9 min read

Pivot #4: Goalie turned CEO, Optionality, Grant Hill's lessons

Pivot #4: Goalie turned CEO, Optionality, Grant Hill's lessons

1st Period - Optionality

Central to Pivot’s concept is keeping optionality at the forefront of career planning for players. We aim for players to have a comprehensive view of life’s possible pursuits once the playing career concludes. It takes planning and foresight to preserve as much optionality as possible. 

The point of being financially successful is to improve the optionality in life by removing money as the constraint in life and face the ultimate life constraint–time. Through pro hockey, some players can remove finances as the main governor of life. Other players with less of a financial cushion need to consider how best to deal with the financial realities of life (regular bills, expenses, providing for a family, lifestyle preferences, etc.) when assessing options in their next career. 

We want players to avoid pigeon-holing themselves into situations where immediate term stresses dictate action. Put simply, a player quits hockey and then needs a job fast to pay the bills. In these situations, players typically opt to take the first check they can cash because they feel they have no options. This is the essence of why preserving optionality is so critical. You always should aim to have multiple options to pursue. 

Far too often, we see players retire from playing hockey and attempt to make a living through hockey. The retired player with no financial cushion, opting to continue the grind on the bus assistant coaching junior or professional hockey. Or that ex-player that finds himself at the rink in the early mornings teaching skills to youth players for an hourly rate. Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of people we all know, trying to scrape by financially, attempting to make a career in hockey. 

It’s our view that majorityof these situations are unnecessary and created by a lack of career/life planning. Many players only know hockey. It’s the only thing they’ve pursued in life, and for good reason. You only get one shot at a playing career. Give it your best shot, but that does not mean it needs to come at the expense of the rest of your life. The 30-year-old player who just retired with a wife and a kid and no career options is a challenging situation. Panic sets-in and humans naturally turn to their comfort zone and what they are good at, and for the player, that is hockey. They think their only skills are hockey, so they believe they are forced to parlay that into some sort of coaching career. They see hockey as the only option.

Pivot wants to avoid this entirely. First, we endeavor to broaden players’ worldview of what is possible after hockey. You don’t know what you don’t know. The world is huge and has a lot to offer for hockey players. Second, hockey players have skills that are applicable to aspects of the world besides hockey. Often, players don’t even realize the magnitude of the skillset they’ve built through years in the game. Pivot wants to highlight the individual’s skills and how the skillset is transferable. Third, we want to get players to begin the exploration phase of their skills and interests as soon as possible so that when the playing career is over, players go execute their career plan, not begin to formulate it.

If after considering the full suite of life’s options, a player still wants to pursue a post-playing career in hockey, that is great. The game needs plenty of good people involved to help the next generation. But always preserve your optionality.

2nd Period - Grant Hill

This Bloomberg interview with retired NBA All-Star, Grant Hill, is fantastic. So many nuggets of insight packed into a three minute clip. The NBA excels at promoting their players and encouraging players' athletic lives and outside pursuits to operate symbiotically. 

Let’s break down the insights:

  • Start Early - Prepare for post-athletic life as soon as possible. Fortunately, Grant Hill knew from his father playing in the NFL the trouble that came with being ill-prepared for life-after. I reject the notion that athletes do not have time for this. Baby steps along the way compound hugely over time. 
  • Leverage Likeness - Start early so you can take advantage of your likeness and platform when it's at its peak. Everyone has a likeness whether you play in the NHL or NAHL. If you play junior hockey in a small town, the fact that you play for that team likey means the people of that town are very interested in you and willing to help. Leverage that. I’m sure there are successful industry professionals and business owners to learn from. 
  • Many interests - Develop interests outside your own sport. It will make you more interesting to other people. It helps broaden your worldview on what is out there and can lead to developing a skillset/expertice outside of hockey.
  • Build Rolodex - Focus on building relationships with a wide array of people. It’s easy to build relationships when you do not need something from the other person. Building goodwill along the way allows you to tap into the rolodex you created later. No matter what anyone says, it’s a “who you know world”. As an aside, I hate the term “networking”. It comes across as transactional and cringey. Emphasize relationship building when bolstering your rolodex.
  • Spend Time with Owners - Regardless of level, it’s likely the team owner is a successful professional with a vast set of contacts for you to tap into. Not only will the owner want to help you, but will probably be impressed with your requests. As an example, I heard from a ECHL player that his owner took a shine to him, brought the player to dinner and offered to hook him up at a company at the conclusion of the player’s career.
  • Play as Long as You Can - Keep the main thing, the main thing and that is your hockey career, but work on your post-career along the way. You don’t need to do it all at once. Keep chiseling away at your post-career plans.

