This is the 18th story in our series looking at MBAs and other business-school graduates who are working in non-traditional fields.
The start of the hockey season always brings a sense of new beginning for players, coaches and fans.
It is no different for hockey agents, too, particularly those with high-profile clients either starting their careers or skating reluctantly toward the finish line.
So Thane Campbell will be watching with interest this week as clients such as Justin Williams, the newly named captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, begins his 18th NHL season, while youngster Liam Foudy, drafted 18th overall this summer by the Columbus Blue Jackets, makes the transition to professional hockey.
Many of his carefully cultivated stable of clients have achieved the ultimate on-ice success, with both Mr. Williams and the now-retired Michael Ryder lifting the Stanley Cup during their NHL tenures. But behind the scenes, Mr. Campbell has been quietly forging his own path in the hockey world.
That included getting a business degree with an accounting major from the University of Prince Edward Island before diving in at the deep end at Dalhousie University with the double bill of a law degree combined with an MBA. That meant he earned the two degrees over four years rather than the five it would have taken doing them separately.
The 1986 graduate even found time to play varsity hockey for the Dalhousie Tigers during some of his less frantic years there, though he’s not sure now it was the smartest decision he’s ever made.
“That’s kind of silly to have been doing that as well, to be honest with you, because it’s a pretty gruelling program alone,” he says.
The Summerside native says he was probably the only non-undergraduate on the team, and that ultimately his school workload meant he couldn’t play all the games. But he adds that finding the ability to juggle his commitments to both school and hockey taught him a lot.
“Really an MBA is about time management and I guess it’s an added element of time management, trying to do two degrees at once,” he says.
After graduation in 1986, Mr. Campbell began practising law in Prince Edward Island before moving to Toronto and entering private practice in 1995. It was around that time that he decided that he wanted to represent hockey players, too, ultimately setting up PCI Hockey in Mississauga.
The first client he took on was a 15-year-old named Jonathan Cheechoo, a player who went on to win the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer with 56 goals in the 2005-06 season.
Mr. Campbell says he is very selective about the players he works with, and tries to keep the number of clients he represents at any one time to a level he can handle in addition to his work as a lawyer.
He adds that getting a solid grounding in law was essential to finding success as a hockey agent, and he wasn’t about to put all of his eggs in one basket and focus entirely on the hockey industry.
“I think the hockey business, representing players, is a very difficult business to get into and there’s no certainty there so I would have been foolish to sort of drop everything and try to get there,” he says.
“I don’t think there was any compensation for six years or so, so you’ve got to have some ability to stay in the game.”
The 57-year-old says that adding hockey agent to his responsibilities brings a breath of fresh air to his day-to-day work, and makes for a welcome change from the constant grind of litigation. His ability to juggle both roles can be attributed to his time at Dalhousie, he says.
“I would say the MBA-law [program] would be one of the best programs to ensure that you know how to work and you know how to manage your time,” he says.
He’s often found that his educational background also gives him a leg up on the competition in the heated hockey agent industry, particularly with parents, who can often eye people like Mr. Campbell and others with suspicion. For instance, he says one of his younger clients had about 30 agents try to sell their services to him before he found Mr. Campbell.
“When you tell them your educational background, I think parents generally respect that. … They know what that means,” he says.
In the hockey agent fraternity, Mr. Campbell estimates there are probably about 5 to 10 per cent with an MBA or with a chartered accountancy background, while he thinks that around 60 per cent have a law degree.
In his own experience, he says that getting his MBA led to him being more entrepreneurial, and without it, he may not have gone the route of setting up his own hockey agency.
But then jumping in with both feet and taking on big challenges can be attributed to what Mr. Campbell describes as the “MBA personality type.” Coming from a family of lawyers – his father and uncle both practised – he felt a pressure to differentiate himself from the family trade, hence the will to establish himself in the hockey world.
Getting his MBA was key to that move, though.
“I think an MBA is a wonderful degree from a number of perspectives, including marketing because it just shows … you know how to work and you’re focused and you know something about business and professional hockey is a business,” he says.