Politics: How NOT to Become a Professional Hockey Player

A couple months ago, I wrote about my experience playing hockey. That period of my life was extremely influential on me and I thought I could share what happened after.

I left off my hockey story in choosing to go the U.S. Scholarship route. After returning from Sudbury, the Burlington Cougars were the team I ended up playing for. As before, I had to put in hard work and ended up playing an important role for the team as the season went on. The Cougars finished the year as one of the top teams and made it deep into the playoffs.

I approached the second year with great confidence that I would continue to grow and keep getting better Unbeknownst to me, in the summer, the Burlington Cougars had decided to make some changes to their coaches.

They brought in a new coach who had a different mindset of what a defenseman did- dissimilar from how I had succeeded the prior year. I was more of an offensive defenseman, one that would join the attack and take offensive risks. The new coach, on the other hand, wanted conservative play, hard-nosed hitting, and intimidation of other players.

Needless to say, I was not a fan of the change. I did not have the skills for the desired style of play and was butting heads with the new coach.

For one particular game, these tensions came to an overwhelming boiling point. A U.S. college was coming to see me play and I was highly anticipating their arrival. When they informed my team that they were there to see me, the new coach decided to sit me out throughout the entire game, eventually putting me on the ice for the last shift- as a forward!

After that incident, I quit the Cougars and requested a trade. I knew this was not the way to handle my relationship with the team that had worked so closely with me, but at that point, I just did not enjoy hockey and was willing to throw it all away over the way I had been handled.

The teams I played for were small market for-profit companies that were in business to sell tickets. They needed talented players to not only play for them in the present but in addition not to mess up their team in the middle of the season. Since the owner was furious with my approach, he decided to make an example of me.

He refused to respect my request for a trade for critical months until he eventually traded me to the worst team in the league. I don’t know if he basically got a bag of pucks in return, but he was clearly trying to make a point- I was over my head politically and I would pay for it.

Luckily, I negotiated a quick release from that team and ultimately joined a strong team but by then the damage was done. My former team delayed trading me during the crucial recruiting part of the year where key offers happen- by the time I was back on the ice, very few U.S. colleges were still recruiting.

By the time I settled onto another team, I had my full bitter taste of politics (although I would learn this lesson again in other ways). I had to learn through trial and error (and a young naive mindset), as to what made an organization work. I thought the interest of the players would be higher than an owner’s want to control, but I never took into account other people’s wants or the precedent I would be setting.

I eventually came to realize that you need to be aware, not only of what you want out of a situation but what the other side wants as well. It’s important to be able to put yourself in another person’s shoes in order to properly understand an outcome that they will find acceptable.

Secondly, I came to truly respect people who were authentic and spoke to you straight, not those who would dance around what they truly wanted to say or those who were uncertain about what they stood for.

When you see a difference with what someone says and what they do, conversations no longer carry weight. Instead, it usually indicates an air of dishonesty. In my situation, this was applicable in both ways; some of my actions were made out of emotion and a bruised ego. While I had to own my behavior, I could have handled myself much better.

When you see a difference with what someone says and what they do, conversations no longer carry weight. Click To Tweet

I came to appreciate being related to organizations that believed deeply in developing others. I knew that I had a particular skill set and it did not fit in with the new coach’s playing. At my age, I was unable to have that conversation effectively.

The coach and the team did not have a flexible approach to my development and ultimately that ended up poorly for both of us. I lost a great deal in the situation and the team lost a committed player.

Looking back, my exit from hockey helped me see how people in organizations think, what influences the decisions they make and how to properly interact with those around me.

How have past experiences helped you navigate through organizational politics?

-Mike

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