Retirement and Hockey: When Enough is Enough

Greg CaggianoSenior Writer IJuly 25, 2008

When I saw that this week's Open Mic topic was about retirement in the sports world, I was a tad bit excited because the sport I cover and love, hockey, is the one sport where players really need to think about retirement, since it is one of the most physically demanding sports.

You can't be a Barry Bonds, Jesse Orasco, or Julio Franco in hockey, because you need to be in the best shape of your life. With the exception of Chris Chelios, George Hainsworth, and Gordie Howe, there haven't been many players that have excelled in the sport of hockey in their forties and even fifties in Howe's case. Hockey is the one sport that if you stick around too long, you'll embarrass yourself.

First, I'll take a look at a player who retired at the perfect time, Wayne Gretzky. Although only 39 years old when he called it quits, and could have eaisly played a few more seasons, "The Great One" new his body best and knew when the time had come. Even though his last seasons wasn't his best, the send off he received from the Madison Square Garden crowd on that April afternoon was something never seen before in the hockey world.

No matter what the outcome of the game was, no matter what records of his would ever be broken, Gretzky would be the best hockey player ever, and leave the sport on top. I was only eight years old when my favorite player retired and I remember crying when that game ended because I couldn't understand why he quit so soon, but now I can.

Years later when I watched players like Mark Messier and Brett Hull try to succeed in their latter years, it was almost embarrassing, especially in Hull's case.

With Wayne Gretzky at the coaching helm, the Phoenix Coyotes signed Hull at the start of the 2005/06 season, even un-retiring his father Bobby's number (from the Winnipeg Jets days) so he could wear it as a part of the franchise. There was so much hype about the future hall of famer and Glendale Arena was sold out those first few games, so everyone could see the scoring legend.

Well, at 41 years old, it turned out to be a complete disaster for Hull. In the first five games that season, Hull recorded only one assist, before retiring right after that fifth game. It had been a whole year since he last played, being that the lockout was the year before and Hull just couldn't adapt to the newer, faster NHL. The scoring legend had to be embarrassed when he coiuldn't even score a goal in those five games, and to leave in the beginning of a season like that is the ultimate way of being washed up, and letting everyone know it.

Had he retired at age 40, the pevious season, he would have left with a 25 goal season under his belt and nothing to be ashamed of. He would have went out on top, but instead, didn't know when enough was enough, and was basically laughed off the big stage.

Now when I mentioned Messier earlier, I'm not going to say he embarrassed himself by playing in his later years, but I'm going to say that those last four seasons he spent in his second stint as a Ranger were pretty pointless.

At the age of 39, he re-signed with the Rangers to start a second stint. Everyone was excited to have "The Captain" back in Ranger blue. And even in the 2000/01 season, the year he turned 40, he still managed to score 24 goals and add 43 assists and finish in the top three in team scoring with 67 points. One would call that a successful season, even for a thirty year old, let alone a forty year old.

But Messier still couldn't hang up the skates. He came back for another season in which it was clear, his body couldn't take it. He missed exactly half of the games and scored only 7 goals. But still, the message wasn't sent, as he returned for a third year, and then a fourth year before finally calling it quits after the 2003/04 season.

Did he embarass himself?

Not entirely as he scored 18 goals in each of his final two seasons, but at being 43 years old, he slowed up the development of the team because they had to make sure he had linemates that he could keep up with and protect him (the likes of Chris Simon and Mathew Barnaby).

And that's another thing that should be involved in an athletes decision to retire; the good of the team. I mentioned that Mark Messier slowed the development of the Rangers because he did. And although he provided good leadership, the team was far from competitive and it was clearly time to pass the torch but there was no one to pass it to.

And that's why athletes must always consider these three things when retiring:

1) If I come back for another season, will I embarrass myself and/or the team?

2) If I come back for another season, am I in good shape, so I don't injure myself and leave the sport on a negative note?

3) Do I care enough about the team that I will not slow down there developmental process by sticking around longer?

I hope that this article has given you a good look at the act of retirement in the world of hockey, because as I said, it's one of the most physically demanding sports to play. The only question is, when is enough, enough?