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Fear of failure: NHLers past and present reveal what keeps them up at night

The THN Fear Issue explores what makes players shake in their skates. One of them is the fear of failure. Past and present NHLers open up about it in this story.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Editor's note: It's almost Halloween, so it's the perfect time to explore the spooky side of hockey. The following story appears in THN's scariest edition ever: The Fear Issue. Grab a copy on newsstands today or order one here!

Ray Ferraro remembers coming home from practice one day in 1990 and seeing the light on his answering machine blinking. The message was from Ed Johnston, his GM with the Hartford Whalers. Things weren’t going well. It was mid-November and Ferraro had scored only two goals in his first 15 games. He had scored at least 20 goals in each of his five full NHL seasons to that point, including seasons of 41 and 30 goals.

But the blinking light and the message were a clear indication of what was coming and Ferraro knew it. He was getting traded, and before he returned Johnston’s call, he picked up a copy of The Hockey News that was on his kitchen table and began to desperately go through its pages.

“I looked through the league trying to figure out who would want me,” Ferraro recalled, “and I couldn’t come up with anybody.”

Almost a quarter of a century later, Ferraro’s vantage point allows him to see the game from a place where everything seems so easy. As a between-the-benches analyst for TSN, he’s far more comfortable in his abilities as a broadcaster than he ever was as an NHLer. He also has a front-row seat to the fear and uncertainty that can consume players. He can relate on an all-too-familiar level with the scorer who comes back to the bench muttering about a missed opportunity, questioning himself and wondering if this will be the time when he just can’t get out of this slump. He can see the fear in the eyes of the fourth-liners on two-way contracts and aging veterans who are hanging on by their fingertips. The ones who are playing scared are the guys who get rid of the puck as quickly as it lands on their sticks, since you can’t make a mistake if you don’t have the puck. They’re the ones who get it on their stick in the scoring zone, and yet somehow it all blows up.

There’s a lot of fear in the game of hockey. With players bigger, stronger and more physical than ever before, the fear of injury is omnipresent. Those who fight for a living go into every game knowing there’s a chance they’ll get punched in the face with someone’s bare knuckles. It’s not a wonderful way to live. For star players, however, if there’s anyone who should be immune to the fear of their place in the game, it should be them.

But it isn’t always. When Brett Hull was at the height of his talents and challenging Wayne Gretzky’s single-season record for goals, he was on top of the world. You’d think he’d wake up every morning gleefully thinking about how he was going to make some poor goalie’s life miserable that night. He might have had a goal or a hat trick the night before, but rather than brimming with confidence that he’d continue to score, Hull was wracked by insecurity.

“I wake up every day scared to death that I’ll never score again,” Hull said at the time. “I’ve never talked to Wayne (Gretzky) about it and I’ve never heard him mention it, but when he first started, he was so awesome he had to have that inner fear of failure, or he never would have done as well as he did. I can’t even sleep at night sometimes.”

There are some players in this game for whom success isn’t a springboard. In some ways, the success they have creates a set of expectations that might be impossible to match. It creates a fear of failure that, more often than not, fosters an environment for the player that motivates him to work even harder, to hone his talents even more. It seems to be an innate response for some great people. Frank Gehry, who has been called the most important architect of his time and has designed some of the most unique structures in the world, once said, “I approach each project with a new insecurity, almost like the first project I ever did. And I get the sweats.”

For most players who fear failure, it becomes a driving force. Even though they’ve proven time and again they’re elite players, they still question whether they belong. And because they never feel comfortable, they’re constantly striving to be better. That, often in turn, both enhances their talents and drives them to achieve even more. For others, however, it can have the effect of making them pull back so they don’t disappoint those who have placed such high expectations on them.

Take Jacques Lemaire, for example. It wasn’t until late in his career that he thought he really belonged on the Montreal Canadiens. Despite owning one of the most lethal slapshots in the league, Lemaire took more satisfaction in setting up teammates and playing good defense. In 1969-70, his third year in the league, he became the first player in the NHL that season to hit the 20-goal mark, reaching it in 36 games. It prompted Jean Beliveau to opine that, “Lemaire is the big scorer on this club now.” When it was suggested that Lemaire might score 50 goals that season, he scoffed at the notion and made it clear that nobody should compare him to Bobby Hull. He then went on to score 12 goals in his final 33 games. Steve Shutt, who played on a lethal line with Lemaire and Guy Lafleur on the Canadiens dynasty of the late 1970s, openly acknowledged that Lemaire would stop scoring after hitting somewhere between 25 and 30 goals.