3rd Period - Goalie Turned CEO

Knutson Construction, the Minneapolis-based full-service construction company, is in its 112th year of operation, but only its second year with third generation CEO, John Curry, at the helm. In the hockey world, Curry is best known as the Hobey Baker finalist goaltender from Boston University and the hometown kid appearing between the pipes for the Minnesota Wild. After an eight year professional hockey career spanning the globe, Curry successfully pivoted to the family business in 2015 and eventually ascended to the CEO position in 2022. 

In analyzing Curry’s post-playing career from afar, he’s left a trail of insights on successfully pivoting from the ice to the construction site. First and foremost, Curry’s bio on the Knutson Construction website reads:

“John started with Knutson as an intern and laborer—and played eight years of professional hockey before joining the team full-time in 2015 as a business development associate.”

The keyword being “and”. My read through on this is Curry and/or his family knew life after hockey was coming and realized he had to prepare along the way. So while Curry was starring in net for BU or working to crack the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, he was probably swinging hammers and learning the construction trade as a laborer. Many will dismiss this point as Curry having the benefit of being involved in a family business, but the truth is anyone can intern or work as a laborer for a construction company. You just need to find the right company and situation that's amenable to your summer training schedule. Regardless of the industry, the point stands. Get working on your post-playing career as soon as you can. You don’t have to swing hammers in the summer, but gain experience and progress towards an expertise. 

In a publication called, Construction Dive, Curry is interviewed and asked straight-up, “How did your hockey career prepare you for the construction business?” Curry answers (emphasis added):

“Early in my career and through college, I played on some really good teams. The minute that you don’t play for a team that plays well together, or that is not aligned in trying to achieve the same goals, it becomes a scary place for a goalie to be. [In construction], you [also] need a team to rely on. You can’t spend enough time and effort to make sure that the team is engaged, committed and aligned on the goals. 
The other one [lesson] I’m able to apply is about the adversity that you face day in and day out. There are just a lot of highs and a lot of lows [in professional sports]. And I think that’s true in business and construction. You inherently gain composure by going through those experiences where you hit a major problem or an issue and you just try not to get too high or too low. You sort through it and you lean on your team to solve problems.”

Teamwork and composure in the face of adversity. Two tangible examples of characteristics sharpened through the course of a hockey career that translate to business and specifically, construction, in this case. Curry's brief answer illustrates characteristics developed through hockey that 1) players may not realize they carry or 2) not immediately obvious how they translate to a professional setting. My sense is Curry isn’t just saying these things for the sake of the question based on other contextual clues. You can tell the imprint of living a life on hockey teams has imparted. For example, take this next excerpt from the same interview:

CONSTRUCTION DIVE: How do you put your stamp on an established family business, while appreciating where the firm has been?
JOHN C. CURRY: This new leadership team is going to want to chart our own path. But we want to continue a lot of the positive momentum as a company that has been building for the last number of years. We want to continue that mission and our focus on the customer. We also want to continue to grow. Growth is top and bottom line, but it’s also broader. We talk about [growth in] our capabilities, our customers and our capabilities to develop people. 

Curry is asked specifically how he is going to put his personal stamp on the business, but he answers in the collective, from the viewpoint of the leadership team. Setting that team culture and mindset is critical for a CEO and translates very naturally for a hockey player. Curry may not even realize he answered this way, but to me, this is years of being on a team helping a new CEO set a culture. 

I can’t help but flag another interview with John Curry, where these same characteristics are exhibited. In responding to a question about how Knutson fared during Covid, Curry answered:

“But I do remember just really leaning on relationships and partnerships. And that was internal with our employees, and just having open communication and letting them know what we know, what we don’t know. Our goal was to keep our team intact and sort of weather the storm, whatever storm that was going to be. And then externally, it was just open dialogue and communication with our trade partners, our design partners and our clients.”

In the craziest, most uncertain times the business ever faced, the new CEO resorted back to principles developed on the ice rink: teamwork, resiliency, and open communication. All these quotes from Curry are meant to illustrate that much of Curry’s preparation for the CEO seat actually is rooted in his experiences through hockey. Hockey players should be confident that they have skills that translate to other mediums.

Whether it’s an executive team or a crew of laborers, it’s obvious for players to identify a good or bad team. It’s obvious that open and honest communication is necessary and hockey players are comfortable in those work arrangements. It’s obvious for players that you need to weather the storm in the face of adversity. Instead of the adversity being down 2-0 on the road in the first period, it might be a global pandemic creating panic among your customers. Have confidence that you’ve built a foundational skill set that is value-add to organizations of all kinds.

The challenge comes in hockey players marketing themselves to the non-hockey playing business professional, in a way that clearly communicates the transferability of the skills and characteristics built through hockey. In future Pivot Newsletters, we'll review marketing tactics to help spin your story for the professional setting. For a fully tailored assessment of how to market your career path and skillset, reach out to Pivot directly. We'll end with a quote from John Curry that should give confidence to all hockey players.

“And it was such a different lifestyle than what I’m currently living, but tons of great experience and lessons that I reach back to and try to apply every day.”

Game Notes