Early in his time in the NHL, Darnell Nurse says he did not notice a lot of players talking about what to do after hockey. Going into his ninth season, the chatter is now normal.
“People are curious as to what there is outside the game and what you can do to prepare yourself,” Nurse said.
Plenty of players have taken it upon themselves to prepare for the future, like Zdeno Chara getting his real estate license and others finishing college degrees or exploring business opportunities. The NHL Players' Association on Thursday launched a program that gives its members the chance to do a personality analysis and delve into real estate, business or other avenues while still in the league.
The hope is to help them develop interests outside of hockey while playing and ease the transition to life afterward.
“It's something that’s been missing a little bit,” veteran center Lars Eller told The Associated Press. "It’s kind of well known that one of the struggles for a professional athlete is the transition on to the next thing once he’s done with his professional career. And this platform helps you with that transition, and it’s something you can start even while you’re still playing so you can sort of hit the ground running once you’re done.”
New union boss Marty Walsh made helping former players one of his top priorities. His arrival in March coincided with a process two years in the making, after player feedback indicated the desire for more assistance outside of hockey.
The result is the NHLPA UNLMT program. Retired defenseman-turned-psychologist Jay Harrison is available to do an assessment, and players can get involved with companies ranging from Money Management International to The Second City comedy and improv theater and institutions like the University of Florida and Stanford’s graduate school of business.
Former goaltender Rob Zepp, who's spearheading the program as the union's director of strategic initiatives, said an extensive survey provided the building blocks for something that was designed to be 1-on-1 and customized for players to figure out what might interest them.
“What we’ve seen so far it really runs the gamut: anything from enhancing one’s personal brand to starting a podcast to taking these certificate-level courses in real estate, in entrepreneurship, in business, in leadership, communication skills, networking skills,” Zepp said. “We have players that are interested in or are currently pursuing commercial real estate avenues or farming ventures or construction."
Eller, Nurse and Buffalo captain Kyle Okposo are among the players who have tried UNLMT so far. Okposo has already graduated from Stanford's business leadership program, while Eller has spoken with Harrison and taken some of the courses offered.
“They’re not waiting until people’s careers are over,” said Nurse, who is still in his prime at 28. “It’s something that you can dip your feet into and grab a hold of while you’re still playing and giving you resources and opportunities to kind of figure out what you want to do."
Zepp got a degree from the University of Waterloo and an MBA from the University of Liverpool the old-school way — tapes and textbooks sent by mail and tests taken in front of a proctor — while playing mostly in the minors and Europe before before 10 games with Philadelphia in 2014-15. He felt like having something to study made him a better goalie and understood there was plenty of idle time on the road.
Eller, who is a silent partner involved with helping start-up businesses, thinks the same way.
“We, as players, we have — not a lot of freedom once the season is starting — but we do have a lot of free time,” said Eller, who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for Washington in 2018 and is a pending free agent at 34. “It’s a huge positive if you have something else that you can take your mind off of hockey and do something productive with that time."
Walsh got to know several Bruins alumni when he was mayor of Boston and has since talked to other former players and come away with a mandate to protect guys beyond their time on the ice.
“When they played, they gave it their all, and a lot of them didn’t really have anything after that,” Walsh said. “They didn’t make big contracts. They really didn’t have a strong pension system. A lot of them, even going back further than that, lost stuff. We can’t let that happen again.”