Alyn McCauley always thought he’d become an accountant when his days as an NHL player came to an end.
But now that a series of knee injuries have forced him into retirement at age 31, McCauley isn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the game entirely.
He’s accepted an assistant coaching position with the Queen’s University hockey team. Even though McCauley has long been regarded as one of the most thoughtful players in the NHL, he never really envisioned himself following so many others into the coaching ranks.
That began to change in recent months as he began to realize that his surgically repaired left knee would never allow him to get back to the NHL.
“I just thought right now I’d like to find out if I like coaching instead of putting in four years at a university to get my accounting degree and then thinking, ‘Maybe I do want to try coaching,”‘ McCauley told The Canadian Press on Friday. “I’ve put in a lot more than four years in hockey.
“(I’ve got) 25, 27 years of experience. Might as well give that a shot first.”
The odometer on McCauley’s trip through the top level of professional hockey doesn’t accurately reflect the journey he’s taken.
Injuries were a factor throughout his career and the numbers he produced when healthy were modest – 69 goals and 166 points over 488 regular-season games with Toronto, San Jose and Los Angeles.
However, McCauley was always a well-liked teammate and a player known for giving the maximum effort possible at all times. He spent a season as the captain of the Sharks and was nominated for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward at the end of a career year in 2003-’04.
McCauley signed with the Kings in the summer of 2006 but would only appear in 10 games for them because of the knee problems that had started earlier that year. Three surgeries followed to repair different parts of the knee but it wasn’t enough to get him back on the ice.
Realizing his career was likely done, McCauley moved his family from California back to his hometown of Gananoque, Ont., two months ago.
“I didn’t wake up yesterday and think, ‘Man, I can’t play hockey anymore,”‘ he said. “It’s been probably three years in the making. …
“I can’t change the fact that my knee is arthritic and not up to the rigours of the NHL any longer.”
There were a few different options for McCauley to consider before accepting the position to coach at Queen’s, although he chose to keep them to himself out of respect.
The job with the Golden Gaels was the most appealing because it’s close to home and it reunites McCauley with head coach Brett Gibson, a man he played minor hockey with. Assistant Andrew Haussler is also from Gananoque.
“I thought I’d be comfortable getting my feet wet in the coaching ring with those guys,” said McCauley.
One of the reasons he was reluctant to get into coaching is because he’s seen how much time former teammates like Rob Zettler have had to put into their new jobs.
Discussions with guys like that usually left McCauley thinking he’d try something else.
“I just thought, ‘Man, I already feel like I spent a lot of time at the rink as a player and missed out on certain things with my kids,”‘ said McCauley. “And I didn’t know if I was ready for that or that I wanted to do that.”
Taking a position with a university team offers something of a compromise.
The regular season is just 28 games long and McCauley will be joining a Queen’s team that is coming off its best performance in 25 years.
“This is kind of an easier step,” he said.
The last couple years have been anything but easy.
His third knee surgery was performed towards the end of last summer and McCauley was hoping it would be the one that would allow him to get back to the NHL. It wasn’t to be.
The period prior to that was even tougher on McCauley as he repeatedly found himself out of the lineup and felt he was letting people down.
“When I was trying to play, that was much more difficult,” said McCauley. “The coaching staff, the organization and even myself expect a certain kind of performance out of me.
“And it just wasn’t physically possible to do it. That was stressful and almost depressing at times. It’s almost like you wake up every day feeling miserable.”
The good news is that he feels as healthy now as he has in eight months. McCauley is able to keep up with his two young kids, although he admits to needing an ice pack now and then.
Accounting may still be in his future – especially if coaching doesn’t end up being something he likes.
“I’m a numbers guy,” said McCauley. “I’m always crunching stuff in my head or on paper.”
In the meantime, his coaching job will get him back on the ice for the first time in almost a year.
Even if McCauley had been able to get back to the NHL, it would have come with a risk because of everything he’s been through. He feels fortunate to end his career in good enough health to still be able to play with six-year-old daughter May and two-year-old son Renn.
“Being able to keep up with them and participate with certain things they want to do is much more important than me trying to hobble around on one leg and feed my ego by getting in a couple more games in the NHL,” he said.