COVER

STICKHANDLING IN HARD TIMES

A TEAM PLAYER BATTLES THE BLUES

JOHN DeMONT June 24 1991
COVER

STICKHANDLING IN HARD TIMES

A TEAM PLAYER BATTLES THE BLUES

JOHN DeMONT June 24 1991

STICKHANDLING IN HARD TIMES

COVER

A TEAM PLAYER BATTLES THE BLUES

At 44 years of age, he has retained an athlete’s solid build and wields a strong handshake. Hockey remains Wayne Decker’s passion—once, it was also his dream. It sustained him through a four-year hockey scholarship at Boston University and, in 1970-1971, a season playing with the Eastern Hockey League’s Jacksonville, Fla., Rockets. A year spent riding the buses in the minors convinced Decker to abandon his major-league dream. Bolstered by a business degree, he turned to other pursuits. The native of Kitchener, Ont., moved to Halifax, where the years brought a happy marriage, a career in management and other dreams—of professional and financial security. Now, those dreams have turned a little sour. For over a year—and for the second time in his life— Decker has been unemployed, while the daily battle to keep his spirits from flagging takes its

toll. “I know that Wayne Decker can still do a good job for someone,” he said. “But I am disappointed that I have not been able to find a job in this length of time.”

Decker’s ordeal began on the afternoon of March 15, 1990, when his boss, Robert McDonald, a Halifax car dealer and owner of other businesses that Decker administered, asked him to step into his office. During a short chat about business matters, Decker noticed that the usually gregarious car salesman seemed nervous. Then, McDonald turned to him and said: “I’ve got some bad news. I’ve got to lay you off.” Although other members of McDonald’s staff had lost their jobs over the preceding six months, Decker thought that his boss was joking. He was not. With a recession looming, McDonald explained, he had to cut costs to remain in business. He told Decker to complete some projects, a task that took she weeks. On

April 30, Decker’s $32,000-a-year job ended.

Initially, Decker thought that his high profile as McDonald’s executive assistant would quickly open other doors. “I had been at the forefront of a lot of Bob’s operations,” he recalled in an interview. “I thought surely to God I would be able to get something through someone I met.” Decker has sent out 60 job applications—landing only two, unsuccessful interviews. “Over half of the places never even got back in touch with me,” he said. “It is a numbers game. You have people who are overqualified applying for any job they can land.”

The transition to the unemployment lines has been particularly difficult for a man accustomed to finding work easily. After his brief hockey career, Decker landed a branch administrator’s job with Dominion Life Insurance Co. in Waterloo, Ont. In 1972, he was transferred to Halifax. He left Dominion in 1974 but stayed in Halifax, holding management positions over the next 11 years in a construction equipment firm, a fishing supply company and an aviation and high-technology company.

Haven: Those years also brought a fulfilling personal life. In 1975, Decker married his wife, Dianne, an office clerk who had a three-yearold son, Mark, from a previous marriage. Four years later, the couple’s daughter, Alissa, was born. Meanwhile, the Deckers built a comfortable three-bedroom home in Dianne’s home town, Waverley, 15 km west of Halifax. It became a haven from the workaday world— and a place to heal wounds when, in 1984, Decker was laid off from his assistant general manager’s job at the aviation firm. “I had no idea even how to apply for unemployment,” he recalled. “You think that someone is going to telephone you out of the blue and offer you a job. That just doesn’t happen.”

Dianne continued to work for Maritime Medical Insurance—which administers the provincial health insurance program. And fortuitously, Decker had continued to play recreational hockey. That love for his sport led him to McDonald, also a Waverley resident. McDonald coached the Waverley Golddiggers, the suburban-league hockey team that Decker joined in 1975. Locker-room camaraderie evolved into a professional relationship when, a year after Decker lost his job at IMP, McDonald asked him to come in and help out at the office.

Family: Decker quickly became, in effect, McDonald’s right-hand man, running his Ziebart rustproofing franchises and fire-extinguisher manufacturing company, and administering his real estate investments. “I sort of became part of the McDonald family,” Decker said. “They used to call me McDecker.” That warmth has not totally evaporated. “Bob was close to becoming history if he didn’t cut back,” Decker said. “He treated me good—and I gave him a good five years.”

Today, Decker says that his previous battle with unemployment left him emotionally better prepared to deal with his current status. To fight the inevitable bouts of depression, he works around the house and coaches children’s sports. In the winter, he also continued to play hockey in the local oldtimers league. “Slapping a puck around helped get rid of some of the frustration,” he said. And although Decker’s $1,200 monthly unemployment insurance payments ended in May, the family has managed to keep its financial head above water. Dianne continues to work as an office clerk—a job that Decker says pays in the low end of the $20,000-to-$30,000 range. They have always carefully lived within their means, saving money while almost paying off their mortgage. Those savings, Decker said, were intended to retire what was left of their housing debt. Instead, the funds are being used to supplement the family’s household budget. “Thank God we had no other large bills, or we would be in serious trouble,” Decker noted.

There have been further sacrifices. While the Deckers try to ensure that the children’s needs are met, they themselves have done without such items as new clothes. Other plans have also been put on hold. “Now that the kids are older, we wanted to take the occasional vacation and start living,” Decker said. “This [unemployment] has gotten in the way—for the moment.” For the moment. The words have a ring of defiance—and hope. “I am able to keep my chin and confidence up,” Decker said. “Sooner or later, something good will come along.” And until then, he will continue to send out job applications—and relieve his tensions on the hockey rink.

JOHN DeMONT in Halifax