Love doesn't live here anymore

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:53 AM ET

Home. For many of us it suggests a warm, fuzzy place in our memories if not our actual lives.

To many who make their livelihood in athletics, however, it is wherever they're hanging the team hat. The schedule may suggest the Blue Jays, or Calgary Flames have "home" games but, to be honest, for many professional athletes "home" is just a place where the chef is better looking, someone else is in charge of packing the suitcase and the kid looking up at you doesn't want an autograph.

"Unfortunately as you play it does consume your whole life. From a family standpoint, your wife takes a backseat," says former NHLer Glenn Healy, who spent 14 seasons on the NHL roller-coaster ride. "She cooks, she takes the kids to school, she packs up when you get traded. She arranges everything.

"All you do is play. That's it. You get traded. It's, 'Honey goodbye!' and you're on a plane, in the lineup that night. She does all the work. But, hey, some guys have to drive a truck 16 hours a day. How good can that be?"

Now director of player affairs of the NHL Players' Association, Healy beat the odds to become an elite athlete and now, still married after 18 years, he has avoided the train wreck that awaits the families of too many of yesterday's heroes.

Divorce. And retirement.

Inevitably one follows the other.

Love lost

"Anecdotal evidence we have says the divorce rate is in the high 60% for pro hockey and in the 80% range for the NFL," says Duncan Fletcher, director of the Professional Athletes Transitional Institute at Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut. It is backed up by a study in Professional Sports Wives Magazine which notes that a staggering 80% of pro athletes are divorced.

"No one provides resources on how these athletes can keep their families," says Gena-James Pitts, the magazine's publisher. Married to former NFL defensive lineman Mike Pitts for more than two decades, she launched the magazine to cater to the estimated half-million women who are married to current or former pro athletes.

"Most fans think ... that players, wives and families do not have any problems that non-public families face; which is not true. In fact, we face more physical, emotional, financial, divorce and stressful situations simultaneously that money cannot solve than most people face in a lifetime."

It can be a life of big money, big cars, big fame. It is matched by big pressure, big bills and big bust-ups. Big is not always better.

Diana McNab hasn't just studied the lifestyle, she has lived it. McNab has a masters degree in sports psychology and education and is a consultant for several professional organizations, ranging from the Dallas Stars to the pro rodeo circuit. A Toronto native, she spent eight seasons on our national ski team. At 21, she married former NHL player Peter McNab and became a partner in a 23-year journey that took them from Boston to Vancouver and New Jersey.

Bubble

"You live by the schedule," says McNab, also a contributing editor to Pitts' magazine. "You get caught up in the game and if you're competitive at all you enjoy it. You want him to win, there's nothing more fun than being in a Stanley Cup final. You're up 24 hours ... it's that exciting. We'd go out together. I loved kidding Gerry Cheevers. Such fun. You have a home. An instant family and you're in this bubble where the whole world seems to be watching you."

But bubbles pop.

"The highs are so high it's addictive but," McNab says, "it's like a cocaine addict because that makes the lows just so much more depressing."

She remembers what that could be like. "When they lost the Stanley Cup final, guys would disappear for three days and go drinking together. You didn't even know where they were. And it was acceptable. Everything was acceptable.

"I'd say 70% of our friends from our NHL days got divorced."

So, eventually did Diana and Peter. "We were great friends but we were living multiple lives. We didn't at the end even know each other. Peter was really cute. He said: 'You deserve to be in love with the kind of man you want to love and I'm not it.' "

Regardless of the sport, she says most elite athletes bring the game home with them. "A lot of them are great guys. You fall in love with the personal selves, you know what is in their soul, you know there is a good person in there. You're excited about their passion, their goal setting, and how much they love their lives. They live on the edge. They're so damn happy to be living their dream and we're in their bubble. So there's an adrenalin rush."

But just as quickly they get into a slump. They're getting traded -- maybe. Or, get benched. "So now they're pouting," McNab says. "And now it's game day so 'Shhh! Everybody be quiet. Daddy's got to have his nap.' You live on pins and needles."

So, who gets it right? "(Dallas Stars') Marty Turco and his wife, Kelly," McNab says. "We're friends and he has a great ability to turn it off. Three great kids. But she's Canadian, she understands hockey and they live in a bubble of functionality. In summer they go back to Sault Ste. Marie, live at their cottage. Stay grounded."

Sometimes relationships can't withstand the unceasing cacophony of celebrity. McNab spent six years married to Larry Mahan, a six-time world champion all-round cowboy.

"A lot of these guys have entourages. They can't be alone. They have to have people around. It's the only way they know how to work. So there's constant chaos and people. The intimacy lessens, there's no privacy. Larry has these ranches. He invites people there all the time. Before you know it, the wives are entertaining all the time -- fans, groupies, people she doesn't even know that are adoringly hanging off their husbands.

"It's unsettling after a while. You know he loves you and adores you. You're No. 1 but there are just too many people, too much stuff. It gets frustrating. It gets old." It got them divorced.

Most athletes and their families can keep it together as long as the career lasts. But, as the dream dies, problems can begin to mount.

"Think about it," says Eric Lindros, now slightly more than a year into his after-life. "For years everything has been structured around the game. Now, all of a sudden, what's next? You're probably 12 years behind in seniority or experience in business. But, you see guys jump into businesses without doing the homework on it and rarely does it work out. That adds stress to a relationship. What you're really good at is playing hockey."

Dynamics

"The dynamics at home change. The husband doesn't have the status he previously had," says Fletcher. "The money may not be coming in. It just isn't the lifestyle everyone thought they'd signed up for."

There is a future, but it seems empty, purposeless.

"We're like astronauts. After you've been to the moon what else is there?" Healy says.

"You wake up and suddenly it's what now? I knew I was at the tail end of my career but when it actually happens it's still overwhelming. You've only ever known one thing. You think, 'what can I do to match this love I've had?' "

Bob LaMonte is a former teacher and founder of Pro Sports Representatives Inc., which negotiates contracts for some of the biggest coaching names in football, including the NFL's Andy Reid, Steve Spagnuolo, John Gruden and college football's Charlie Weiss. But he is an agent with a difference. He doesn't plan his clients' finances so much as he plans their lives for them when the final whistle sounds on a career.

"Every athlete dies twice. It's the only profession in the world where that happens," says LaMonte. "Dying twice means you're told you can't do something you've been trained to do your whole life and you'll never be allowed to do it again ... and they've got 30, 40 years before they die naturally.

"The lights go off, it gets very dark, the taxes grow, the money's not there any more, if they're not managed they're in trouble. The wife becomes the source of all their anger because she's the only one there all the time.

While his current clientele consists of mostly football coaches, he negotiated deals with the Blue Jays for both Dave Stieb and Pat Hentgen. At the time, there was criticism from other sports agents because both could've got more as free agents.

But LaMonte was looking beyond the playing years. Part of Stieb's deal included a $10 million annuity that in 1995 began paying him $500,000 for the next 20 years. Hentgen had a similar deal that began paying him $500,000 in 2006. "It wasn't about money," LaMonte says, "it was about a career after sport."


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