In this edition of Perspectives from the Past, Bret Hedican writes about his journey from professional athlete to the “real world” of retirement. Bret reveals that he found a new perspective recently after attending a virtual presentation given by a former Navy Seal. Bret shares what it’s like to go from Stanley Cup Champion to former pro-athlete, the ways in which he has found success in his next stage of life, and how meaningful it has been to have his wife, Kristi Yamaguchi, making a similar transition at the same time.
A Mile From Home: Retirement & Getting Back To Base
Last week, I had the opportunity to listen to a guest speaker, a former Navy Seal, who talked about some of the experiences he gained in the dangerous world he lived in for many years. So many thoughts he shared with us were impactful, but something he said struck me and it relates to what I want to talk about here. He said the most dangerous place in the world is the last mile from base.
You can see the base, you think you’re home free, and your brain no longer is alert and aware of your surroundings because you’re already thinking of a hot shower and a meal, or wherever your brain goes when it feels safe. That little loss of focus, right at the very end, is the most dangerous. Now, what the Navy Seal was talking about is real life and death, and what I’m talking about is retiring from the NHL, but where I’m going with this is if your mind isn’t fully engaged in playing hockey in the NHL every day, and if your mind is even remotely thinking about retiring, you can get hurt.
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I connected with the speaker at that moment, as I had played a long time, over 1000 games in the NHL, even won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes, and I could feel my brain looking at the base, almost seeing what’s on the other side. That is when I knew it was my time to step aside for the next guy in line wanting to make his professional dreams come true. In the NHL, you can never let your guard down or lose focus.
If your brain is thinking about getting back to base, you’re clearly not thinking of being on that high alert at all times. So yes, I was at a point where I was ready to get myself safely back to base and be able to walk away into something new. But that being said, even when I felt ready, when the reality of that moment of retiring actually happened, it was very hard to transition from being disciplined and driven, having that focus every day, having some place to go each day, going into the locker room, having the camaraderie of your teammates, and just like that, it all goes away by retiring.
That moment it’s all gone, when you’re no longer a pro athlete, has a profound effect. And no matter how ready you are to step aside, there’s always a time of transition. Going from having a professional sports career to having to take on a whole new life in the “normal” world is comparable to catching pan fish on the dock with your kids, you take the hook out, but accidentally drop the fish on the dock and it begins to flop around. Yes, I think I felt a little like that fish flopping.
I knew my time as a professional hockey player needed to come to an end, but still it took some time for me to let go of those thoughts of what it feels like to be a pro athlete every day and that mindset needed. It’s a powerful mindset and something that gets ingrained into the fabric of who you become. Finding something to transition to after getting back to base, so to speak, is definitely something that helped me from flopping on the dock too long without oxygen.
I was presented an opportunity to get into broadcasting shortly after retiring and this was something that really allowed me to transition more easily out of the game and back into the real world. It was a nice step to be able to back away from hockey as a player but continue to be around the game. Broadcasting has allowed me to still come down to the rink, without the grind on my body, and feel the intensity of our sport on game days when I get to do my job. What a blessing it has been to be able to stay involved in our sport, particularly with a first-class organization like the Sharks. To be able to cover the amazing players and teams the Sharks organization has had over the last 10 years of broadcasting has been incredible.
The transition of being a pro athlete and then not, no matter where one might be in that progression, you are going to fight some demons and some things that are pulling at you. I think one thing that professional athletes miss is having complete control of your mind and body and being able to step out onto the ice or the field and be able to perform at a high level. When you can no longer do that, it is inevitable to feel like a piece of you is missing.
Being able to move through that transition is finding a way to turn the page on that part of life and still be who you are and what made you who you were as an athlete. I found a new outlet but took the attributes that made me a successful professional athlete and applied them to my second career. It’s about getting over the hurdle of “I’m no longer a pro athlete”, to being ok with it, and taking all the characteristics you learned and possessed and apply them to something new in the “real world.” One of the nice things during this phase of my life is that I have been able to transition with someone going through the process at the same time – my wife Kristi Yamaguchi.
Kristi, and I have walked this path in parallel – I was retiring from hockey while she was retiring from a world-class figure skating career. My personality is more that of someone who wants to stay busy and on-the-go while she is busy yet settled – if that makes sense. Kristi has really enjoyed all the extra time she has to be a mom. She also used her newfound free time to take on more responsibility within her organization, the Always Dream Foundation.
She was, of course, heavily involved before but after retiring officially from being an athlete, she really gave so much more time and put an emphasis on becoming a full-time philanthropist. In the last few years, she has especially focused on how to become a better leader within philanthropy and how to tell her story in order to inspire others. Using the characteristics she learned as a World Champion, always striving to be better, has made her successful in this change of focus from being the athlete she was to now being a great philanthropist an incredible mom.
One of the attributes that athletes such as Kristi and I rely upon heavily after retirement is the ability to be knocked down and get back up. Kristi or I can be told what we’re doing is not good enough, and we won’t take our ball and go home. We will keep working at our next careers and get better. For me, I’ve carried the characteristics I’ve learned playing professional sports with me into the world of broadcasting.
When I broadcast, I often prepare for a game with the same focus and drive I did when I was playing. And when I have a bad show, I don’t give up, I work harder to be better. I also have applied a lot of those skills to continue taking care of myself physically – I have started doing Kung Fu and have worked my way through many levels of belts. Recently, I have worked to keep my brain active as well and have gone back to college to finish my degree. (12 credits to go!) I can apply my drive, determination, and ability to not quit into these other venues of physical and mental outlets.
While the professional paths of my wife and I did not cross often, we both had to learn how to gracefully move on from our lives as professional athletes. There are so many similarities in how we managed the transition, and we were sometimes doing it together. But like many athletes, our journeys were also very unique to each of us and the experiences we gained and lessons we learned throughout our careers.
What matters to both of us now is our family and continuing to grow in our new ventures, together and as individuals. As the Navy Seal said, one lesson we can learn is that we should never lose our focus a mile from the finish line in anything we do in life. Stay focused to the very end, until you get back to base. Once you’re there, and you decide to move on to something else in your life, take all the attributes and experiences you’ve learned along the way and build upon them, because what we have learned in the harsh world of professional athletics is that not only is it difficult to transition into the next phase of your life, you’re also only as good as your last shift.