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Quite a character. Stefan Legein. One of the Mississauga/Niagara IceDogs’ star forwards. He scored 43 goals and 75 points in 64 games with 115 PIM in 2006-2007, and showed what a great player he truly is. Was. Columbus saw this, and picked him 37th overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.
On Tuesday, August 19, 2008, he suddenly shocked the hockey world, by announcing his “retirement” from hockey. Stefan Legein, the 19-year old wonder, “retires,” from a sport he is not even paid to play, yet.
So basically, he quit. Stefan Legein, a player who was basically guaranteed millions in his career in the NHL, decided to quit playing the game he loved so much.
Or did he love it?
After he showed up for development camp, Legein gave Columbus “the notice a couple weeks before training camp that he did not want to report.” “We got concerned about Stefan’s passion and commitment last spring,” Scott Howson, Columbus Blue Jackets' GM told me in an interview earlier this month, “When he told us he’d rather go home after he signed with Syracuse.”
Legein was a beloved player by everyone in the locker room. He was known as a jokester, a prankster, and any other synonym there is, but not in a bad way. Take a look at the Youtube clip of him interviewing John Tavares.
As you can see, he is a great, lovable guy, that many people like to be around. He is also talented at hockey, which always helps when you are drafted in the National Hockey League.
But now he works in a pizza parlor.
Show of hands, folks, if you had a choice to be an NHL player, or a worker at Pizza Hut, what would you choose?
I thought so.
Legein, though, is not the only player who has done this. Dan Ryder, brother to Michael Ryder of the New York Islanders, “after scoring five points in his first six American League games with the Quad City Flames, decided to bolt the team and return home to Newfoundland” (www.Thehockeynews.com). Ryder has since returned to his AHL team for this 2008-2009 season.
What do NHL GMs know about the Dan Ryder situation?
“Nothing,” Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren said.
“Just what I read,” Scott Howson said.
“I honestly have no idea,” Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello stated.
“Nothing,” Blackhawks’ GM Dale Tallon claimed.
“While I do acknowledge the fact that it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to break into the NHL, could you think of a better way to live your life? Instead of sitting at a desk or working 11 hour shifts in a coal mine somewhere, these kids are spending the majority of their lives playing a game that they love” (Eric Kuzmiak, Bleacher Report).
Bethanyshockeyrants.com first broke the story through an anonymous e-mail tip, later confirmed through another contact, when Legein released the following statement:
“I’d like for everyone to stop bashing my father, my family, and me personally,” said Legein. “My family has been amazing. They have supported me and never forced me to do anything and to say its their fault is ridiculous…I realize you’re going to speculate but please don’t bash my character and especially my family.” (www.Bethanyshockeyrants.com)
Let’s take a detour on this magical journey through the minds of these two young players and their decisions. I am going to go on the ride called “Journey to the Center of the NHL” (I own that copyright, Disney). Perhaps we should take a look at what players go through from the time they first lace on skates until they reach the NHL, or fail to reach it, in many cases.
1. You put on skates for the very first time at age two, and as you stumble around the ice, holding your father’s or mother’s hand, you are officially starting on the journey to become a hockey player.
2. Your father cuts a hockey stick for you, and as you gradually improve your skills on the frozen pond outside your house, you learn different hockey moves, including how to skate with a puck, and putting the puck inside the net.
3. You join your first hockey team in the squirt level. You eventually move up to pee-wee, then bantam, then midget, and as you go up in levels, your skills in skating and hockey go up as well.
4. You join a junior team as you start to reach your teens, and major junior teams start to scout you out.
5. The major junior draft: whether you are in the OHL, WHL, QMJHL, or USHL, you are drafted into the almost-big leagues. Only one-more step to the pros.
6. You are scouted by the NHL and the ISS, and are (hopefully) eventually drafted into the NHL. You work a little harder, and soon become a full-time NHLer.
Now, this entire list is assuming you do indeed make the NHL when you are eighteen years old.
Among the list of six steps of getting to the NHL, where can something possibly go wrong that would make you want to quit?
I think there are two places it could happen. Either in step three or step six. In step three you are on your first or second hockey team, and as a young child, you may not enjoy something that your parents basically are forcing you to do. So you quit.
