- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. (AP) - At a young age, every elite hockey player develops obsessions.

An obsession to improve. To dominate. To win.

At some point, the elite obsess about playing in the NHL with the best of the best for as long as possible. Long practices, sweat-filled dressing rooms, painful and nagging injuries, and lost teeth await . but it’s worth it for those who reach the ultimate destination.

A lucky few will hoist the Stanley Cup, and many more will earn millions upon millions of dollars for their abilities.

In the end, though, every player will face the cold, hard truth that after 20, 30 or 35 years, it’s finally time to hang up the skates and move on.

Such was the case for Daniel Carcillo and Ben Eager, former Chicago Blackhawks who recently closed their careers.

“I needed to get off my ass or I was going to go crazy,” Carcillo said.

After moping around for a year, he did just that, and along with Eager he has found a purpose and a passion as a youth hockey coach and someone players can go to for help as they transition to a life in which 20,000 fans aren’t hanging on their every move.

Ben Eager last played for the Blackhawks after the team won the Stanley Cup in 2010. When his NHL career grinded to a halt in 2013-14, he decided to try his luck in the KHL.

“Russian training camp . was something I’d never seen before,” Eager said. “Five hours a day, five days a week. I always thought the (NFL) would be the craziest training camp ever until I went to Russia, and then I’m like, ‘I think I’d rather be in an NFL training camp .’

“It makes NHL training camp look like a yoga class.”

After Eager’s team bought out his contract midway through the season, he returned to the U.S. to play 26 games for the Chicago Wolves, and that was that.

As a new dad, Eager kept busy raising his daughter, but he eventually needed something more. When Carcillo asked if he wanted to work with him, Eager jumped at it. “I said yes right away. I’ll help you out with whatever you need,” he said.

Just like Eager, Carcillo was having serious issues moving on from the life of a pro hockey player — with much of the stress brought on by the death of friend and former teammate Steve Montador in February 2015, and then the death of his grandfather that summer.

“He was the closest person I had in this world, and my No. 1 fan,” Carcillo said of his grandfather. “That was really difficult.

“Coming back from (the funeral), I didn’t deal with it well. Packed a bag, went somewhere warm and got healthy.”

With a newfound focus, he reached out to Eager to see if he wanted to help him run Chapter 5 — a fledgling nonprofit foundation that encourages players dealing with depression or concussion issues to seek treatment before all else. And while Chapter 5 is Carcillo’s baby and a project that continues to develop, it is in coaching that he and Eager have found happiness and a reason to get up each day.

“I love working with kids — any age — and trying to guide them and teach them,” Carcillo said.

Transitioning from being a hockey player to a hockey coach isn’t as simple as it sounds. Carcillo and Eager felt immense pressure as they decided which players would make their 15-year-old Team Illinois squad.

“Everything that you never thought about as a player you think about as a coach,” said Carcillo, who retired after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2015.

The two former Hawks whittled 35-40 young athletes to 20, all the while determining which players had potential as skill guys, grinders and defensemen. They gave a preseason speech and made practice-specific drills — some of which they pulled from Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s repertoire — to put their system in place.

While there is plenty of politics in youth hockey, Carcillo and Eager dealt with little thanks to their NHL resumes.

Not that there weren’t some issues.

“One thing (some parents) had a problem with was effort,” Carcillo said. “Why aren’t my kids trying? Why aren’t you making them try? I was like, ‘C’mon. Are you serious?’?”

Carcillo sat down the parents and told them: “Our job is not to get Johnny to skate hard. Our job is to teach Johnny — as he skates hard — the systems and what’s going to help him win a game. . Yes we have to motivate, but it’s not to motivate to get an effort. It’s to get that extra effort.”

It was a difficult grind at first, mainly because these were kids who had played AA hockey the year before. Going to AAA is a quantum leap.

“These kids were stars scoring a ton of goals in AA and you get to AAA and you can’t even get a shot,” Eager said. “It was a mental thing and a work thing. .”

After getting kicked around in games for two or three months, Eager said, the players realized they had to work harder.

Carcillo and Eager also realized something: They would tell a player to do something and he might do it in practice, but it wouldn’t translate to games. At times, some players were adamant they were doing things the right way.

At that point, a light bulb went off for Carcillo, and he started filming practices and games. Suddenly, the kids saw what their coaches were talking about and victories followed.

“I’m proud of Ben and I’m proud of myself, to be honest with you, for what we did,” Carcillo said. “It just keeps getting more and more fun. We’re definitely doing it again. .

“And I would like to move up in this. But I’m not putting too much pressure on myself. This is just what we’re doing right now.”

Before Carcillo and Eager began coaching together, Eager heard about a half-rink in Glenview that was for sale and wondered if it would be worth checking out.

After calling Carcillo, they did some research before purchasing the equipment, the Zamboni and existing contracts that came with the Jet Hockey Training Arena. Youth teams pay them to use the arena, and they also provide private and group lessons.

“We came here, checked it out and were like, ‘It’s pretty sweet,’?” Eager said. “We did a lot of research; we didn’t jump right into it.”

They renovated the building, built a sports court in the back and hired their own staff, which includes Carcillo’s wife, Ela, who is due to have their second child in April.

“Ela’s great. She works for free,” Eager said. “She signed like a three-year contract for free, right?”

Ela from the office: “Oh, yeah!”

One morning in late February, a mom marveled at how the former Blackhawks could give her daughter a 1-on-1 lesson such a short distance from her house. Those thoughts never cross Eager’s mind, however.

“I don’t picture myself as an ex-NHL player to get clients in here,” he said. “Our names will get some kids in here . because they saw us win some Cups. But I don’t think about that. My kids come in, we have a plan.

“Dan and I come in and we draw up practices like we’re hockey instructors with NHL knowledge. It’s enjoyable for us. We’re back on the ice and it’s fun teaching these kids.”

To be sure, this is a long way from where Carcillo and Eager found themselves a few years ago, playing for Stanley Cups in jam-packed arenas. To an outsider, it’s jarring to see how much their lives have changed.

Eager isn’t afraid to admit he experienced pangs of nostalgia in February while attending a morning skate and a Blackhawks game at the United Center, but he also has come to terms with his new life.

One that gives him a high — just in a much different way.

“Nothing was better than a practice day or a morning skate if you’re on a winning streak. The feeling in the dressing room . it’s just fun,” Eager said. “I remember how many laughs we had and how much fun we had, especially with the Hawks. .

“Obviously miss the good games and miss the feeling of playing a good game or scoring a goal. But I accept that the adrenaline or excitement’s probably not going to happen again.

“Now I get enjoyment out of this. I get enjoyment out of a good effort from the team we coach or (giving) a good lesson. Seeing these kids improve and have fun out here.

“So that replaces playing in front 20,000 people, and I’m just as happy.”


Source: (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald, https://bit.ly/2o5ZEfK


Information from: Daily Herald, https://www.dailyherald.com

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