“He’d only want a certain number of goals,” Shutt once said of his linemate. “He could take a slapshot and hit your finger and, all of a sudden, those shots would be a little wider.”

NBA star Kobe Bryant once spoke of his insecurities, but said he embraced them. That’s the mentality that creates a superstar. But it often comes at a cost, a very high one. It takes some of the enjoyment out of the game at a time when the player conceivably should be more content than he has ever been. Chris Pronger, who was one of the most dominant defensemen of his generation, said he’d often hear in the summer about the new guy, the new hope, the new savior. Often it would be from the GM of his own team. Now, Pronger rarely had to worry about his spot on the roster, but he did get territorial about his status as one of the best defensemen in the game.

“I used to use that fear all summer,” Pronger said. “You read a quote from the GM, ‘Oh, there’s our new guy.’ Well, f--- you, that’s not your new guy. You wait, I’ll f---ing show you. If someone says, ‘Oh, so-and-so is better,’ the first thing I would say is ‘F--- you.’ Then you do everything possible to be the best you can be and you constantly use fear.”

The paradigm of fear among players has shifted in the past couple decades. There was a time when even the best players in the game weren’t set financially. There’s little doubt the small club of powerful owners in the NHL used that to scare their employees into subservience. Players’ positions were so tenuous and so many were chasing so few jobs that the owners could use fear to bully their employees. Players in the Boston Bruins system in the 1950s were constantly fearful that they’d be sent to play for the notorious Eddie Shore in Springfield. Even in the 1980s, when the New York Islanders were in the midst of their dynasty, GM Bill Torrey insisted every single player, from the fringe fourth-liner to superstars such as Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Billy Smith, play on a two-way contract.

Players now can set themselves up for life with one or two contracts. And even if they can’t make it in the NHL, there are lucrative careers to be found in the Kontinental League or other European circuits. With their financial security usually not an issue, it comes down to professional pride. And for some star players, nothing scares them more than being knocked off their pedestal.

“I don’t think it’s just a fear of not winning,” Pronger said. “It’s a fear of not being the best. That’s what drives you to not only be the best, but to stay the best. You have to have that fear because if you’re walking around all lackadaisical, I guarantee you you’re not going to be the best. There’s no way. There’s just no way you can do it.”

Paul Dennis is one of hockey’s leading sports psychologists and high performance coaches. He has filled both of those capacities with the Toronto Maple Leafs and numerous Canadian national and Olympic teams. He has worked with elite athletes of all disciplines and finds athletes succeed more and enjoy their sports more when they focus on the positives. He sees some merit in playing on fear, but he also calls athletes that are motivated by fear “maladaptive perfectionists.” These are people who have to achieve perfection in everything they do and if they fail to do that, they feel unworthy. Some perfectionists strive for the same thing but don’t place as much of a life-or-death importance on achieving it. The maladaptive perfectionist is one whose sole motivation is to avoid the feeling that comes with failure.

“There is a real downside to that,” Dennis said. “It can be very emotionally draining for some players. Even though you might be incredibly successful, always fearing that something is going to go wrong is mentally draining. Some athletes, we call them defensive pessimists, are always on the defensive and often look for what could go wrong as opposed to what could go right. It’s a very risky behavior.”

Dennis acknowledges that Brett Hull, on a conscious level, actually did fear at the height of his career that his scoring touch might leave him. But deep down in the subconscious mind, which is the driving force behind all behavior, it might be a different story.

“If it does come to fruition and they’re not successful, then they’ve kind of prepared themselves for it,” Dennis said. “They say these things to themselves to protect their egos.”

And the problem with players being driven by the fear of failure is that they can’t be the best all the time. There are times when they’re going to endure a scoring slump. And even more inevitably, there’s going to be a day when they wake up and won’t be able to play at the NHL level anymore. It has happened to every player who has ever played the game. Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild has never been driven by fear, but he can see a day when that motivates him. Parise is just 30 and entering what should be a productive time in his career, but he’s already passed his prime, too.

