Some weeks ago in the United States, Mike Comrie, veteran NHL center most recently of the Pittsburgh Penguins and husband to Hilary Duff, retired, citing complications arising from hip surgery. He is sort of handsome, with decent north-south speed, an underrated set of hands, and he seems to be in the habit of performing regular and fairly advanced maintenance on his eyebrows. His years off the ice have involved the attainment and two-fisted embrace of a level of good fortune that some might consider unconscionable: As injury, age, and a dearth of professional goodwill hastened the end of his hockey career, his public face became that of the relatively anonymous consort of a former Disney star who has been publicly linked to Malcolm in the Middle and Good Charlotte. No one could give less of a shit that he’s no longer a professional hockey player.
Comrie’s career developed at a fairly lazy pace, but it wasn’t exactly disastrous, including two 30-goal seasons and a key role on a team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals. His NHL days had their distinct stages: Rising Hometown Boy in Edmonton; Reviled Hometown Pariah; Rich Prick in Philly and Phoenix; Important Role Player in Ottawa; Journeyman in Long Island and Ottawa again; cautiously re-embraced Prodigal Son in Edmonton; and, finally, Expendable in Pittsburgh. In the final analysis, he’s generally been emblematic of the failure of a certain kind of mid to high-level prospect and of the professional pitfalls of MMF (Making Money Fast). But, even so, it’s hard to imagine a hockey player in a position to lead a better life. One begins to wonder: How is it that this man, whose track record—in relation to his talent and inherited advantages—is decent at best and whose professional esteem could be most charitably characterized as ambivalent, gets to ride off into the sunset with Duff at his side into a life that rappers conjure but that only the most egregious society suckers actually live?
To be fair, there’s something rapper-aspirational about the life of the Canadian hockey player in America: Scads of money, a traveling lifestyle, decent parties, bad hair, and, unlike the majority of pro athletes, a level of effective anonymity. To be an NHL player in Uniondale or, for that matter, Phoenix, is a strange thing: The teams certainly have beat writers, and fans, and probably groupies, but it’s hard to imagine locals being passionate about last night’s action against the Blues. Do more Arizonans care about the Coyotes’ checking line or death metal? Comrie was barely known outside Edmonton, which was a function both of his middling play and sleepy personality, but there was plenty there for folks to take interest in.
For one thing, unlike most professional athletes, Comrie grew up wealthy. His father co-founded The Brick—a home-furnishings chain famous in Canada for the ubiquity of its television commercials promoting "no money down" sales events in the 80s and 90s—and is understood to be worth some $400 million, even more than Duff. As a young player, he fit the spoiled-brat stereotype, and made a point after the 2002-2003 season, his third, to sit out when the money wasn’t right, forcing a trade to the Flyers. It would be disingenuous to say that this native-son betrayal was of LeBronian scale, but hockey fans in Edmonton and in Canada at large never forgot it and never fully forgave ol’ Mike. (Keep in mind that the Canadian dollar hovered around 70 cents US back then; all the Canuck teams save Montreal and Toronto were having a bitch of a time re-signing star players). That was fine with him. He resurrected his career playing in Arizona, which shouldn’t, and in many ways doesn’t, have a hockey team.
Mike Comrie was dealt an incredibly good hand and has made no bones about playing it to maximum effect. You can hate and envy him for his good fortune, or you can look at the lazy way he treated his talent as a manifesto. It’s an argument for playing tortoise in a world enamored of hares. Why rehab your hip for a year and then grind it out in Wilkes-Barre for another? Why not just cash in your chips at 31? If you’re like me, a guy who lives his life according to built-in excuses (straight edge, a 6 PM-2 AM work schedule), this is an incredibly powerful idea.
Comrie has had an easy life, and one full of reward. It’s unlikely most of us can do the same, but it’s really only too late for us to be Rhodes Scholars or Olympians. Getting by on the strength of what we happen to have close at hand—that’s certainly doable. Even if we don’t have a humongous pile of money and a celebrity wife.