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Hockey Future NHL stars learn about taxes, drugs and more at Rookie Orientation Program

Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey (44) battles for the puck against New York Rangers right wing Michael Grabner (40) during the third period at MTS Centre.

Bruce Fedyck/USA Today Sports

Armed with pens instead of hockey sticks, the NHL's future stars are learning about more than just power plays and puck possession.

Over the past couple of summers, many of the league's young players have attended sessions on taxes and investments, diversity, social media, drugs and alcohol and mock disciplinary hearings.

It's part of the annual Rookie Orientation Program, a joint initiative started in 2013 between the league and the NHL Players' Association to ensure that the league's young players develop life skills along with their on-ice talents. The program sees 80 to 90 players each summer attend two days packed with workshops.

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"We had different exercises in each class, and it did feel a lot like school," said Winnipeg Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. "We were learning. I met a lot of cool people that can help you out in different areas. They had some really great speakers."

The rookie was one of a number of young players who talked to The Canadian Press about attending the program over the past two years.

A key area of the program's emphasis is the need for players to gain some financial independence, whether they have a team of experts around them or not.

"We don't want the agents to do everything for them, we don't want their accountants to do everything for them," Mathieu Schneider, the NHLPA's special assistant to the executive director, said in a phone interview.

"We want them to ask questions of their financial advisers and things of that nature."

NHL entry-level contracts have a maximum yearly salary of US$925,000, which can rise to $3.775 million with bonuses.

An NHL club can send up to three entry-level players it believes will be playing "for a significant period of time in the upcoming season" to the ROP held in Virginia or Washington, D.C.

Rookie top picks Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg's Patrik Laine were exempt this year because they were competing in the World Cup. They'll go next year.

The program replaced an information session at the draft that lasted for just a few hours.

Schneider, a defenceman who played 20 seasons in the NHL and retired in 2010, said he never received similar information until he was in his mid-20s.

"Particularly when you look at the average career length, which is just under five years, this stuff is extremely important, extremely valuable," he said. "I think today's players recognize that more than ever."

Edmonton forward Leon Draisaitl said the financial lessons are valuable.

"At the end of the day, it's your money and you want to know what's happening with it," Draisaitl said. "I think it's really important that you know what's going on and that you watch your money and you have good people surrounding yourself."

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Edmonton star Connor McDavid admitted it's not easy to concentrate on hockey and also keep his eyes on his finances.

"I'm lucky that I have a very good team around me that kind of handles that stuff," the 19-year-old Oilers captain said. "I don't know too much about it. It's definitely something I try to learn more about and stuff like that, but I don't think most of my friends at 19 know too much about money, either, so I think that's pretty normal."

The program made reference to Columbus defenceman Jack Johnson, who gave his parents power of attorney. The couple mismanaged his money and he filed for bankruptcy protection. Most of his NHL salary is now going to creditors.

The reality is players can be targets, from people wanting them to invest in a business, women seeking them out or old friends showing up on their doorsteps, Schneider said.

Jets centre Andrew Copp is cautious.

"You're very aware of intentions," the 22-year-old said. "You don't want to question people's integrity, but at the same time you're just very aware of the possible ramifications of trusting the wrong people."

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Because NHL players are under a microscope, using social media is another ROP topic.

"They teach you to make sure when you post stuff on social media or anything like that, that think of it as a newspaper getting published," Toronto forward Mitch Marner said.

Calgary's Matthew Tkachuk was asked if the program's content covered the skills he learned from his dad, former NHL star Keith Tkachuk.

"It was more about the stuff away from the ice that you can get in trouble with, which you have to be careful with," the rookie said. "It's the NHL's drug policy and drug testing. It's media. We did media training."

Participants give anonymous feedback about the program and also get contacts if they have questions down the road.

"It's late in the summer, kind of when you're getting ready for camp, so that part of it kind of sucks," McDavid said. "But at the end of the day, it's good to learn some of those things."

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