He was 36 that June when he decided he needed a break from defending a hockey net. He’d seen enough pucks go by him, felt too many of the ones that didn’t. His face was scarred, his body bruised. He was tired of the travel. He told his team’s general manager that he wanted to spend more time with his family.
No, not Boston goaltender Tim Thomas, though he did decide much the same thing in the last few days. This was Jacques Plante, in 1965, a New York Ranger by that point. Here’s The New York Times, the day after Plante gave Rangers’ GM Emile Francis the news:
Throughout his career, Plante has suffered real and imagined injuries. He had asthma attacks, many of them in Toronto (he insisted he was allergic to the city) that he freely admitted were psychosomatic. Last season, he was hobbled with leg injuries. He recently underwent surgery on his right knee in New York.
Said a Rangers spokesman: “Jacques is a funny guy. He could turn around and change his mind. Emile hopes he does.”
He did, eventually, though when Plante went back to the NHL it was with St. Louis, making his return in the fall of 1968 to share the Blues’ net with Glenn Hall. It was 1975 before he retired again, for good, from the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers. “After a long and serious study of my personal position as a player,” he said, “I decided that I wanted to retire while I was still on top. ”
Thomas isn’t saying he’s retiring. After a tumultuous season that included a famous snub of U.S. President Barack Obama’s White House, Thomas took to Facebook last week to announce that he’ll be taking a year off:
From the earliest age I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a hockey player. I’ve been blessed in my life to not only be able to live that dream, but to achieve more than I ever thought possible.
The singleminded focus that is necessary to accomplish a dream of this magnitude entails (by necessity) sacrifice in other areas and relationships in life.
At the age of 38, I believe it is time to put my time and energies into those areas and relationships that I have neglected. That is why at this time I feel the most important thing I can do in my life is to reconnect with the three F’s.
Friends, Family, and Faith.
This is what I plan on doing over the course of the next year.
There followed a plug for a high-performance fitness program that, I guess, Thomas is invested in/backing/helping out in his newfound spare time, before the sign-off:
What does this portend for the future?
We’ll see…. God’s will be done.
Okay, then. Hard to argue with that. And yet , of course, many were those who demanded their say.
In the media, the reviews have been mixed. Thomas has been cheered for doing what’s right for him (Damien Cox in The Toronto Star) but also blasted. His decision to walk away has been deemed bizarre (Stephen Harris in The Boston Herald) not to mention ridiculous and nasty and a real kick in the slats for Boston GM Peter Chiarelli and the Bruins in general (David Shoalts in The Globe and Mail). Good for him, said ESPN Boston’s Joe McDonald — unless he was trying to force the Bruins to trade him and/or punish the team, in which case … shame.
Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil was 28 in September of 1954 when he walked away from the Montreal Canadiens. “I just figured I had had enough and decided to stay home with the family,” he said. “Hockey had to come to an end for me sometime and I thought I might as well get out while I had my health.” He did come back after a year off, though not to the NHL.
Terry O’Reilly cited his family when he quit as coach of the Boston Bruins in May of 1989. “To do your best at this job takes total commitment,” he said. “I recognize that and I have to say, ‘Not right now.’ In the next few years, my boys will go from 6 and 9 to 16 and 19 and those are years I’d like to have more control over.” (He returned to the NHL as an assistant coach with the New York Rangers in 2002.)
O’Reilly’s boss at the time was Harry Sinden. In 1970, at the age of 37, he’d coached the Bruins to their Stanley Cup win. Four days after the victory, the news broke that Sinden was walking away.
He said it wasn’t about money. He did mention his desire to spend more time etcetera, etcetera. But really, the truth? He’d been offered a great opportunity to leave Bobby Orr and company behind to move to Rochester, to work for Stirling Homex Corp. Maybe it was hard for people to understand, but the job he’d be doing presented “exciting new challenges in mass residential construction,” Sinden said, and what really could anyone say to that, because if there’s one thing hockey doesn’t offer and never has, it’s mass residential excitement.
Had he been blackmailed, maybe knocked on the head? People wondered. Reporters trekked up to Rochester to write stories about how awfully he was missing hockey, what it felt like to feel your own heart withering away in your chest. Except that’s not what Sinden told them. He was fine. Real life was actually pretty great.
It was a few months before he revealed all in Sports Illustrated: in the middle of the season, on the way to the Cup, Bruins’ GM Milt Schmidt had turned down his request for a raise of $8,000 for the season upcoming. (Schmidt offered $3,000.)
Modular homes didn’t keep Sinden for long, of course: after turning down offers to coach the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs, he returned to the bench in 1972 to lead Canada against the Soviet Union in the Summit Series. And when that was all over, he was back to the Bruins, signing on to replace Milt Schmidt as general manager.
Tomorrow night, if the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup, there’s a good chance that Darryl Sutter will be hoisted up on the shoulders of the players he’s been coaching since the middle of December. As tradition dictates, he will then be passed to the fans and celebrities who will trundle him overhead until he has travelled throughout the Staples Centre, allowing everybody in the place the chance to touch the hem of his suit-jacket.
There will be time, then, to recall June of 1995, when Sutter quit as coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, the only team he ever skated for as a player. “My responsibility is as a father, first and foremost,” he said at that time. Would he ever return as a coach? People wondered. Maybe, he said, possibly so — but it wouldn’t be anywhere other than Chicago. “Once you have that crest tattooed on your butt,” he said, “you’ll never get it off.”