Ryan O’Byrne was accustomed to getting some good-natured ribbing while spending more than a decade playing professional hockey, including eight years in the National Hockey League.
That’s because Mr. O’Byrne – who played more than 300 NHL games for the Montreal Canadiens, Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leafs – forfeited his final year of college at Cornell University, an Ivy League school in Ithaca, N.Y., to start his on-ice career.
“There were definitely some chirps, and some ‘that Ivy League guy’ type comments,” recalls a smiling Mr. O’Byrne of a bygone time.
But now the 34-year-old is getting the last laugh, and he’s out to prove hockey’s tough guys can be just as effective in the office as they were on open ice.
When Mr. O’Byrne retired from professional hockey in 2016, he returned to Cornell as a 32-year-old to wrap up his undergraduate degree. He’s now in the midst of a master of business administration at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University just outside of Chicago. He expects to graduate in June of 2019.
With front offices of NHL teams skewing younger and filled with analytical minds, the native of Victoria thinks he could be a key addition to any team, combining his body-checking past with his book-smarts present.
“It’s always been in the back of my head, working for a front office in the NHL,” Mr. O’Byrne says. “I think I can add a lot of value. It’s still a big passion of mine, obviously. I still follow the NHL very closely.”
He would be part of a growing group of highly educated NHL brass.
Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois, for example, is a graduate of the University of Montreal’s faculty of law and has an MBA from Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business, also in Montreal. John Chayka, GM of the Arizona Coyotes, is just 29 and has an honours business administration degree from Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.
Mr. O’Byrne’s former team, the Maple Leafs, tapped 32-year-old Kyle Dubas, a bachelor of sport management graduate from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., to replace 76-year-old Lou Lamoriello as its GM this past off-season.
And Jason Botterill, GM of the Buffalo Sabres, got his MBA from the University of Michigan in 2007, a couple of years after a concussion abruptly ended his NHL career at just 88 games.
In less than 10 years, he went from being a retired player to running a franchise. “Every day I feel like I continue to utilize my degree,” says Mr. Botterill, adding his MBA gave him an edge over other qualified candidates when he was trying to get his foot in the door.
“Getting my MBA and combining that with being a pro player allowed me to differentiate myself from other candidates ... and so many things I learned at business school have helped me with my career.”
Mr. O’Byrne envisages a similar path and says he’s going to reach out to a number of NHL executives to see if there is a fit after he graduates. “In the NHL, there is more and more of a transition to that analytical side, and that’s something you learn at business school,” he says.
Hockey has encouraged this trend, too, through the emergence of training programs specifically aimed at the front-office executive of the future. The University of Athabasca, for example, launched a “business of hockey MBA” a couple of years ago, spearheaded by long-time executive Brian Burke.
Mr. O’Byrne played three years of junior hockey in his hometown before getting recruited by Cornell. The former defenceman admits when he was at Cornell initially he was a “typical” young athlete, more focused on succeeding in hockey than in the classroom.
“Going back to Cornell at 32 was an eye-opener for me,” he says.
Mr. O’Byrne was more than a dozen years older than most of his classmates when he returned to complete his undergrad. Combine that with the scars on his face from a few errant sticks, elbows, pucks and fists, and the 6-foot-5, 235-pound giant definitely stood out.
“They probably thought: This guy has done a couple tours of Afghanistan,” he says. “After a few weeks, [they] started to know my story. The professors were keeping a close eye on me, wondering if I was going to be all-in or just there to be there. But I was 100-per-cent all-in.”
Mr. O’Byrne says he has always enjoyed learning. He has also served on the National Hockey League Players' Association executive board – when he was in Colorado and a board position came open, he heard rumblings that the “Ivy League guy should do it,” so he did – and he coached a little for a team in Europe.
“I’ve been back in school for almost 2 ½ years and there’s never a time when I’ve thought, oh, I’m bored of school," he says. “I’m always enjoying it. I’m always engaged.”
He settled on Northwestern because of its culture of inclusivity and its location in the smaller city of Evanston, Ill. But, he says, he still felt intimidated when he started his MBA. Many of his classmates had spent upward of seven years working for top-tier consulting firms or at companies such as Uber.
“It took me a number of months to find my footing and feel confident,” he says. “I felt like I could add a lot of value in the leadership and teamwork side – things I learned while playing professional sports – but it took a few months to get that confidence to really take full advantage of the program.”
Mr. O’Byrne spent last summer working in New York in real estate finance for Allianz, a German financial services company. He also took the Canadian Securities Course prior to returning to Cornell, and has expressed interest in working in wealth management if his pursuit of an NHL front-office gig doesn’t come to fruition.
Although the future isn’t as clear as it was more than a decade earlier, he knows he made the right decision to head back to school.
He had suffered through a myriad of injuries and had hip surgery prior to what was going to be his final year of professional hockey. He was in and out of the lineup of HV71, a team in the Swedish Hockey League, and knew when he was done.
“I wouldn’t trade those 10 years of professional hockey for anything,” he says. “I learned a lot of valuable life skills and made some incredible friendships, but it was time to move on.”