Canada

Dave Feschuk: Former Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick has become the NHL’s talking point man

Sometimes you can see an athlete’s post-career future long before it happens.

Sifting through old files the other day, I smiled at a mention of Ray Ferraro, the ex-NHLer turned TSN broadcaster.

“Ferraro is a born talker with a sports obsession. He could retire this morning and step into a four-hour time slot on (sports radio),” was how the Hartford Courant’s Jeff Jacobs described the former Whaler.

That seems obvious enough now that Ferraro’s gold-standard rinkside analysis and his must-listen 5 p.m. hit on TSN Radio’s Overdrive show have made him a staple of the Canadian sports-media landscape. But here’s the thing: That article was dated 1993, some 27 years ago and nearly a decade before Ferraro retired after 1,258 games and 408 goals in the NHL. Which is to say: Some callings are as inevitable as they are undeniable.

I was thinking about Ferraro’s rare gift of the gab after I got off the phone the other day with Connor Carrick, the former Maple Leafs defenceman currently riding out the coronavirus shutdown as a member of the New Jersey Devils. If Carrick’s legacy as a player in Leafland is relatively modest — he played 130 games over three seasons, mostly as a third-pairing blueliner, before he was traded to Dallas in 2018 — he is still sorely missed by writers in search of quotable insight. From the minute he walked into the Toronto dressing room, his knack for breaking down the game with a mix of detail and anecdote and humour was clearly elite.

So it was no big surprise to hear he was launching the Connor Carrick Podcast, breaking new ground at a moment when the sporting world has ground to a halt. It’s believed he is the first active NHLer to enter a realm long ago colonized by active NBAers like J.J. Redick and championship-winning ex-Raptor Danny Green.

“I don’t know another current NHL player that has (a podcast). So I wanted to go first,” Carrick said.

Carrick’s show will not be an attempt to duplicate the most popular of hockey podcasts, Spittin’ Chiclets, the not-safe-for-work Barstool Sports production starring ex-NHLers Paul Bissonnette and Ryan Whitney.

The former Leaf said he enjoys Spittin’ Chiclets but he aspires to mine territory closer to the vein successfully tapped by Joe Rogan and Tim Ferriss, popular long-form interviewers with eclectic guest lists. Carrick bills his spin as “a journey into the pursuit of improvement and well being — physically, mentally and spiritually.” Having dropped the first episode on the weekend — an “ask-me-anything” edition co-hosted by producer Colin Steingard — Carrick said he expects the guest list to include a mix of “hockey teammates, performance coaches, body therapists and functional medical doctors.”

He’s doing it, he said, to force himself into uncomfortable situations, to learn something new and, he said, to help raise his profile for reasons that go well beyond vanity. He’s a mental-health advocate, for one, and he hopes to increase his influence with every download.

“If I wanted to launch a mental-health event or bring money and attention to causes that I care about, I’m going to need to be bigger,” he said.

Such is the reality of being a depth player in the world’s best league, forever treading the fine line between the lineup and the unemployment line. Getting a head start on your post-playing craft — or at the very least, figuring out whether you like it enough to talk into a microphone for a living — only makes practical sense.

“This is the joke I make. I try to score 50 goals a year every year in the NHL. But frankly, it’s really hard,” said Carrick, who set a career high with four goals in Toronto in 2017-18. “I’m all-in on hockey. So I’m working wholeheartedly on that and kind of hedging my bet in case that 50-goal season isn’t going to come around.”

Pick the health-and-wellness trend du jour, and Carrick has probably tried it. He takes multiple supplements, among them digestive enzymes, with almost every meal, fish oil, collagen, vitamins C and D3, along with a product known as Athletic Greens. He engages in breathing exercises popularized by a guru named Wim Hof, which he says improve his immune-system health and also “move lymph and oxygenate the tissue.” He swears by the merits of alternating 20 minutes in a sauna followed by three minutes in an ice bath — sweat, shiver, repeat. Lately he’s become a devotee of intermittent fasting, on most days eating only a couple of meals during a six-hour window while going without food for the ensuing 18 hours. He says it’s made a positive difference.

“You feel like Spider-Man. Just super alert, super sharp,” he said.

For Carrick, finding every edge has become a matter of professional self-preservation. If the best ability is availability, prioritizing health is non-negotiable.

“Anything that pulls you out of the lineup when you’re a depth player is dangerous. If the team wins, it could be six weeks if the coach likes what he saw,” he said.

Which is not to say he’s suggesting that a few tweaks to one’s diet and lifestyle can turn a beer-leaguer into an superhuman.

“There’s nothing I can eat that can make me run and jump or be as tall as LeBron James,” Carrick said. “But I do have an idea of what the standard Western diet will do to me. And I probably wouldn’t be a pro athlete if I followed it.”

Carrick said he found plenty of like-minded colleagues during his time in Toronto, where he lauded the Leafs for being at or near the NHL forefront in investing in player health. James van Riemsdyk was a biohacking soulmate, Carrick said. Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen were curious students of the science, too. But not everyone bought in.

“I used to joke with Mitchy (Marner) when we played together, he got sick a decent amount. He’d play, but he’d be throwing up or really be dragging,” Carrick said. “And I used to just joke with him, ‘You’re a stud, but I’ve seen you play sick and you’re no good. I hope you get the flu every time I play against you.’ Which isn’t sensitive given what’s going on out there. But you get what I’m saying.”

It’s the kind of revealing detail that hasn’t always been deemed as fair game in hockey’s keep-it-in-the-dressing-room culture. But in the same way the NBA has seen players find independent voices even as they continue to play, the NHL is veering in the same direction.

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“I do think guys are going to get really aggressive on the personal development and brand development side,” he said.

In other words, even if Carrick’s podcast might be the first by an active player, it probably won’t be the last. Given Carrick’s obvious gift, mind you, it’s hard not to like its odds of long reigning as the best.

“I have yet to meet a player who started to take their mental and physical health journey seriously and then decided it wasn’t for them,” Carrick said. “No one’s ever made these shifts in diet and lifestyle and then decided, ‘You know what? I kind of like McDonalds and drinking twice a week. I feel better doing that.’ ”

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