NHL’s next wave gets schooled on life
With less than a month to go until the start of NHL training camps and preseason, you’d expect that a gathering of more than 90 young players hoping to crack a team’s lineup this season would likely include skates, sticks and pucks.
But earlier this month in Leesburg, Va., the players ranging from 2018 first-round draftees to 23-year-olds fresh out of college were treated to a mental workout that aimed to prepare them for life in the NHL off the ice.
What began as a roughly two-hour seminar for a handful of top prospects six years ago, the Rookie Orientation Program has now evolved into a two-day, on-site event that is encouraged and essential for players expecting to wear an NHL sweater this fall. Jointly run by the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association, it broaches everything from a session on money management run by financial planners to sensitivity training to a discussion on substance abuse and behavior led by former NHL player Rob Ramage, who served 10 months in jail after a 2003 incident in which he crashed his car as he drove while impaired, killing his passenger.
Among the players to attend this year were the top two picks from June’s draft: Rasmus Dahlin, a defenseman taken by the Sabres at No. 1, and Andrei Svechnikov, a forward selected by the Hurricanes at No. 2. The second pick two years ago, Jets forward Patrik Laine, attended the inaugural session in 2017 before embarking on a 44-goal season that helped boost his star quality.
Social media . . . can help a player raise their profile, which can lead to additional sponsorship opportunities.
“These are some of the first tests on what it takes to be a professional athlete, as well as the type of expectations that are going to be heaped on you in the coming months and years; it’s a very important step,” said Mathieu Schneider, the NHLPA special assistant to the executive director who played parts of 21 seasons in the NHL after debuting in 1987-88. “There was nothing like this when I came into the league — you were just kind of thrown into the fire.”
Those expectations continue to evolve, which has led the NHL and the NHLPA to broaden the entire program, especially the topic of social media usage. Previously, it was just part of the media training portion of the program, but last year it received its own session. It lasts almost two hours and is led by Catherine Faas, the NHLPA’s senior manager of digital, and David Klatt, the NHL’s senior manager of social media programs. Now, the discussions not only center around what players shouldn’t be doing, but how good social media usage can lead to brand building and off-ice earnings.
“Our views on social media have shifted as a league over the last couple of years,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, who attended the program. “When you look at its importance and the benefits that it can create, it can be a real positive thing to help draw attention to the game, but also to the players personally and their own brands.”
Schneider noted that there is a certain stereotype applied to hockey players, a barrier that social media might be able to take down.
“You typically hear that hockey players are very humble, that they are all about the team; the mindset of players from my generation is that we never wanted to be on social media or [have] any attention, you were part of a team and the team came first,” he said. “We want players now to view social media as an avenue to express themselves and become a little more of a brand if that’s what they want to do.”
Daly said that the league and NHLPA make it clear it’s a player’s individual decision if they want to engage with the public through social media, but that “social media, when used properly, can help a player raise their profile, which can lead to additional sponsorship opportunities and relationships with companies that can continue well beyond a playing career,” Daly said.
While the downside of social media has been on display in other leagues this summer — controversies related to multiple players’ old, offensive tweets dominated MLB headlines in mid-July — for the NHL and the NHLPA coaching the young players on how to use the medium to their advantage is important.
“With social media today, everyone has a say and has to understand the implications of their words and actions,” Schneider said. “The thing we like to preach at the PA is just be a good person, and continue to improve yourself on and off the ice.”