Young hockey players go form pinching pennies in junior to having a fat wallets in the NHL. How they handle the change can have long-term implications.
What started as a $5 foot-long on Jeff Skinner’s dinner plate is now a filet mignon. Every juicy bite perfectly symbolizes the transition from junior hockey to life as a professional in the NHL, and it literally happened to Skinner. He remembers scrounging his cash during his OHL days with the Kitchener Rangers to hit up Subway for whatever sandwich was on special. The next thing he knew, Carolina drafted him seventh overall in 2010 and he was an 18-year-old wunderkind, sniping 31 goals en route to the Calder Trophy. He signed an entry-level contract in September of that season paying him a $900,000 salary and a $500,000 performance bonus. His bank account ballooned. Submarine sandwiches were no longer a necessity. One look at Skinner’s baby face betrays his age, sure. But this puts into perspective just how young he was as a suddenly wealthy NHL rookie: he says a car wasn’t the first thing he ran out to buy, because he had only just learned to drive before he moved to Raleigh.
“You’re being careful, watching what you eat and how much you’re spending, and then you turn pro, you’re living on your own,” he said. “I can remember going to the mall, and I didn’t really shop that much, and guys were going into nice stores and buying nice clothes, and I didn’t really understand why they were doing that (laughs). But it’s part of growing up, learning responsibilities and having a full-time job.” Possessing the rare caliber of talent that whisks you directly to the NHL is a double-edged sword. On the bright side, hockey is more of a young man’s game than ever, and junior-level players have far more access to training and nutritional advice growing up, allowing them to ready their bodies for the world’s top league. It’s a night-and-day difference from what San Jose Sharks left winger Patrick Marleau experienced in 1997 as an 18-year-old. “When me and ‘Jumbo’ (Joe Thornton) came in, you had to be big, you had to be strong, you had to fight through a lot of clutching and grabbing, hooking and holding,” Marleau said. “And then they opened up the game, and it allows skill to come out and allows the younger players that are coming in that much more free room.” Fast-tracking as a teen carries the perk of immediate, life-altering financial security if a player sticks with a team and signs an entry-level deal. But there’s a downside. It means no AHL or college to ease the transition into adulthood. Players who may have never lived a day away from home or billet families are suddenly on their own. “It’s so disorienting for an 18-year-old player,” said Octagon player agent Allan Walsh. “ ‘I have no bank account. I have no debit card. I have no credit card.’ And then, when you get everything, ‘When do I use my credit card? When do I use my debit card? Why?’ ” Skinner, however, wasn’t without a paddle. He’d played his junior hockey close to home and his “billet” was actually his brother, Ben. “My mom and dad have been really good at keeping me grounded and making sure I’m smart with the stuff I have and, for lack of a better word, not being stupid,” he said. Not every player has the same early support. Take Los Angeles Kings right winger Marian Gaborik, who broke into the NHL with the Minnesota Wild at 18 in 2000. He and Skinner both said the one thing they splurged on with their first contract was a fancy new laptop, but whereas Skinner picked up his MacBook without a problem, Gaborik, a fresh arrival from Slovakia, had a hard time securing his coveted Sony Vaio. He handed a Best Buy employee all he could: a cheque for $2,500. Gaborik had no social security number and no proof he was who he said he was, and he was sent home without the laptop. He had to gather more documents and return the next day.
“You don’t have a line of credit, you don’t have anything established in the U.S., no credit, nothing,” Gaborik said. “Big chunk of money coming in, a guy who is young, they’re looking at you handing them an international driver’s license. So it was a red flag for them.” It’s an entirely different experience being a rookie crossing the Atlantic without your family, as Gaborik did. His parents drilled sound advice into his brain before he left, at least. “I wasn’t going around spending money and just throwing it around like a piece of paper,” he said. “I really tried to be smart about that and appreciate the money.” Some youngsters aren’t so lucky, most famously Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson, who in his early 20s signed control of his finances over to his mother before signing his seven-year, $30.5-million extension with Los Angeles. After his parents had spent lavishly, Johnson filed for bankruptcy in 2014. So how do green NHLers avoid financial pitfalls if they aren’t raised like Skinner and Gaborik were? Per the collective bargaining agreement, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association jointly sponsor a rookie orientation program every off-season. Each franchise “can select up to three entry-level players who are expected to be playing in the NHL for a significant period of time in the upcoming season to attend each rookie orientation program.” The ROP includes real-life testimonial sessions in which retired players discuss their experiences, an NHLPA spokesperson told THN. Once the season starts, the PA visits each team as part of its annual league-wide tour and offers further financial advice. “In each meeting, NHLPA officials will typically touch on the importance of the players to manage their personal finances, be careful of who they surround themselves with and to watch their investments closely,” the spokesperson said. Teams occasionally create new “billet” environments, in which rookies live with families. Think Sidney Crosby shacking up with Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh. For the most part, though, teams let players sort things out via their peers. Skinner lived with goaltender Justin Peters, who served as a role model for how to spend, how to cook and how to be a model adult NHLer. Skinner can’t say enough good things about him. Gaborik gravitated toward fellow Slovak Lubomir Sekeras. The sense from talking to players is they prefer learning from one another to learning from team management. They also have agents to hold their hands. “You have to put the structure together fast and efficiently,” Walsh said, “and be prepared to explain things many different times over and over again until it starts to all sink in for the players to get that a-ha moment, ‘Now I understand everything, and it all makes sense to me off the ice.’ ” Most agencies have financial services divisions to assist players, opening their bank accounts, securing their credit and debit cards and even reviewing leases before they sign them. There’s obviously no pity party for teenage millionaires, but with the laser-like focus it takes to become elite, the truth is they often don’t receive the same real-life preparation as regular kids. The more assistance they get and the earlier they get it, the better off they are and the more independent they become in the long run.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the February 15 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.