"My first or second day at school , basically they said, probably none of you are ever going to be the general manager of a professional team," says Corey Wray, who enrolled at Brock University's sports management program in 2002.
But a few people who took the specialized program have come close: Mr. Wray, 29, is the senior manager of team operations for Toronto FC of Major League Soccer and his fellow student, Kyle Dubas, 28, made headlines when the Toronto Maple Leafs recently hired him as one of the youngest assistant general managers in the National Hockey League. Their trajectories are examples of what happens when people who are interested in a specific career, such as sports, pursue it as far as they can with the help of a specialized degree.
When they enrolled, Mr. Dubas was a scout with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, and Mr. Wray was working in a Mississauga soccer store.
And while becoming the general manager of a professional team may or may not be in their futures, taking a degree in sports management revealed the true breadth of the career spectrum they were about to embark on. "None of us are, or maybe never will be, [a GM]," says Mr. Wray, "but it hit home that this is about a lot more than just wheeling and dealing and doing trades."
After being hired away from the Greyhounds last month, Mr. Dubas will be fully immersed in the player-acquisition side of his sport. Having worked for the OHL team since he was 11, the Soo native – and Ottawa Senators fan – had always dreamed of becoming an NHL GM, and felt that a specialized degree in sports management at the St. Catharines, Ont.-based school could only assist in achieving that goal.
"While I was working [for the Greyhounds] I'd decided that I definitely wanted to work in sports and thought that the Brock University degree was the best way for me to further my own education and to give myself the best chance to continue to work in sports and have a career in sports," he says.
But Mr. Dubas will be the first to admit that getting to where he is takes a lot more than just going to class.
"You need to really get as much experience as you can and the education and the program can serve as something that can augment your abilities and they give you lots of opportunities to find your way and find your career but it's not easy," he admits.
"You're not just going to exit and get a job in hockey operations or anything like that. "It's a long road, it's not just because you walk out with your degree that you're going to have the job that you've dreamed of your whole life."
For those who have a clear idea of where they want to go though, enrolling into a specialized degree such as sports management can pay solid dividends down the road.
"The pros of going into a specialized program are if the student has specific career goals, specialized education can help you learn the fundamentals skills of the profession," says Susanne Thorup, manager of career and planning services at Concordia University in Montreal.
It can give you some of those skills and it can be beneficial when going on the job market and it also can provide more of a linear career path; you kind of know what career you're going into."
As a die-hard soccer nut, Mr. Wray certainly knew where he wanted to go. The problem was top-level professional soccer didn't exist in Canada in 2002 when he first went off to Brock. At the time, Mr. Wray felt that he may have to relocate to Europe.
But Toronto FC came into being right around the time that Mr. Wray was looking for an internship as part of his degree, and, even though the team had no stadium and just one player, it eventually offered the Mississauga native a four-month internship with the team. That eventually turned into a part-time contract position in game-day operations, where he performed exciting tasks, such as getting coffee, photocopying and wearing a sumo suit during a halftime show.
"Being in Toronto, the largest city in Canada, a lot of people want to work here but obviously there's not an unlimited amount of jobs, so the path getting to where you might want to get [is never clearly defined]," he says. "I was very fortunate because of timing, because of a number of different things, but in this organization, you can get in at a number of different levels and work your way around. Good work is hard to hide."
But that work doesn't necessarily have to be in a sports capacity. Like other specialized degrees, the sports management degree taught transferable skills, such as business, management, economics, sport law, finance, or as Kirsty Spence, associate professor in sport management at Brock, calls it, "a liberal arts degree in sports management."
Having taught both Mr. Dubas and Mr. Wray, Ms. Spence is happy to see the pair blaze their trails through the sporting stratosphere, along with fellow Brock sport management graduate Andrew Tinnish, now the assistant general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, but says that going into sports isn't a prerequisite.
"We definitely have a number of students who graduate and then go on to non-sport-related work, but the skills are extremely transferable to mainstream or educational settings," she says. "We have a number of students who end up wanting to go into teaching or into the financial sector as financial planners, and so on."
Chantelle Grant is another graduate of the sport management program at Brock. Though she is the deputy manager in accreditation for next year's Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in Southern Ontario, she knows that once those events end, she'll be looking for a new job, and it doesn't necessarily have to be in sports.
"I've had a lot of people approaching me from other industries," says the Mississauga native. "Once you can manage relationships, you can take that anywhere, so I've had people from RBC and CIBC come and I'd never thought of working for a bank, but once you have that relationship management and client service experience, it does transfer to other industries."