In the land of the chip and chasers, time plays tricks on you. One moment you’re in the spotlight of 20,000 inebriated fans and the next you’re a fading fragment of hockey’s enduring history. Careers come and go like warm weather in Quebec and after it all ends, legends turn back into normal people. The game demands a lot of its players. It demands them to sacrifice their bodies, give their maximum effort, and forfeit all other focuses. But is it fair of the sport to also demand their futures?
Much ado has been made in the last decade, and rightly so, about player safety. The goal of both the league and the players’ union has been to make the game safer, in order to preserve players’ futures. But what hasn’t been talked about enough is education, specifically the fact that education is often forgone in order to take a shot at the pros. This leaves former players with few meaningful options following their careers and potential financial hardships. This situation results from the majority of pro-caliber prospects playing in major junior leagues (such as the Ontario Hockey League or Western Hockey League) instead of at colleges or universities en route to the National Hockey League (NHL). Although there is an educational program in place in all the major junior leagues, recent reports have shown that only about 20 per cent of players get a college-level degree from this program, as compared to 88 per cent for college hockey athletes.
This is not an issue pertinent to the stars, who make millions over lengthy careers, but rather to the multitude of players who either don’t last long in the league or who don’t make it at all. Of all the players at the highest amateur level, junior or college, only 4.7 per cent of them will make it to the pros. But for the lucky ones that do make it, chances are they won’t be playing there for long. The average NHL career lasts only 239 games, and more than 50 per cent of player’s careers are finished before they turn 30. One player who stands as the model counterexample to this problem is McGill graduate and former Montreal Canadien Mathieu Darche.
Darche played four years for the McGill Redmen, amassing 130 points in 90 total games. His senior season he scored 27 goals and had 35 assists in only 26 games. He graduated in 2000 with a degree in international business. In an interview with The Daily, Darche discussed his time at McGill and the issue of education in hockey.
“For sure I enjoyed [my time with the Redmen],” Darche said. “I spent four years with the same group of guys, we all started in first year together. It wasn’t a competition; people weren’t pushing for a contract or fighting for their careers.” Darche is thankful for his time at McGill, saying, “Most of my closest friends are guys who went to McGill and it’s where I met my wife. I worked hard, but definitely had fun.”
Following the completion of his degree, Darche was signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets as an undrafted free agent. He spent twelve years between the American Hockey League (AHL, the professional league directly below the NHL) and the NHL, including three years with the Montreal Canadiens from 2009 to 2012. Darche retired from pro hockey last February.
“I have no regrets about my career. Through it all, it was great,” Darche explained. “Coming from the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport league), which is not a common route, I had to work my way up. I always dreamed [of] play[ing] pro, but never thought it would actually happen. I idolized the Canadiens growing up, so it was great to be able to play for them. The highlight of my career was playing for the Canadiens in those final three years.”
Darche was correct in his assertion that coming from the CIS is not a common route. This past year in the NHL, less than 30 per cent of all players had come from college hockey programs. The majority came straight from the junior leagues with nothing more than a high school diploma.
When asked if he would advise kids today to take the university/college route instead of playing major junior, Darche said: “Without a doubt. Of those who do [make it], what percentage will actually make enough for the rest of their lives?”
“After high school [major] junior hockey was never an option for me. I never considered not getting a university degree,” said Darche. “The way I saw it was that you go through school because you probably will end up using your degree more than your hockey skills. I was one of the few who made it to the pros, played 12 years and I’ll still end up using my education more than I will my hockey skills.”
Having spent more than 500 career games in the AHL and only half that amount in the NHL, Darche even attributes part of his eventual success in hockey to his education.
“I spent a long time in the minors, too long in my opinion,” he joked. “I felt more secure [having earned a degree]. It was the way I was able to grind it in the minors all those years,” Darche added. “I knew I had options after. I could pursue my dream and ha[ve] something to fall back on. It gave me the opportunity to push longer, and hang on, and eventually make it.”
Hockey is isolated, to an extent, in its lack of college-educated players. The National Football League almost exclusively drafts players out of college. The National Basketball Association (NBA) primarily draws its talent from college as well. Only 19.3 per cent of current NBA players did not come from a college team, with many of these players coming from non-American leagues. In baseball, players are either drafted from college or straight from high school; they have the choice to pursue higher education in their road to the pros. Aspiring pro-hockey players often don’t have that same choice, as it is far more likely to make it out of junior leagues than from the college level.
“It would be much better if the NHL could be more like basketball and football, where education is the route to the pros,” Darche argued. “But I don’t know how we get there. It’s going to take a long time to change.”
This past summer, just months after his retirement, Darche began putting his McGill degree in international business to use. He was hired by Delmar International Inc., a large firm involved in freight shipping and customs brokerage, as director of business development and public relations.
“Business was always something I looked at [for after my career], how and when I didn’t know.” Darche said. “You prepare for your post-career [life] but live in denial almost. You decide you should plan, but don’t end up really doing it, ‘cause you never want it to be over. But I’m really enjoying where I am now.”
Few others can match Darche’s achievements. He had a long and successful pro-hockey career despite coming from CIS hockey and now has a promising business career because of his university degree. But why does this story have to be a rarity? If education were intertwined with the path to the pros, it could be different. The likelihood of making it to the NHL wouldn’t be changed and career length would still be short. But there could be fewer players who leave the game with limited options, fewer players whose lives are only centred on that brief moment of fame and more players like Mathieu Darche.