Legein, DePape, Sweatt and leaving “the game”

November 28, 2012 — Leave a comment

It certainly came as a surprise to the Kamloops Blazers and the WHL when 20-year-old forward Jordan DePape decided to announce he was leaving the team.

DePape, who has since undergone surgery on a torn labrum in his right shoulder, was originally thought to be taking some time to decide on his future. While the shoulder injury will keep him sidelined for a significant amount of time, DePape told Gregg Drinnan that he’s not ruling out a possible comeback.

However, the injury has almost certainly ended DePape’s WHL career. The former MJHL Rookie of the Year has since told the Winnipeg Sun that he could possibly see coming back to play in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and has been approached about playing for the University of Manitoba Bisons.

All of this first came to my attention when DePape was listed on EliteProspects.com as being transferred from the WHL’s Blazers to “Time-Out From Hockey.” It’s not often that you see the dreaded “time out from hockey” show up on the site, but it does happen from time to time.

What it got me thinking of, though, was when in 2008, Stefan Legein, the Columbus Blue Jackets 37th overall pick in the ’07 Entry Draft, decided to step away from the game altogether.

It wasn’t an injury — or at least not one that was ever made public — that made Legein step away. It seemed, by all accounts, that he was just worn out on the game.

From the outside looking in, hockey fans and recreational players were likely shocked by the decision. How could a kid, who has achieved the childhood dream of thousands upon thousands, just give it all up like that?

I can wholeheartedly admit that, as a fan and a (barely passable) recreational player, I had the same reaction. Matter of fact, when Legein decided to return to the game (he did so only months after his retirement), I remember joking that he must have been threatened into doing so by those who wish they had his talent.

But what reason did Legein really have for sticking around?

He had been through seasons upon seasons of games, playing 244 games in the past four years alone. He was a 19-year-old, with the regular problems of a 19-year-old, but just so happened to also be a talented young hockey player. Legein fell under some scrutiny, but for what? For leaving the game we all love?

Fact of the matter is, he had his reasons — whatever they were — and he decided to hang up his skates, if only for a short while.

The problem was we — a collective we, as hockey fans — made a young man out to be an adult the day he was drafted. I’m guilty just as much as anyone, often forgetting that some of the players I watch in the NHL are younger than myself. In his shoes, I don’t know what I would have done, but I can quite honestly say that a 19-year-old Jared Clinton probably would not have been adept at handling the pressures that come with being a professional athlete.

Legein put it best himself in an interview with NHL.com:

“It was a long year for me and I guess everyone handles everything differently,” Legein told NHL.com. “I was tired, I was beat up, but I obviously realize (leaving the game) may not have been the right choice for me now. But it was one of those things you have to do; you can’t just fake something like this. It’s a career, so I did what I had to do and now I’m back trying to work back to where I was.”

What this all harkens back to for me is reading two things by Backhand Shelf editor and former minor-league player Justin Bourne wrote. The first, was a piece about how some players, frankly, just don’t care. They’re talented, they know they can make money, and thousands of hockey fans refer to them as enigmatic or Alexander Semin (whether right or wrong).

The second, a piece Bourne wrote for The Hockey News, recounted life after hockey. Even drafted players, like Legein, are not sure shots to make the NHL. It’s the harsh reality of the game. Some of the guys just aren’t cut out. Bourne realized that he had woken up one day, and had to start over again.

“You’re at square one again.  What do you want to be when you grow up?  Playing in the NHL means you never have to answer that question, but I realized I would have to.  I made what I thought was the smart choice.  Doesn’t it make sense to start that second career younger than older?  I obviously thought so.” — Justin Bourne

These players live lives outside of the game. For all our talk of, “he’s not good enough to make the big club,” and, “they should just cut him,” there’s also the flip side of a guy losing his job — his livelihood. This isn’t me going soft or not being aware that this is just the nature of the beast, but at a certain point — cut one? cut two? demotion ten, or free agent stint of a month? — where the player has to consider a new career.

That brings me to Lee Sweatt.

Sweatt was a promising young defenseman, but what some may refer to as a “bubble” player. He was on the cusp of a regular NHL role, but he would have to find the proper situation.

A call-up to the Vancouver Canucks in 2010-11 saw Sweatt in the NHL, but three games into his pro stint, he suffered a broken foot that sidelined him for the entirety of the second half of the season. He spent the rest of the season on the injured reserve, became a free agent at season’s end, and was subsequently signed by the Ottawa Senators. Before he played a single game for the Sens, Sweatt retired from professional hockey to pursue a career as a financial advisor.

In a case of thinking of the future rather than the present, Sweatt told CBC’s Tim Wharnsby that his leaving the game had everything to do with taking care of himself later in life.

“I ended up playing in the NHL and I played well. I scored a goal,” Sweatt said. “I also believe that the longer I stayed out of the real world the worse off I would be. I have long-term earning power outside of hockey”

What Sweatt did was far more than reasonable, but there were fans who were perplexed by his decision. Did he make the right decision? The only answer for that is the one you’d get from Sweatt himself, but it would be safe to assume he feels he did. After all, Sweatt was told Wharnsby that he had dreamt of working in finance, only referring to any hockey he was able to play after the college level as “gravy.”

Though we criticize these players for the decisions they make, sometimes it’s best to take a step back and look at it from another angle. DePape did it for health, Legein just needed some time away, Sweatt had dreams outside of hockey, and Bourne knew it was time. These four men did what they felt was right.

That’s a hockey success story.





(Featured Image by Kevin Walsh)

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