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Lessons on the high-stakes world of sports leadership

Jan 29, 2024

L-r: Brendan Shanahan and David Simpson

L-r: Brendan Shanahan and David Simpson

In taking on the role of Toronto Maple Leafs president, Brendan Shanahan says he willingly embraced the pressure to help end the team’s half-century Stanley Cup drought because he never shies away from a challenge.

“There’s a bit of a theme in my life – when I get comfortable, I’m always looking for new challenges … I always like the pressure,” he told students at an Ivey sports leadership conference fittingly themed, Thriving Under Pressure.

Shanahan, a former National Hockey League (NHL) player who won three Stanley Cups and an Olympic gold medal, discussed how pressure brings out his best, whether on the ice or in the corner office, for the recent Ivey Sports Leadership Conference. The student-led event also shared insights from behind-the-scenes initiatives contributing to growth in the world of sports, including Rogers Centre renovations aimed at engaging young baseball fans, or the potential impact of FIFA World Cup 2026 on Canadian soccer.

Showcasing careers in sports

The goal of the event was to introduce students to the range of careers in the business of sports by sharing inspiring stories from leaders in the industry. Along with Shanahan, the lineup included professionals from Golf Canada, NBA Canada, Hockey Canada, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, Sportsnet, Stathletes, and the Toronto Blue Jays as well as Canadian Olympic athlete Donovan Bailey.

“There is a common trend where students believe their only options are to pursue careers in finance or consulting,” said Alyssa Evans, an HBA ’24 candidate who co-chaired the event with fellow HBA student Zyler MacDonald. “As sport becomes more commercialized, the business side of the game has become ever more important, opening doors and careers like never before.”

MacDonald said the conference also offered opportunities for students to network with industry professionals. One component was a case competition focused on the Mississauga Steelheads junior hockey team where students presented their application of concepts to a panel of leaders in the field.

“One of our biggest goals this year was to not only inspire students to pursue careers in sports, but also give them the connections necessary to make that happen. We hope the combination of insights from speakers and connections with industry professionals gives students the tools they need to become the next leaders of the sports world.”

Leadership lessons from the NHL

One of the inspiring stories came from Shanahan, who discussed the lessons from his 21-year NHL career that prepared him for business. The session with Shanahan was led by Ivey Entrepreneurship Lecturer David Simpson, who, like Shanahan, is a former professional hockey player and London Knight.

Highlighting the importance of mentors and learning from others, Shanahan said it took roughly a decade for him to learn how to play to win, which he did by observing his teammates. He also noted the benefits of gaining different perspectives, learned while organizing a meeting during the 2004-05 NHL lockout to contribute to rule changes when the league returned.

Advising that the key to getting noticed is to ask questions and learn about other aspects outside of your area, Shanahan encouraged the students to make themselves useful to others, move out of their comfort zone, and embrace challenges.

“So many people are concerned about where they want to end up that they’re not thinking, What can I do today to help the people around me? They immediately want to be in the corner suite," he said. “The greatest way to build a network around you is to be sought after because you’re making others look good and you’re helping them finish their goals … Be an asset and see how things happen for you."

It’s a little bit like being a rookie (in sports) … you say, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do so long as I can help,’ and then an opportunity pops up as you go along and you might rise up."
– Brendan Shanahan on making your mark in business

The Ivey Sports Leadership Conference (ISLC) is co-founded by The Chayka Family and Golf Canada, as well as numerous corporate sponsors. ISLC 2024 was presented in partnership with BMO and The Parsons Group.