Okay, I’m kidding. Sort of. Maybe they don’t need a mom exactly, but some of the Canadiens’ young players do need someone who makes sure they’re okay, that they’re eating right and getting enough sleep and taking their vitamins. You’re probably rolling your eyes at that, and wondering how anyone can think pampered athletes…millionaires…need looking after. They’re grown-ups after all, right? Well, of course that’s right…to an extent.
They may be legally adults, but when you consider the lives some of the players in the Canadiens’ system have lived up until they make the big team, it’s easy to see how the basic lessons most of us take for granted may have passed them by. Take Carey Price for example.
There’s no doubt he’s got pro talent and the on-ice skills to succeed in the NHL. Looking at his track record, it’s easy to see how he’s proven his abilities at every level. But his impressive resume sometimes clouds the fact that he’s twenty-one years old and he lived with his parents until he moved away to play junior hockey at sixteen. In junior, he lived with his "second family," the billet who looked after his basic needs the same as his parents had done until then. He graduated to the Hamilton Bulldogs only long enough for a playoff run, dividing his time between living in a hotel and travelling with the team. Next thing you know, he’s twenty, living in an apartment in Montreal, really on his own for the first time in his life.
It seems to have been a rough transition in some ways. He had a couple of bad games and broke down in tears in the dressing room, which might have been the natural result of a competitive nature frustrated by losing. Or possibly it was a reaction to a sense of isolation away from the rink. Then there’s the weight issue. He, like most 20-year-old guys, didn’t cook, so he ended up eating out or having processed meals at home. By the time the playoffs rolled around, he was rolling too, up thirty pounds over his proper playing weight.
NHL teams sink a whole lot of money into their top prospects, and there can’t be a more highly-ranked prospect than Price. Teams pay them well, make sure they’ve got the best coaching, best equipment and best medical care available. They train the kids every summer, teaching them how to be better on the ice and how to conduct themselves with the public and the media. So it seems shocking to me that teams don’t do more to ease the transition from the safe cocoon of junior hockey to the harsh reality of the pros. Especially when you’re talking about a player with as much riding on him as Carey Price has. After the team’s elimination from the playoffs last year, he talked about feeling fatigued and the coaches told him to lose some weight. It’s too bad they didn’t supply him with a nutritionist or even a meal-delivery plan to help him avoid the poor eating in the first place. Considering the huge investment they’ve made in Price, it seems a small expense, especially when you consider that it might have helped save the team from early elimination in the playoffs. As the old rhyme goes, for the want of a nail…the kingdom was lost.
Some players are luckier. Sergei Kostitsyn had brother Andrei already with the team with whom he could live and from whom he could learn the ropes. Others ease into the real world, learning how to live while staying on their own in the college system… as most of the rest of us did as well.
But since most players graduate from junior straight to the pros, you have to wonder how throwing a bunch of guys in their teens and early twenties into apartments in Hamilton affects their development on the ice. If they’re spending a lot of time dealing with the basics of paying bills, cooking, cleaning, shopping and just coping with day-to-day problems for the first time, how much is that taking away from their concentration on the game? Add to that the issues of adapting to a new culture and language in the case of players from outside North America, and you’d have to think it must have an effect.
I’m not saying they shouldn’t have to deal with these things. Of course, everybody does. It’s part of growing up. But if the big team made it its business to help players cope with those facts of life, even just in providing a coordinator whose role is to check and make sure they’re comfortable at home, they’re eating right and they have someone to talk to when they need it, it might help make the transition to professional hockey a little easier. And that might help with their on-ice development as well.
After all, isn’t that what everyone wants? To see young players adapt and develop for the NHL as quickly as possible? The Pittsburgh Penguins sent Sidney Crosby to live with Mario Lemieux (where he’s still staying, by the way) to make sure the young man would have nothing but hockey to worry about. The Canadiens probably won’t go that far…sending PK Subban and Max Pacioretty to live with George Gillett…but considering the large number of young players working their way toward the pros in the organization, taking care of them off-ice should maybe become more of a priority.
Because really, when you compare these guys to their counterparts in the real world, you have to wonder what company would put its biggest contracts into the hands of a 20-year-old frat boy without making darn sure he’s committed to the straight-and-narrow first? Not many.