In step six, though, you are a grown man, between the ages of 16 and 20. You are old enough to make your own decisions, which almost every player does (Eric Lindros is an exception to this rule: his daddy made decisions for him). What would make a man so close to reaching a dream want to quit what he loves if it is not an injury?
Well, in my mind, it has to be the loss of love of the game. What makes someone lose their love of a game they've played since they could first walk? Perhaps a few things: pressure, agents, parents, fans, and most of all, the NHL.
The NHL is the dream of every hockey player out there. But when you get to the NHL, it is no longer fun hockey, no matter what anyone says. When you are making millions of dollars, it is no longer fun. It is serious, hard work. We all started playing hockey and continued to play hockey because it is fun. Now don’t get me wrong, the players all love the game. No one plays in the NHL simply because they make a lot of money. They play because the love to play hockey.
But no one loves every part of the game. They can’t possibly love every part of the NHL. There is practice, film, gym sessions, mandatory meetings, workouts, trips, bus rides, plane rides, and then, of course, the games.
I am on a college hockey team, and the only things I enjoy in that group are practice, games, and sometimes film and team meetings. Even if someone loves most of those, there is always some part of it that they don’t enjoy.
There was recently a cover story in The Hockey News about Patrick Kane and his childhood. It premiered on September 2, 2008, and discussed the cost of raising a hockey player, as far as expenses go. With schools, programs, equipment, and trips, Patrick Kane’s parents estimated the total cost of raising Pat Kane the hockey player to be $143,700.
True, Kane made that much in just a quarter of a year, but how many players who put that much time and money into hockey actually make it to the NHL?
People put so much into the game, yet when someone walks away after putting so much time, money, effort, and blood (literally) into the game, there has to be a major reason behind it; it cannot just be, “Well, the game is no longer fun for me.” No one would buy that, and for anyone that does buy it, I commend you for being so easily convinced.
The NHL begins scouting players when they are still in their low teens. They begin heavily scouting players when they are in major junior, from ages 16-20. The pressures put on these players from their mid-teens until they either do or do not reach the NHL are enormous.
A player is expected to perform well, and if he does not, well, he is basically shunned. Look at Steven Stamkos. He dominated the OHL while he was a member of the Sarnia Sting, went first overall, was expected to dominate the NHL along with Crosby, Ovechkin, and others, yet he is struggling to stay in the NHL lineup.
That may be because of pressure, or inability to adjust to the faster game, or coaching, or line combination, or whatever. But the bottom line is, when you are coming in to the NHL as an 18-year old and expected to put up upwards of fifty points per year, somewhere along the line, you are most likely going to fail and succumb to the pressure.
Now, I am not saying the NHL should stop scouting players and expect them to be great. They should absolutely be expecting the best out of every single player that comes into their league. Why? Because it is the best hockey league in the world, without argument. If they lowered the expectations on the kids coming in to pro hockey, what would that do? It would tell them it is okay to be mediocre and be in the NHL, and while that sometimes works for players (cough…Sean Avery…cough), it usually will not. Remember that other league, the KHL? What would it tell them if we started to allow our players to just play well when they felt like it, and didn’t put high hopes on their shoulders?
But on the other side, why should we be putting so much pressure on these kids? Everyone started to play the game because it was fun. Key word: was. As the aforementioned paragraphs stated, it is no longer fun when you are being paid millions, or expecting to become a million dollar player. Should it be fun?
I asked some general managers about the effect the NHL has on these players, and here were some responses:
“I don’t think it’s the NHL, no.” –Scott Howson
“I don’t think the NHL puts pressure on anybody. I think that pressure comes from within.” –Lou Lamoriello
“Hockey players are no different than anybody else,” Paul Holmgren stated, “Everybody has their ups and downs.”
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the league, I think it’s just part of the business.” –Dale Tallon
I will leave you with a few questions to think about: Is the NHL putting too much pressure on their young prospects? Why do you think Stefan Legein quit the game he supposedly loved so much? Lastly, what does this all mean for the game, the players, and more importantly, the fans? Is this going to become a pattern, a vicious circle, if you will, in which the NHL just continuously ruins the game?
I sure hope not.
Alan Bass is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report and the Community Leader for the NHL and Philadelphia Flyers’ section. He is also the co-host of NHL 2Day, a weekly radio show on Youcastr.com. You can contact him at ALN424@aol.com. You can also check out his BR archives here.