In an interview with USA Hockey Magazine in 2014, Matt Niskanen was asked about his favorite quote. The one he gave was attributed to legendary basketball coach Pat Riley and it says a lot about his decision to abruptly and shockingly retire. “There are only two options regarding commitment,” the quote goes. “You’re either in or you’re out." There is no such thing as life in-between. And at some point over the weekend, Matt Niskanen talked to his family and decided he was out.
Throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs, the NHL conducted more than 30,000 COVID-19 tests without a single positive, so from that perspective, it was nothing short of an unqualified success. But even though the virus didn’t infiltrate the NHL’s bubble, it is causing havoc with everything from revenues to scheduling to players’ careers. Or at least the uncertainty surrounding it is doing that. And it may just have caused the first player to retire. If not, it was a significant factor in the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman walking away from the game and leaving $5.75 million – minus the 10 percent salary deferral and escrow – on the table. It was a decision that stunned everyone from the Flyers, who were very happy with his play in 2019-20, to his agent, Neil Sheehy.
One very wise hockey man – OK, it was Ken Holland – once told me that players retire not because they don’t want to play hockey anymore, but because they can’t envision another off-season of the preparation it takes to play in the best league in the world. And that appears to be the case with Niskanen, particularly since he’d be training to take part in a season that nobody knows what will look like if and when it starts. “He told me he didn’t want to go through it again,” Sheehy said. “He mentioned COVID to me. I don’t think he wanted to get ready for another season by Nov. 15 and then have to go into isolation and be away from his two kids and his wife. I think he always finish his contract and then stop, but I think because of COVID and his experience of the bubble, he decided now is the time. He basically said, ‘With COVID, I just don’t want to do it. I don’t want to prepare anymore.’ ”
The NHL has already said that the bubble concept will not work for an entire season and there are no plans to do that, but nobody knows exactly how the 2020-21 season will look. Niskanen has two young children, the older of whom is starting school, and with career earnings of about $43.2 million (according to www.capfriendly.com), it’s conceivable Niskanen figured that he didn’t need to collect on the final year of his contract. “He just said, ‘You know what? We’re going back home to northern Minnesota and I don’t need to do this anymore,’ ” Sheehy said. “I was surprised, but I said to Nisky, ‘You’ve earned the right to do whatever you want to do,’ and I never tried to talk him out of it. He has earned the right to do whatever he wants.”
Niskanen is just 33 years old and, if this past season was any indication, he’s quite capable of continuing to play at a high level in the NHL. With eight goals and 33 points in 68 games, Niskanen was on pace for a 40-point season, which would have been the second-best offensive season of his career. He was a mainstay on the Flyers’ penalty kill and was credited with helping to turn things around for Ivan Provorov. He was also a large part of the Flyers’ resurgence to contender status. But there are so few athletes who have the opportunity to leave the game on their own terms. Niskanen did have some concussion issues in the past, but there’s nothing to suggest that either his head or his body would not have been ready to continue to absorb the rigors of playing in the NHL. “I will tell you there is nothing, nothing health-wise that has come into this decision,” Sheehy said. “There’s nothing, no concussion issue. If there were, I would know about it. I promise you, there is no injury. Philadelphia is as surprised as anyone.”
Aside from the off-seasons, Niskanen has spent the past 13 years of his life in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Washington and Philadelphia, all of which are at least 1,000 miles away from the Iron Range in Minnesota where he grew up. The lure of coming home and raising his family there, particularly with all the uncertainty surrounding the NHL season, prompted Niskanen to walk away. “I know he’ll call me back,” Sheehy said. “He was probably out in the woods and heard the phone ring and he probably went about 10 yards further into the woods. He’s going to live in northern Minnesota and he’s going to hunt and fish and do all the things he loved doing as a kid that he hasn’t had a chance to do since he started playing pro hockey.”