Taking a shot at college

After they hang up their skates, what's next for hockey pros? Now, the NHL is helping some 'retirees' shoot for a college degree or a new career.

For many of his 19 years as a defenseman in the National Hockey League, Stu Grimson was as effective with his fists as with his skates and stick - an "enforcer" for teams that needed muscle.

But even "the grim reaper," as Mr. Grimson, 6 ft. 5 in. and 241 lbs., was nicknamed, finally had to retire from the Nashville Predators after an injury last year. It left the 37-year-old unexpectedly facing a question familiar to many newly retired professional athletes: What do I do now?

Wanting to earn a college degree and start a new career, he had a tough choice: uproot his family and return to Canada, where he had three years' worth of credits at the University of Manitoba - or start college all over again.

He found a way out of the dilemma last fall - taking courses in Nashville and transferring them to Manitoba - with help from the new Life After Hockey Program (LAHP).

It's the only professional sports-league program to employ both university consultants and an outplacement firm to help retired pros land on their feet after their playing days are over.

With 30 or more working years still possible, former players often need to figure out what they're good at (besides hockey) or develop a road map for a college degree.

Since September, 30 men have taken advantage of LAHP, which is funded by the National Hockey League and its players and alumni associations.

Various professional sports leagues have attempted over the years to create career-transition programs for ex-athletes (see below). The NHL tried it once before, in the early 1990s, but that effort collapsed during a fraud scandal surrounding R. Alan Eagleson, the NHL players' union boss.

"All of the leagues have an interest in the career transition process and all are ... thinking of implementing models," says Dale Jasinski, director of the new Professional Athlete Transition Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. The institute is a partner in the NHL program, but also plans to work with individual clients from other sports.

Rough spots - off the ice

A lot of players expect to continue to build their lives around hockey even after they've retired. Yet jobs in hockey do not work out for most of them, and the ride into the "real world" can be a rough one, Mr. Jasinski says.

For Jocelyn Lemieux, hockey was an all-consuming passion for 16 years in the NHL, a career that began when he was drafted at 18 by the St. Louis Blues. After some great years with the Chicago Blackhawks in the early 1990s, Mr. Lemieux left the sport in 1999.

He made decent money while playing, he says, but still found himself living from paycheck to paycheck. It's been personally and financially difficult for him since retiring. Last fall, the LAHP became a life preserver as he struggled, in the wake of a divorce, to find out what his strongest interests and capabilities are.

"I wish I had saved more money and had more education," he says.

"The NHL tried their best to convince guys they wouldn't last forever, that they had better prepare. But when you're an athlete you feel nothing can stop you, you just keep going."

Lemieux took a battery of self-assessment tests with Drake Beam Morin (an outplacement firm that is partnering with the LAHP) at the branch office in Phoenix, where he now lives. He has learned that he has a creative, artistic side, and he wants to develop it. He is working in a training program at a local business, and he's considering taking college classes, possibly with a focus on architecture.

"Once you leave that la-la land of pro sports, you begin to realize the average person in the real world works long hours and a long time to acquire certain financial security," Lemieux says.

But don't retired pros have millions?

Most players are already financially secure when they leave the sport, but a growing number are not, says Brian O'Neill, who helps administer the NHL players' emergency fund.

Out of roughly 700 current NHL players and 3,000 living NHL alumni, 60 to 70 people (including several widows) currently receive financial help from the fund, Mr. O'Neill says. The money is supplied by fines levied against players during the season.

An upturn in recent years in the number of retired players drawing on the emergency fund was a key reason the league formed the Life After Hockey Program.

"We've seen some recently who got caught up in bad technology investments, others had high lifestyles, others had marriages break up," says O'Neill, a former executive vice president of the league and now a member of the LAHP board.

There is, however, a new breed of players who, by example, have been leading the NHL to be more proactive about education. Ken Baumgartner is one of those.

Dubbed "the bomber" during his hockey days, Mr. Baumgartner was known more for his pugilistic prowess than his other skills. But, unlike many players, he never lost sight of his academic goals, working off-season to fulfill his undergraduate degree requirements at Hofstra University on Long Island. Recently he earned a master's degree from the Harvard Business School, and is now working for a financial-services company.

His role as an on-ice heavy for teams like the Boston Bruins, amassing 2,244 penalty minutes during 13 years in the NHL, has meant that he's been dogged by headlines like "From Goon Squad to Grad School." Still, he has persevered, and his story has inspired others to defrost their study skills.

A promise to Dad that he'd get his degree

The go-it-alone approach worked for Baumgartner, but Claude Vilgrain, the NHL's first Haitian-born player, has appreciated the league's helping hand.

Mr. Vilgrain grew up playing Hockey in Montreal. When he was drafted by the Detroit Redwings in 1982, he promised his father and himself that one day he would get his university diploma.

"My dad always told me I needed something to fall back on if hockey didn't work out," he says. "My family always encouraged me to finish my degree. It's very important to them."

After a six-year NHL career, Vilgrain played a few final years in Europe and then returned to finish his degree in business management in Calgary. "It felt good going to university instead of just going golfing in the summers," he says.

He was unsure about his next step, so the LAHP gave him a battery of aptitude tests that helped him firm up his goals. Today, he loves his work bringing businesses to the province of Alberta.

Grimson contemplates grad school

The timing of the new program is perfect for hockey, says Grimson, who expects to graduate from the University of Manitoba this spring. He senses that his colleagues, who are often regarded more for brawn than brains, realize more than ever the need for additional education.

Now Grimson is thinking about going on to graduate school.

Despite good financial resources (his salary during his last year of play was listed at $750,000), Grimson has a powerful motivation: being a role model for his children.

"One of the best things about all this has been that my children have been able to watch me go back to school," he says. "My kids see education is a valuable commodity no matter what they choose to do."

E-mail comments to claytonm@csps.com

Leagues start to offer more transition support

Most career-transition programs for professional athletes target current players. But the future may hold a bigger role for retraining and educating retired players.

The National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and minor-league hockey all offer career-transition programs to their players. Continuing education, internships, financial education, and family counseling are a few common features. Major League Baseball has a college-scholarship program players can sign up for.

The NFL's program is one of the most well regarded. Growing in popularity since the early 1990s, it helped about 480 current players last year work toward college degrees or training for new jobs, says Tom Kowalski, president of the Transit Group, a career-transition firm in Chicago that is a consultant to the NFL program.

Even so, the NFL has no formal program to help retired athletes. The average NFL career lasts only about 3.5 years, a critical time for education, says Ken Ruettgers, a former NFL lineman. Following his own struggle to adjust to life after pro football in the mid-1990s, he started GamesOver.org, a Web-based consulting service.

Mr. Ruettgers says most of his own challenges came after stepping down from "the pedestal" - a culture familiar to most professional athletes. Ruettgers describes the NFL experience as a "palace of pride," ego, and power. Inside, the biggest decision a player makes in a day might be what to have for lunch, he says.

But once playing days are done and megabucks stop flowing, it's often hard to cut spending and find one's real identity. In that period, financial problems and marital challenges are common.

Sports leagues may be getting the message that they need to offer more support to retired players. The NFL, for instance, recently gave a grant to GamesOver.org.

A survey of former professional hockey players found that ...

40% pursued some type of skill training or education during their playing careers

27% have taken university-level courses but have not yet earned degrees

21% have an undergraduate degree

5% have a master's degree or PhD

Source: Oct. 2002 survey of 1,800 former NHL players (641 respondents), conducted by Quinnipiac University/Professional Athlete Transition Institute.

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