One of my favourite times of year is when I enter the classroom setting with our various skills academies and discuss hockey opportunities around the world. Hockey has been an incredible part of my life and I like to share my experiences with kids in a way that may inspire them to pursue their goals — whether they are hockey-, career- or hobby-related. When we discuss common experiences and fun stories about hockey around the world, I am always amazed at how thoughtful students can be when it comes to planning their futures.
There is not one path to the top.
The closest I ever made it to the National Hockey League (NHL) was a brief mention in the Hockey News Junior Rankings in 1995. The issue reserved the tiniest space to list three prospects in the Manitoba Junior League. A teammate of my brother’s at Union College phoned to say I was in it. That felt great, yet fleeting. They somehow missed me in the next issue — and the one after that. While playing in Europe, I had the chance to play with and against many former NHL players. It was always the most humbling experience to see the gap between those with NHL experience and the rest of us. The most rewarding challenges were when I was given the chance to line-match against these elite players and try to shut them down. I remember the crowd in Geneva cheering any time Oleg Petrov touched the puck — even if it was in his own zone. They knew their team had a chance to score.
Hockey has given me some great life experiences. It has been the impetus of my travels to 30-plus countries and it has helped me to learn three languages. I have been involved in the game all my life and it is still the way I earn my living. I know for certain that no agent or coach impeded my chances of a life in the NHL. I was not good enough!
Today, young players — and their parents, for that matter — often seem to feel that the only way to have success in hockey is to follow a certain path:
- Play A1 Rep hockey at every level
- Play AAA spring tournaments
- Get drafted or listed with a Major Junior Team
- Play Major Junior or Junior A Hockey
- Get drafted or play NCAA Hockey
- Win a championship and maybe even the Hobey Baker Award
- Have a wonderful pro career
- Wait for someone to throw you a retirement party
- Play minor hockey in a small town (and not really know what AAA means)
- Play minor hockey in Switzerland for a few years, wishing I could ski more
- Play high school hockey instead of Midget
- Play three-and-a-half years of Junior before being traded at the end of my 20-year-old year
- Play seven seasons of professional hockey (only two of those on the same team)
- Almost every summer, look for a new team that wants me
- Love it sometimes; wonder why I don’t love it other times
- Travel with hockey teams to countries all over the world
- Get hurt, stop playing, and soon realize no one is going to organize a retirement party for me
- Run a private lesson in Central Park, NYC, which turns into a full-time business called Leslie Global Sports
- At 35, look back and notice hockey has given me everything I could ever want: life experience, a great family, a business, a lifelong fraternity, a loving wife and (soon to be) a son.
There is no one path. Dream big. Set your ‘outcome goals’ as high as you want. Try to make them your goals, not your parents’. Set ‘process goals’ to get you on your way. Re-evaluate every few months. Adjust your goals. Celebrate your own success. Enjoy the game. Appreciate the friends it has given you and the lessons it has taught you. Repeat.