When my daughter took her first steps nearly three years ago, waddling forward toward the irresistible glow of the television, I was in a pub in Minneapolis, drawing player names out of a glass mug for an overtime hockey pool with about a dozen other writers. Five bucks a person, winner take all. Standard hockey-writer stuff when a game on TV goes into overtime.
My wife texted me the video, and my heart soared and sank at the same time. I showed it to another writer, then another, and the drinking and gambling quickly gave way to a bunch of dads lamenting all the moments in their kids lives that they missed while on the road. It was like a scene in an action flick in which a couple compares scars. Missed recitals, missed first words, missed graduations. Everyone had a tale of woe. But, hey, I got a couple of free beers out of it.
After all, sportswriters are sentimental and sappy by nature. We’re suckers for a good sob story.
Professional athletes? Not so much. Over the past several seasons, the Blackhawks have evolved from a bunch of kids to a bunch of men with kids. But Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook don’t sit around the dressing room regaling each other with stories of their little boys, pulling out their phones and showing pictures. Andrew Desjardins and Duncan Keith aren’t sharing daddy war stories. Marian Hossa doesn’t wax poetically about how much he misses his two little girls when a lengthy road trip starts dragging.
“We don’t talk about it much,” said Hjalmarsson, whose son, Theo, is almost 2, and usually can be spotted whacking a ball around the bowels of the United Center with a hockey stick before games. “When we’re on the road, we just hang out within the group, and there’s a lot of other stuff you can talk about. We don’t talk that much about the kids.”
Manly men don’t do that, I suppose.
But it’s hard on these guys all the same.
“When my daughters were born, obviously they became the No. 1 thing on my list,” said Hossa, who has two daughters, 4 and 2. “It was always hockey, hockey, hockey. And now the priorities change. The last four years, it’s definitely gotten tougher to leave them. They don’t understand. They ask me why I’m going, especially the older one. That’s the toughest part.”
Yeah, that’s where it gets you. Nobody knows how to twist a knife like a preschooler. It’s something athletes and sportswriters, pilots and flight attendants, consultants and politicians know all too well. You’ve had your hugs, you’ve said your good-byes, and you’re just about to walk out the door for a multi-city road trip, when all of a sudden you hear your kid quietly asking, “Why do you have to go?”
It’s a first-world problem, to be sure. I absolutely love my job, and have wanted this exact gig — a traveling hockey writer — since I was about 14. The same goes for professional athletes, and their multi-million-dollar salaries are surely a nice bit of consolation. But when holed up in a hotel in some far-flung place like Edmonton or Fort Lauderdale, trying to FaceTime or Skype with a semi-interested toddler through sketchy WiFi, even the most macho of athletes gets homesick.
“I’ll try to talk to Carter, but he’ll get on the phone every once in a while, say hi, then go back to playing his games or doing his thing,” Seabrook said of his 2-year-old son (he also has a 6-month-old daughter). “It’s awesome, it’s cool, and with the technology these days, it’s easier to stay in touch with them. But there are definitely things you miss. With Carter, I missed when he first crawled and took his first step, and maybe said his first word. Kenzie, she’s 6 months now, so she’s going to start hitting all those milestones and doing all that kind of stuff. It’s going to be tough to miss out on some of those things.”
But there’s a bright side to their weird job, too. Despite being on the road 100-plus nights a year, the Hawks get plenty of off days. They rarely practice between games, and even when they do, they’re home by 1 or 2 p.m. And while the Hawks keep giving themselves awfully short summers with their annual deep postseason runs, those summers are precious — even if they only last a few weeks before training for the next season ramps up.
“If you look at the whole year, I think we get to spend more time with our kids than most people who have regular jobs, because we’ve got the whole summer,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s pretty intense during the season but you can have a really, really great summer. It kind of evens out throughout the whole year.”
No professional athlete expects anyone to feel sorry for them. No sportswriter should, either. A dream job is a dream job, and an understanding family can help ease a lot of the guilt you invariably feel when you’re away. As Hjalmarsson pointed out, you sleep a lot better on the road in a quiet hotel room than at home with little kids running around. Giddy and glorious, but guilty. It’s a familiar feeling for road warriors, both sappy and stoic.
“I’m sure it’s happened to all professional athletes, and all people who travel,” Hossa said. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice those things. For me, it’s getting harder as you get older and the kids are growing. But, you know, it’s just part of the job.”