ORLANDO, FLA – On Thursday January 23rd, the Orlando Solar Bears sent out a press release noting the return of fan favorite C.J. Severyn to the lineup after a call-up to the Utica Comets of the AHL. In the sub head was the notification that defenseman Paul Baier had made the decision to hang up his skates and retire.
The announcement meant the end to a collegiate and professional career that began at Brown University in 2004. Professionally it spanned six teams in two leagues in North America and two more in Europe. By the time it came to its final chapter, it brought him the chance to play with the one person he always wanted by his side.
“It’s got to happen eventually. You can’t play when you’re 50 years old. At some point, it’s got to happen,” Baier told the assembled media following Orlando’s 4-3 win over Gwinnett that night. “I think now is my time. I feel like this is a good place to be and there’s good stuff to come.”
Knowing that eventually the equipment will have to go into the closet is one thing; deciding when and accepting the mortality of the career is completely different. No athlete ever wants that part of their life to end and Baier is no exception.
“I think tough is an understatement for what it was. It’s a hard decision. When you’ve been playing hockey for twenty-five years, its not just something you do – it’s a part of who you are,” Baier said. “When you decide to move on from something like that, its gut wrenching. I don’t think you’ll ever get over it either is the thing. I think it’s something that stays with you forever.”
By standards, this season was not a normal one for Baier. Of the 36 games Orlando played before his retirement, he played in just twelve. Early on, a puck to the head put him on the injured reserve list. Ever the hockey warrior, Baier said none of his bad luck played a role in his decision.
“It’s more than just a few bad bounces or a few bumps and bruises. It’s a life decision. It’s not like a spur of the moment decision that you’re making,” he said. “Those weren’t my first injuries in my career. They slow you down but it was nothing that had to do with it.”
It was also an abnormal year for Baier from a position standpoint. A defenseman by trade, he was pressed into service on several occasions as a forward. When asked which side of the blue line he preferred, he took the politically correct way out.
“I’m going to say both for different reasons. Defense is a very comfortable place for me to be obviously because I’ve been playing it. I don’t have to second guess many decisions on defense. I know where I’m supposed to be and I’m there,” he said. “At forward you can just run around and open it up and skate fast. I love just running around sometimes.”
Baier made reference to having a bucket list item of a particular player that he wanted to play alongside before calling it a career. That player just happened to be his brother Eric. Coming to Orlando allowed the brothers to have an experience unlike any other either has had in their careers.
Paul said that he used Eric and his parents as sounding boards when he came to his final decision.
“Anybody who has kids that play hockey or anybody who’s been through it, they know that to get to this point it’s not just you. My parents had a lot to do with getting me here. My brother has had a lot to do with me being here both in Orlando and hockey in general,” Paul said. “When you’re making decisions like this, it’s hard for everybody. When we finally made this decision, my dad was saying how bad he felt about it and he wasn’t even the one playing. He’s been watching us play since we were four years old so it impacts everybody in your family and impacts everyone around you.”
So what is next for Paul Baier? His immediate plans include spending time with his girlfriend who just happens to be in Sochi, Russia working for the Olympic committee. After that, he is contemplating furthering the education he received at Brown University. When asked if coaching would be an option, he said at this time that is not a priority.
“I’m planning on going back to school hopefully then I’ll apply to some grad schools and see if I can get back to school start studying,” he said. “I’m planning on going back to school for something aside from hockey. Maybe (I’ll go into) coaching at some point. Who knows where life will take me but for now the plan isn’t coaching.”
Just before the end of the media availability, Baier was asked what he was going to miss the most about not being a player. He thought for a moment and then gave the answer that almost every player has uttered on that day – everything.
“There’s a lot to miss. Obviously you’ll miss the hockey. I’ll miss the guys in the locker room,” he said. “One of the biggest things is the fans. The signing autographs, the appearances. You can’t really do that in any other job.”
Whether visiting hospitals to cheer people up or stopping to talk to fans on the main concourse to a fan’s birthday cake fashioned to look like his jersey complete with his name and number, Baier said he has gotten a lot out of working in the community and building friendships with fans.
“Giving back is so fun. I love walking through the concourse and giving kids high fives. I’m going to miss that more than anything I think,” Baier said. “I have it (picture of cake) on my computer. I made sure to get a copy of the picture. I’ve never seen that before and I’m pretty pumped about that.”
As they left the Amway Center together, Eric Baier put his hand on Paul’s shoulder and said “twenty five years”, a notation of how long the two had been sharing the ice both separately and finally together. In a way it was a reminder of how much hockey and family means to the Baier brothers.
He may not be on the ice anymore but Paul Baier’s contributions certainly will not be forgotten.
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