‘A shadow of what they were’: The perils of aging professional athletes

Carey Price, the star goalie of the Montreal Canadiens, has announced that he is not ready to retire, hoping the pain in his knee will heal enough that he can return to the Habs’ net in the future.

His hopes are admirable — certainly aspirational — but the reality is that his career is over. At some level, he knows this.

His admission that walking up stairs remains painful is not a good sign. His focus on family and his well-being is appropriate, given his recent candor about struggling with alcohol. Fortunately for him, he is well paid (he has an eight-year contract worth $84 million signed in 2017), so not returning to the ice and remaining on long-term injury reserve will serve his personal interests — and also not hinder the team that he devoted his career to.

The physical punishment of being a professional athlete is beyond what most people can grasp or appreciate. Take, for example, professional football, a high-impact sport. Every player is dealing with some type of injury every game. These injuries accumulated over a full season. Add in a few games in the playoffs and you have damage to an athlete’s body that leads to a variety of permanent ailments later in life.

Other major sports like basketball, baseball and hockey all place strain on the human body that every athlete will pay for long after their playing days end.

Aside from injuries, age erodes performance. Every roster of every team in every professional sport has a handful of athletes that are past their prime. For these players, their performance is but a shadow of what they were capable of just five years prior.

Hockey general managers must offer contracts to players in their prime that they know will age poorly. They mostly do this to not lose talent in the short term — while sacrificing the team’s performance in the long run. With salary caps in place, the situation becomes even more constrained. This is why a team can win the Stanley Cup one year, and then struggle to make the playoffs not long after (think of the Chicago Blackhawks).

Price signed his current contract when he was just past his peak. Unable to even get onto the ice today, let alone play at the highest level, means that staying on long-term injury reserve is the best way for him to help his team.

He’s not alone. Shea Weber, now with the Vegas Golden Knights, will also end his career on long-term injury reserve. Paul Byron will also likely end his career on long-term injury reserve. Given the depth of talent in the Canadiens’ organization, he could not earn a place on the roster when healthy, let alone coming off an injury.

Every NHL team has players whose salary is not commensurate with their performance. Managing performance and compensation will never be easy. Those general managers who find the right mix in a given season may be rewarded with a Stanley Cup when the stars align for them. Most, however, will just fall short, instead watching their team tumble down the rabbit hole of rebuilds.

The end of a professional athlete’s career is rarely pretty, particularly when they exceed their value. Recall the final seasons for Yvan Cournoyer, nicknamed “the Roadrunner” for his speed. The first thing that age steals is speed, which Cournoyer had in abundance early in his career.

We can thank Carey Price for what he gave Montreal. We all know that he hopes to return to the ice. We also know he probably won’t.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, is a professor in computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven, risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy. He is a native of Montreal.