McKenna’s Mailbag: Answers About After-Gaming Careers, Matt Murray & More

Protection is a difficult word to define. Historically, the NHLPA hasn’t done much to help transitioning players after they’ve finished playing, but the NHL Alumni Association is changing that. There is now an official bridging program that players – and their spouses – can enroll in. It makes online education, mentorship and career development easily accessible to former players.

The PHPA, which represents AHL and ECHL players, has had a career improvement program in place for several decades. It is available to all current and former PHPA members. Many players have taken online lessons while playing and have received significant professional training as a result.

As for disability insurance, yes it is very expensive for hockey players. Some choose to buy it. Others don’t. For most of my career, I didn’t earn enough money to justify it – but I also have a college degree in my back pocket. I knew I could fall back on this if I ever hurt myself. For players without a high school education, this might make more sense. Depending on your contract, disability insurance can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

In order to receive an annual pension equal to the maximum allowed by the US tax code, a player must accumulate the equivalent of 10 full seasons in the league. This is in line with the current ACA of the NHL and NHLPA. Players with less than 10 full years will receive a pro rata pension. So there is certainly some protection – but it weighs on longtime NHL players.

I found out the first day I arrived for training camp after finishing my college career!

Receiving a paycheck is pretty amazing. And that brings home the seriousness needed to be successful. Even at the ECHL level, that $ 450 meant something. I still have my first contract somewhere in reserve.

But here’s the catch: Hockey has always been a game for me. I wasn’t expecting my career and it lasted a lot longer than I expected. I thought I would play a few years in ECHL and see if I could make up for it in AHL. If that didn’t work out, I had planned to go to Europe for a few seasons before retiring.

It turned into a 14-year professional career, all in North America.

The key to my reflection: I went to school. Having a college degree was important to me. I never thought hockey was a realistic career goal and wanted my bases covered.

It allowed me to have fun playing without the added pressure of not knowing what was to come in life once the game was over with me. Even now, that peace of mind is real. I didn’t have to be a broadcaster. I don’t have to work in the media. There is so much I could do outside of hockey – most of which relates to my studies. I did internships in finance. I built relationships and created networks. But hockey is my first love.

There are so many factors that it is difficult to make a general statement on this topic. And that’s really the answer – varies.

Some coaches believe that shooting the goalie wakes their team up. They are trying to change momentum and stop the bleeding. Other times a goalie will hang on only to performance. And the worst-case scenario: the attraction of mercy. When a team is so horrible it’s time for the coach to take the starter out of the net before it kills his confidence.

I always wanted to stay in the game and fight. I didn’t like the feeling of allowing a few quick goals and not being able to dig myself in. If I were a coach I would let my goalie stay and fight – unless he was clearly in trouble. And I most often made a change of goalkeeper between periods.

It seems that three goals conceded is the magic number for most coaches, especially in the first period. By the time the second goal is scored, the TV cameras are obsessed with the substitute goalie. Which, moreover, drives me crazy. It’s like a fatality that the starter is going to get the hook. And fans are feeding off this drama.

If a goalie goes past the first period, there is a good chance that he will finish the game. But if a team loses four or five goals in the third, maybe now would be a good time to take pity on the starting goalie and get him out of there. The classic attraction of mercy.

For most keepers, we can feel the pull coming. We don’t need visual or verbal cues. We just know.

Murray is back in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators, so we can check that off the roster. For me, Murray’s game started to deteriorate several years ago. The teams realized that he could become lazy in his post-integrations and end up blocking. He started to roast himself on bases at the wrong angle. And Murray’s puck tracking really took a turn for the worse.

When Murray first came to the AHL he was amazing. But that was also in 2014-15. Goalkeepers have come a long way since then.

I think Murray trusts his technical one-foul play. And that makes him – sometimes – too passive. He ends up blocking when he should react. He stops following the puck. And he has a bad tendency to stop skating when the puck goes down the wing. This can cause Murray to be off-angle when the photo is taken. He has a solid technical foundation, but he needs to break free. Use these weapons. Respond to shots. Don’t get locked into post-integrations.

But what does Murray need most? A good team in front of him. Ottawa has had a string of underachieving goaltenders – myself included – not named Craig Anderson. So that begs the question: is it the team or the goalie? In the case of the Senators, I think it’s the team. They don’t have the talent or the experience to defend at the NHL level. But Murray didn’t make a big deal for himself.

I think there is a real chance that this summer’s UFAs will avoid the Canadian teams. Canada has approached the COVID pandemic in such a different way than the United States and gamers are well aware of it. They travel regularly between the two countries and see firsthand the freedom experienced in most of the United States. This is in stark contrast to all of the protocols and regulations that have been promulgated north of the border.

A lot of my friends who play for Canadian teams have had enough. They don’t know where or when they will play next. And that’s because the Canadian government – whether provincial or national – made the quick decision to reduce or eliminate fans in arenas.

It is an untenable situation for the NHL teams from a financial point of view. And it’s emotionally untenable for the players. There is real fear among players that a 60 day road trip is ahead for Canadian teams. Or that they might end up having to move to the United States for the rest of the year.

No one wants to go months without seeing their family. Wives. Children. Relatives. And the potential for that to happen is much greater in Canada than in the United States.

Who will sign up for this? Desperate players. That’s it.

There are two things in my career – other than winning a Stanley Cup or a Calder Cup – that I would really love to have the chance to experience: wear the American team jersey and play an outdoor game.

The Philadelphia Flyers sent me to the AHL less than a week before the 2019 Stadium Series game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. I knew it was going to happen. But it saddened me. I was already planning to retire at the end of the season and this was my last chance to make an away game. It just wasn’t meant to be.

Why? Because they are so cool. Outdoor games are pure. These are the roots of hockey. The game is intended to be played outdoors on a frozen pond. All the things I never really experienced growing up in St. Louis.

Yes, we had outdoor rinks. But it has always been structured. It wasn’t just the pond. To me, there is something quirky about the NHL’s outdoor games. Players and families alike revel in the festivities. The fans are going crazy. They are a celebration.

I like outdoor games. I still hope that someday I will be a part of it.

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