Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Blog blast past: Stef-fing out; a NHL prospect walks away, quite possibly for real

Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Stefan Legein, who quit hockey at age 19 three months ago, is returning to the game,
( (via Loose Pucks). Strangely enough, the Sean Avery-style agitator's return his hitting the same news at the same time Avery is in the headlines. Here's our post from Aug. 20, and one wishes him all the best now that he's chosen to come back.

Everyone's going to have a theory about what would possess Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Stefan Legein to apparently quit hockey at the ripe old age of 19.

Breaking out the jump-to-conclusions mat -- maybe he's going to sign in the KHL, maybe he doesn't want to play for the Blue Jackets -- is a normal reaction to news that's too much for your usually shockproof B.S. detector. There is no room, none at all, in Canada's hockey consciousness that allows one to easily digest the news that Legein might drop out of hockey. Just read the comments at TSN's website, where the player's father has denied the story).

It would not be a a shock if (emphasis on if) this was borne from Legein having some sort of personal crisis, the kind of thing that, pre-political correctness, was called a nervous breakdown. This could be 100% off-base, but since theories are like fingers (everyone's got 10 of them), what the hell. Depression is a prevalent enough illness, but the wider society, let alone the emotionally stunted sports word, has a hard enough time understanding the condition that's it worth using the Legein story as a jumping-off point. By no means is this the case here.

Speaking from experience, a common trap depressives can fall into is being unable to avoid emotional reactions to everyday situations. It's easy to see a scenario where a young person, unable to work through it, told people close to him that he was quitting the one activity that he had come to be identified through. It serves three purposes. It's a way to punish yourself through self-denial, lay a guilt trip on loved ones and put off working your way through that which you must work through.

Only a true believer would expect hockey fans to not look at Stefan Legein as someone who's throwing away a shot at every Canadian boy's dream of playing in the NHL. No one, though, has any right to ridicule or scorn. No one has to make a cause-of-the-week out of him either, but at the very least you should try to understand it from the player and human being's point of view, just this once.

The Canadian junior hockey system is not famous for being sympathetic to teenagers, let alone sensitive types who might bruise easily. Players are drafted at 16 and are forced to develop a keen survival instinct in a hurry, because they have no rights, none at all, except to ask for a trade (and then they get branded as a "brat" or a "hot dog"). There are probably a few players who develop thick skin to the exclusion of an actual maturation within.

In this context, the self-portrait Legein offered for in the lead-up to last season's World Juniors is kind of chilling:
" 'You have to hate everyone out there,' Legein confirmed. 'They hate you and they're trying to hit you and hurt you and they're trying to beat you so you have to have that same hate back.

" 'I have no friends on the ice. Once the game's over, sure everything's fine but once we're on the ice there are no friends.' " -- Dec. 7, 2007
In hindsight, you could read between the lines that Legein was trying to tell the adults who control his hockey destiny what they wanted to hear. It's ironic that he said he emulated Sean Avery, the NHL's premier agitator. Avery is at least as famous for the lengths he goes to to show the world how much he's bored by playing hockey as he is for playing hockey. (Others have pointed out this could be a prank, and considering the previously noted Avery/Andy Kaufman comparisons, it's not impossible.)

Avery's off-ice notoriety, the Vogue internship, all that, could be how Avery handles his ambivalence toward playing a game -- that's also happened to make him wealthy and a much more eligible bachelor than he would have been otherwise. (It's kind of hard to imagine Elisha Cuthbert would have ever shown up on a red carpet escorted by a guy who teaches Grade 9 math in Ajax.)

Of course, the fear when you try to act like someone else is that's what you'll end up becoming -- someone else. That's contributed to a crisis for more than one athlete in a violent collision sport such as hockey or football.

There are obviously other scenarios that could be at work.

(This might have nothing to do it, but ShysterBall has linked to a Pat Jordan Sports Illustrated profile of Bo Belinsky, who was kind of a Sean Avery of his generation. One quote from Belinsky that's kind of haunting: "I could never give up enough of myself for success." Does that not sound like, as Duane notes, clinical anxiety?)

It's bad enough to have already violated Legein's privacy by wondering if his mental state might have influenced his reported decision to walk away from hockey. It's not even out of the realm of possibility that taking time away from the sport is part of making a commitment to trying to become a NHL player. He probably never had And yes, perhaps something scandalous or prurient that will come out in a matter of days. Last, but not least, someone will connect the dots between Legein and 16-year-old Western Hockey League prospect Brandon Regier also retiring and argue that Canada's hockey system offers as quick a road to early burnout as it does to the NHL.

Sports fans don't always accept that players who have a chance to realize what you always dreamed of doing don't necessarily embrace that dream. It would be easier for us to understand if Legein had physical problems that made it too risky for him to keep playing high-level hockey, like the heart condition that forced the University of Denver hockey player David Carle to give up the game this spring. When it's something like depression, which is a very common condition, there's absolutely no understanding and that's just plain wrong.

That's not to say this is what's afoot with Stefan Legein. If not him, though, then it will be for some other promising athlete soon enough.

(Other, better hockey sites have noted that Daniel Ryder walked away from the Flames last season and he's back this season.)


Duane Rollins said...

As long as we are irresponsibly speculating.

My other half treats a lot of high level junior athletes (she's a psychologist for those that don't know) and although depression isn't unheard of, clinical anxiety is a far more common and equally disabling disorder in young athletes. The nice thing is that they are very treatable.

But we clearly don't know what's up with this kid. So we shouldn't speculate and we should realize, as Neate implies, that it's his damn life not ours.

All that said, I suspect he'll play hockey again once he realizes that it's a better lifestyle than, say, teaching grade 9 math in Ajax.

sager said...

There's no implying about it -- it is his damn life.

I'd liken to this to when Robin Yount, as 22 years old, quit baseball briefly to become a professional golfer ... sometimes a breakthrough begins in a mask of failure, does it not?

Andrew Bucholtz said...

I think the hockey system in Canada probably causes a lot of burnout. Just think of all the pressure that's put on kids from at least 9 or 10, and then plenty of them have to move away to play junior, which in itself would be a difficult adjustment, but is made even harder by the demands of junior hockey. There's probably quite a few kids who burn out but are never heard from, because they aren't NHL prospects.

sager said...

Again, who knows. There are so many theories. One point that should be developed is a lot of young athletes, around 18-19-20 years old, must feel like they need to be able to prove they chose this path, that they weren't pushed into by their parents from an early age and have known nothing else.