Former NHL defenceman Mike Weaver, on facing down hockey's ‘afterlife'
Near the end, there were days when Mike Weaver would wake up with unexplained swelling on the left side of his face. Sometimes, he said, the swelling would be on the right side instead, and he could never determine the rhythm, the pattern or the cause.
His face had absorbed plenty of punishment over more than 650 games in the National Hockey League, getting bruised, battered and cut. None of that explained the swelling. He took pictures of it. He went to see a doctor about it.
They told him it was idiopathic — there was no known cause.
“After I retired, everything went away,” Weaver said. “I've never had it since. It was basically stress.”
Despite having never been drafted, he spent more than a decade as a defenceman in the league, making stops in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Vancouver, St. Louis, Florida and Montreal. He made a living deeper on the depth chart, fending off challengers through film study, practice and professional evolution.
Indirectly, that precariousness helped direct him to where he was at a midtown Toronto coffee shop this month, smiling and busy. Weaver said he endured a period of depression when his career ended, but the steps he had taken to prepare for what he called his “afterlife” helped ease the transition.
He operates a high-level hockey school, Defence First, in the summer. He also co-founded a platform that helps modernize the way coaches at all levels develop and execute practices, with Coach Them, a web-based depot for drills and plans.
He laughed: “I had someone tell me, 'Hey man, you're retired: You're going to have to work more hours for way less money.'”
Weaver was never a lock to crack an NHL roster, so in his second year at Michigan State University, he said he took a kind of career aptitude test. It suggested he had an aptitude for computers, which he then built into his course calendar, signing up for classes in web design and software development.
In elementary school, he remembered assembling his parents' complex stereo system without the aid of an instruction manual. The family had a rudimentary computer when he was growing up — the famous Commodore 64 — and it fascinated him.
That fascination followed him to the NHL, where he kept an eye on his life after hockey.
“While I was on the charter, I was always designing websites while all these guys were losing money at the poker table,” he said with a smile. “I designed a lot of websites for a lot of people for my first seven years.”
He is chief executive of the coaching platform he co-founded with former NHL goaltender Robb Tallas, and he said several NHL teams are now on board as clients. Weaver said around 2,500 coaches are using it regularly, and that the company is in talks to expand its base.
“Evolving the product, just like I was evolving my game,” he said. “I was always watching videos, looking at my mistakes and, 'how can I learn from that, and how can I change it?' And that's kind of what the whole business world is.”
Weaver, as the father of two, is also a minor hockey coach. His said his company's platform would allow for a minor hockey association to upload approved or preferred drills, and send them out to coaches at all levels.
“I think coaches don't understand what's at stake — their responsibility,” he said. “They think, 'OK, I'm going to have a team, that's great, we'll be able to win some games.' But you're responsible for 15 kids, to develop them.
“It's kind of almost like a teacher in school. If you don't teach them the right things, which they're supposed to learn that year, in the following year, they're going to be behind.”
Weaver runs his specialized hockey school over the summer. He will work with close to 250 players over the course of a month this summer, and that he has worked with clients from as far away as Russia, China and Sweden.
He has also spent time helping with the flooring business his father founded with his grandfather.
“Now, let's just say I didn't have anything planned: You're starting off, and all of the sudden, you're basically a newborn,” said Weaver. “Because you have no experience. What are you going to put on your résumé? 'I played in the NHL?'
“That only gets you so far. It might get you in the door for an interview, but then they're going to be like, 'well, what other experience do you have?'”
Where does his retirement plan have him in the next three-to-five years?
Weaver paused: “Hopefully on a beach in Turks and Caicos.”
He smiled again.
“I just want to have fun now, to be honest,” he said. “It's one of the toughest things, as a pro athlete, to transition to afterlife.”