Former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch thought he had it made. After a successful pro-career that spanned more than a decade, Hirsch began working as a goalie coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs and then with the St. Louis Blues.
Then he got fired and suddenly found himself with nothing. That’s when an email from the NHL Alumni Association directed him to the NHL Alumni Breakaway program. A few months later, by November 2014, he was at Ryerson taking a seminar on sports media.
Now he’s a frequent contributor to Sportsnet’s NHL broadcasts.
“It’s amazing how when I got fired, (I was) thinking it was the worst thing that was ever going to happen,” he said. “It (ended) up being the best thing.”
The NHL Alumni Breakaway program supports former players as they transition to a career off the ice. It provides everything from help enrolling in classes, to support with starting a business, to providing players with better professional skills.
In 2011, the NHL Alumni Breakaway program approached Ryerson about forming a partnership with the Ted Rogers School of Management. Marla Spergel, a sessional instructor in the marketing department, was chosen to give a presentation to the NHL Alumni Association about what the school could offer.
Spergel is now the education and strategy consultant with the NHL Alumni Breakaway program while still teaching six course sessions at Ryerson. Her responsibilities include helping players choose courses, helping players who want to start a business work on their marketing strategies, and setting up workshops and other courses, both online and off-line.
“It’s based on getting them motivated towards careers and showing them they have certain skill sets that they don’t realize (they have) when they come out of the game,” Spergel said. “Because they simply think of only hockey (but) they come out with a lot of emotional and intelligent skill sets.”
In her role with the NHL Alumni Breakaway program, Spergel has expanded the course offerings from just the business school to include the RTA school of media and courses at other universities such as McGill and Syracuse University. She is also looking to expand to Athabasca University in Alberta.
Some of the courses are online while others are a mix of online and classroom sessions. The NHL Alumni Breakaway program also includes communication seminars, financial and legal assistance, and mentorship networks. In all, it has serviced hundreds of players in the last five years, according to its website.
“(The players) need to know that you really care,” Spergel said.
Despite the program’s growth and high-profile students, Ryerson does not support it financially in any way. According to Spergel, every time she asks the school for discounts on classes or scholarships, they turn her down.
The workshops offered by the NHL Alumni Breakaway program are free to the players, including airfare and hotels. This not-for-profit program gets money from a portion of the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund, which is collected whenever a player is fined or suspended.
At McGill, the players get a discount on fast-tracked MBA certificates. But at Ryerson, there are no discounts or scholarships on the programs. Spergel says administration wrongly assumes the former players are millionaires who can pay for the classes themselves. But the players in the program are more likely to have not played in the NHL long and are not always in good financial standing, because they aren’t given much or any financial advice while playing the game.
Spergel says the goal is to help the players find a second calling in life. But she also believes that there is a great opportunity being missed for the two brands to promote each other.
“I think what’s too bad is that (Ryerson) hasn’t taken on more of a connection with the alumni program,” Spergel said. “It is a shame that even on the front page (of Ryerson’s website) they don’t have (the NHL) as a partner.”
Ryerson interim president Mohamed Lachemi admitted he doesn’t know much about the program but agreed with Spergel that there is potential to grow the relationship.
“The Breakaway program is an interesting opportunity to us,” he said. “I think it’s good to have the athletes that are in the NHL to be part of the Ryerson community.”
Hirsch doesn’t believe that the school needs to promote the NHL Alumni Breakaway program, but if there were an event or some other way for him to give back to the school, he would. He had nothing but great things to say about his experience at Ryerson and he recommends it to any player looking to move into the next chapter of his life after hockey.
“The facilities were first class, the people are all very kind and very helpful and it’s a great networking opportunity,” Hirsch said. “It was fantastic.”
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Ryersonian.