One way or another, it always ends. Whether that be from aging out, an injury or just the loss of drive to play, playing junior hockey ends for everyone. I apologize to you, the reader, in advance for the somber tone this article will surely carry but it is important to recognize meaningful events in life, including their sequential order from start to finish.
Junior hockey, for those of us fortunate enough to have had the ability to participate in this lifestyle, usually comes to an abrupt end. Speaking from my experience, my junior hockey career ended in overtime to the Soo Thunderbirds during our playoff series in 2014. The Thunderbirds were the third ranked team in all of Canada and my team did our best to send the game to overtime. I still remember how it happened, too. Face-off win to the opposing defenseman, who shoveled the puck over to his partner on my right side, traffic in front, the puck looked like it was going to go right into my chest but at the last minute the Thunderbirds' net-front player tipped it, sending the puck into the top left corner. Just like that, it was over. I am not sure I will ever forget just how it ended and my reactions afterwards, crying with my teammates, my coaches and my family. For many of you reading this, this experience is all too familiar. The heartbreak, the tears and the longing to repeat the whole journey all come crashing down when the journey finally comes to an end.
Regardless of the way in which it ends, for those who relished the grind, it can certainly be a tough time. I know it was for me. Ever since I dedicated my entire life toward the pursuit of the dream of playing NCAA college hockey, I fell in love with the entirety of the junior hockey world, despite me not having much reason to do so. The long bus rides, the hotel shenanigans, the struggle of gutting out a road win and the ecstasy of winning a close one at home all become too real when the journey ends. They are the emotions that we like to tamp down and easily forget until that one moment where the floodgates open and you are left to truly miss them. The glory days become just that and the time between your junior years finishing and college career beginning is a grey space filled with apprehension and the desire to lace them up with the boys just one more time.
Although the conclusion of a junior hockey career can be a sad affair, it by no means has to be and, for many, it signals a rite of passage into the college hockey ranks because a select few are fortunate enough to continue on with their desire for high-level play at a collegiate level. When reaching the end of the road it is important to take a long look back behind you and savor the experience. Junior hockey is something only a very small few will ever get to experience. Not many people are able to go into a group of completely unknown individuals and create a common bond, becoming family by the end of a long and arduous season. Junior hockey is a place for growth and that is important to recognize as well, because whether your junior hockey career spanned one season or five, everyone who has entered the grind has grown in one way or another. It also becomes important to acknowledge the people who helped get you to the end. Whether that be your parents who sacrificed time and money for you, a coach who believed in you or pushed you to be your best, or simply your friends and teammates who picked you up when you needed them most, everyone has someone to thank and be fortunate for. The end of a junior hockey career is also a time for realization, where you come to the point in which you can see how all your experiences in the sport, both good and bad, have changed you as a whole. Junior hockey instills players with work ethic and a personal drive to be the best they can be. It also illustrates the need for tenacity within life and teaches the ability to not only perform under pressure, but to grow and thrive as a result of being pushed to your limits.
For those lucky enough to graduate from juniors to the college level, it becomes important to never forget where you came from. Junior hockey prepared you for the grind of early/late practices with coaches screaming at you to do your best. It prepared you for an intense workload but has also prepared you to make new friends and succeed under pressurized conditions with a school's reputation at stake. College hockey is a whole new grind in and of itself but it is very reminiscent of juniors. There are still the parties, the memories, the teammates, the good times and the bad. There's still the flow drills and the after practice shootout competitions juxtaposed against having to go to class and become a productive member of the "real world."" When it comes down to it, college hockey is just junior hockey with a more regimented schedule, more expectations and at a much faster pace.
We all come to the end of chapters in our lives and the end of our junior hockey careers is no different. In the finality, we are all swarmed with sad thoughts and melancholy feelings which sometimes cloud the entire achievement of our career. In this instance, it is critically important, however, to not get swept up in the emotions of seasons past. Look back on the progress you have made as both a player and an individual and realize that there are simply other journeys with which we must all embark upon.