The business of hockey
It was a good year for Craig MacTavish. In 2011, he completed his EMBA at Queen’s and started a new job as head coach of the Chicago Wolves, a team in the American Hockey League. Craig has had a long and distinguished career in hockey, first as a player (he played for 19 seasons in the NHL, and won four Stanley Cups), then as a coach (with the Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers), and a TV sports analyst. But Craig always had his eye on furthering his education as well.
“I saw that the guys who transitioned best from professional sports went back to school for additional training - some in law, some in business.” In fact, when Craig retired as a player in 1997, he was accepted into the MBA program at the University of Alberta, but then put his school plans on hold when he was offered his first coaching job with the Rangers. He was kept busy in the NHL until 2009, when he parted ways with the Oilers. “I thought if ever I was in between jobs, I’d explore going back to school,” Craig says. “I like staying busy. I never thought I’d be out of NHL work long enough to give it a go.” But the opportunity arose, and Craig was accepted into the Executive MBA program at Queen’s. He also began a new career as a hockey commentator on TSN.
The 16-month EMBA program is designed for working managers, and lets them take part in virtual classes and group work from their home cities. Teamwork is stressed in the program, and Craig found that he really enjoyed the team dynamic. “We had a terrific group of people,” he says, “all very self-motivated. We had an eclectic mix of skill sets. I was really fortunate to have been part of that group.” He learned a lot by collaborating with people with diverse business experiences. “The power of the team is obviously in maximizing those skill sets and in reducing and protecting any weaknesses.”
And were any of his classmates star-struck by the idea of working with a four-time Stanley Cup winner? “No, definitely not,” he laughs. “I was on a level playing field with everyone else.” He did, however, give his Queen’s teammates a taste of the business world of hockey when they chose a project that involved working together on a proposal for an international hockey tournament. “We were sponsored by Hockey Canada,” says Craig. “We went to the IIHF World Championship (Craig was by then Coach for Team Canada at the 2010 Championship), talked to members of other federations about their interest in such a venture, then did revenue projections.”
Last year, another MacTavish joined the ranks of Queen’s students: Craig’s son Nathan, who is in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. While the two were never on campus at the same time as students, Craig gets a kick out of the fact that they have matching father-and-son Queen’s student cards.
Craig completed his MBA program in June; two months later, he was approached by the Chicago Wolves for the Head Coach job. Like every AHL team, the Wolves are affiliated with an NHL team. Last year, the Wolves signed an agreement with the Vancouver Canucks, a noted rival of Chicago’s NHL team, the Blackhawks. There’s a little bit of tension with Blackhawks fans, Craig admits, “but it’s more comedic than anything. The Wolves have a different fan base; we attract a lot of families. Our games provide family-friendly, affordable entertainment.”
The team plays Fridays and Saturdays; Monday is a day off, and then Tuesdays through Thursdays are practice days. “They are full days,” says Craig. “There’s always something to do, from preparation to the breakdown of the team’s plays.”
As Head Coach, Craig’s job involves, on the one hand, building a strong roster of players, and, on the other, helping individual players develop their skills. “It’s not all that difficult a balancing act,” he says. “As your players develop and get better, generally your team does too. There’s only so much time you have in the day, and in that time you’re doing one of three things: individual development, team development, or pre-scouts. But the nice thing about hockey at this level is that you have a lot of practice time. It’s not as unrelenting as the NHL schedule. We can use that practice time to develop the players.”
If an AHL coach does a good job of developing his players, he faces the possibility of losing them to an NHL team. Craig doesn’t find that too frustrating. “That’s a success story for us, to get a player to play and contribute at the NHL level. That’s what we are ultimately here for; we’re a developmental league. At the same time, winning is a big part of development.”
Reflecting on his coaching style, Craig says, “I don’t think I’m a tough coach, but you have to be demanding to get your players to a certain level of execution.” At the same time, he sees that coaching styles have evolved in the years since he was a player. “Like any business venture, there’s more of a collaborative relationship between players and coaches. That has been a change for the good. You have to sell your tactics, and they have to be backed up by success on the ice, so that you have the credibility to continue to deliver your message.”