Two years ago, he and defenseman Ryan Suter were the two most sought-after free agents on the market, and each signed identical 12-year contracts with the Minnesota Wild carrying $7.5-million cap hits. Parise’s salary will be just $1 million in the last two years of the deal, but if Parise retires, the Wild will be on the hook for the cap recapture penalty. Parise doesn’t plan on retiring before the contract expires in 2025, and when he thinks about having to continue being worth such a commitment, that’s when he gets concerned.

“With the contracts we signed, I’m going to be 40 and I’m going to have a $7.5-million cap hit and I get that,” Parise said. “There’s going to be a time when I’m going to have to justify that salary cap hit. It’s not as much of a fear as it is a motivation to make sure I’m still sharp and in shape and ready to keep playing.”

On a conscious level, having trepidation over getting older isn’t terribly rational. It happens to everyone. The fear isn’t in getting older. It goes back to that perfectionist trait in many athletes. There are a couple things that bring on fear in an NHL player. The first is that he won’t be able to perform at the level he expects of himself. The second is that so much of his identity is tied up in his profession that the thought of not being part of the routine anymore can be traumatic. If you ask most retired players what they miss most about being a player, they’ll say they pine for the competition and the rewards that go with it, but for the most part it’s not the money and adulation they find lacking in their lives. And they certainly don’t miss the off-season preparation it takes to play in the best league in the world. What they miss most is going to the rink and simply being with their teammates.

“They associate their identity with being an elite athlete and all that’s going to change,” Dennis said. “That’s really problematic, and those thoughts toward the end of a career definitely have an impact on your play. They feel the fear of failure on the ice even more so as a result of what’s threatening them off the ice with their identity and friendships and community.”

That can be exacerbated if the player doesn’t retire on his own terms. Concussions and eye problems forced Pronger out of the game, even though he’s still listed as an active player with the Philadelphia Flyers for salary cap purposes. In Pronger’s case, then-Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski accidentally hit him in the eye with his stick in October 2011. Pronger took two weeks off to recover, then came back and his symptoms got worse. He continued to tell himself little lies and make excuses to justify the way he was feeling. He told himself it was because he’d been off the ice for two weeks and got out of shape. Pronger really got worried when he began putting himself into vulnerable situations on the ice. When you play the game with the edge Pronger has over the years, it’s instinct to protect yourself at all times. He knew how to exploit a player whose back was to the play or who had entered the corner in a vulnerable position. Now he was doing the same thing, and it bothered him.

“A couple of times it’s just a wakeup call like, ‘Man, I didn’t even see that guy,’ ” he said. “You’re setting yourself up to get murdered.”

It was then that Pronger really felt something was terribly wrong. Until that point in his career, things had always improved after he took time off to recover from an injury. But this was getting worse. It speaks to Pronger’s skill level that even skating in a cloud, he played five games and managed five assists, including two Nov. 19 against Winnipeg in the last game he played. But for Pronger, it turned out that was only the beginning of his fear, which had shifted from not having a hockey career to the prospect of something that could have much more dire consequences.

“You’ve got all these football players who are killing themselves, and this was the time of the CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy that results from head trauma) craze,” Pronger said. “Then you’re fearful because you’re thinking, ‘Oh my god, what have I done? What’s going on here?’”

There are few who watch the game as fans who can relate or even have much sympathy for NHL players. From the outside, they’re part of a group of people that won a genetic lottery that makes them bigger, stronger, more talented and more determined than the vast majority of people. And they get paid millions to play a game that many of them think they’d play for a fraction of the money. Those people are the ones who often don’t realize all the sacrifices a player makes to be where he is, how difficult it was at times, and what that player had to endure to become the best in the world at what he does.

And they probably don’t think a player should have any fears. But back to Ferraro. Think about what it’s like to spend 18 years of your life being worried about your place in your profession. And this was a guy who scored 108 goals in his last year of junior. There were always questions about whether he was big enough, strong enough or could get around the ice well enough to play in the NHL. When he was picked to play for Canada in the 1992 World Championship, he was coming off a 40-goal season with the New York Islanders, but he looked at the roster and never felt as though he belonged.

“Honestly, the only regret I have is that I wish I had enjoyed my time in the NHL a little more,” Ferraro said. “I wish I could have felt comfortable and been able to look at the big picture like I do now. But I didn’t.”


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