found a hockey scholarship for him.
However, there are still more candidates than there are internships.
"The greatest need is for companies to provide internships," Gorman said. "If we can get the players out for a three- or four-week period, either paid or unpaid, they can see if this is something they want to pursue.
"The demand is starting to come from the players, so we're doing the best we can."