Life after sport? Ice hockey pro and Olympian Dave Gagner explains how to thrive
Life after sport can be hard. Especially if you have played at the very top.
All my life I had wanted to be a hockey player, and when I was named the 12th pick in the 1983 National Hockey League (NFL) Entry Draft by the New York Rangers, I felt like I’d arrived. All those hours on the ice, in the junior leagues, playing in the Ontario Hockey League – and the injuries – it had all been worth it.
Of course, the journey didn’t end there. There were trades, more injuries, and plenty of setbacks. But along the way, there were some incredible highs too, including the pinnacle of my career – representing Canada at the 1984 Olympics. Not many people get the opportunity to have that experience.
When I hung up the skates in 1999, I was leaving behind a sport in which I had played in the top league for 15 years. The ice was all I knew. So, what next? It’s a question all elite sportspeople have to ask themselves at some point, and the sooner the better.
You’re not special
When ex-athletes step away from years of life in the locker room, one of the strongest feelings they encounter is loneliness. Coupled with the insecurity of no longer being in a team or having a clear sporting goal, there are a lot of emotions at play.
This is why athletes often need support transitioning into life after sport and in reskilling. Some may go directly into coaching, while others enjoy the perks of punditry - it’s a safe space, talking about the sport which they have lived and breathed their whole life.
It’s a time when a lot of ex-sportspeople can struggle. They are used to excelling in their chosen sport. But now they are back on the starting line again – whether opting for something familiar like coaching or punditry – or heading into a whole new industry.
Staying humble and being realistic about expectations provides the biggest advantage at this stage. Sure, as athletes we do have many advantages, but they are not always as significant as you would think.
Sport can be all consuming when you’re in the midst of it but getting prepared ahead of time is good training. There is no harm in exploring other interests.
Someone who took this approach is Rio Ferdinand. While playing top-level football for Manchester United, Ferdinand began taking an interest in business by launching an online publication - #5 Magazine, much to his manager’s disdain. His LinkedIn bio now reads: “Broadcaster | Ambassador | Digital Content Creator | Partner WeAre8 | Investor”. Much more varied than simply ex-footballer.
Also remember, it is never too late to learn something new. Me? I went back to school to complete my degree and started my own business (which I still co-own) building refrigerated ice rinks —I had always wanted a real ice rink in my backyard and hired an engineer to help me build it. It was a natural step to then start a business together.
Eventually, I also transitioned back into hockey, initially through coaching and management, before getting into the agency business at Wasserman. It was a similar path for many of the NHL players from my era who have had successful follow-on careers. They went back to school, earned a degree in law or business, and successfully used their connections to rise in their professions. Even though they started their education “late” they were able to accelerate their careers due to the benefit of their professional athletic/life experiences.
In fact, a key part of business success for ex-athletes is the experiences from their sporting days. Skill development, planning, preparation, team building, and competitiveness all translate well into the business world.
The experiences that we can share are important too. They are often relatable to the challenges of the business world. At the very least they are entertaining for your new colleagues and connections, making you much more personable to work with.
These skills are important when entering a world you are unfamiliar with. Take Mathieu Flamini, ex-Arsenal midfielder, and co-founder of GFBiochemicals. To quote the company’s website, the founders work with a “group of biobased chemical experts to find sustainable alternatives to oil-based products across a range of market sectors.”
Flamini was many things in his playing days, but a chemical expert seems unlikely. But the traits he learnt on the training ground from some of the best coaches on the planet have certainly helped him in his business endeavours. Couple this with his interest in environmental issues, and you can see why he is worth £10.2billion.
That is not to say that you can’t stay within your sport to be successful. In hockey, Steve Yzerman patiently went through the process of learning the management side of hockey and has successfully transitioned his skill set to the top of his profession.
Playing careers in sport are notoriously short and fragile. A stray puck, sharp elbow or an awkward landing could spell the end of a career. Which is why support for athletes during their playing days is so important. It could all be over in a flash.
At Wasserman we run informational seminars early in our players’ careers to guide them on how to educate themselves. These include things like building their financial acumen so that they can make better decisions with their investments and spending.
But it is also down to the individual athlete. It’s essential to do networking, and explore other interests, early on. It can be hard during the midst of sporting success to think of anything else but trust me it is worth it.