Every single day of my life, I’ve envisioned myself either shooting a jumper in the NBA, catching a pass in the NFL or fielding a ball in the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, I usually realize quite quickly that my fellow “teammates” aren’t really there or that I probably look like an idiot running around the company bathroom avoiding “defenders.” Other than attending live sporting events, my daydreams were the closest thing I had to being around other athletes.
Coming into HBS, the last thing I expected was to be around any professional athletes. Surprisingly, I was able to meet John Lanza early on, who played football at Boston College and was invited to training camp for the Vikings. However, the biggest shock came when I realized that I sat in Section F next to a former hockey player.
From that point on, I’ve asked him about hockey, professional athletes and other related sporting questions. More than that, I wanted to know what a professional athlete was doing at HBS and his thoughts about life at the school.
So here is Byron Penstock’s story.
Q: Tell me about how you got started in hockey and the position you played.
A: Well, I started when I was 6 in Canada which is a bit later than most. In Canada, as soon as you can walk, you start learning how to skate. I started out as a goalie, which is what I played my whole career. Basically, I went to a hockey game with my family and saw the goalies and thought they had cool equipment so I wanted to try it out. My dad bought all new equipment which got me into the position and I never changed.
Q: In terms of being a goalie, when you sit in front of the net, what goes through your mind?
A: Being a goalie is a lot different mentally than any other position for the reason that you are out on the ice for long periods of time where you are not actively involved. There’s an element of concentration that’s not needed by most hockey players and athletes in general that are involved in active play. You might sit on the ice for 5 to 10 minutes without any action, so the biggest challenge is always to stay focused.
Q: Talk about your progression into professional hockey.
A: First, I didn’t get drafted. I signed on as a free agent. What normally happens is that most hockey players, especially goalies, get drafted after their 17 or 18 year old period. I had a bit of a later start where my breakthrough year in juniors was when I was 19. I had a great year. I was rated to get drafted. I spoke with a bunch of teams who had said they were most likely to draft me. In drafts, teams project to draft you in a certain round, but what usually happens is that someone they thought wouldn’t be available becomes available at that spot so they push you back in their draft order. I didn’t get drafted. I was hurt. It was devastating.
However, a week later, I got a call from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. They told me beforehand that they were looking for one more goalie in their system. Their hope was that one would play well enough to earn a spot. It was a good situation for me because most times, hockey players go into camp just to fill out the roster without a realistic chance of making the squad. I had a few good games right away during camp. The general manager for the Ducks came up to me after one of the scrimmages and in the most direct way asked “Who’s your agent?” I gave him the name and he walked away. I called my agent. My agent talked with the GM and found out that they wanted to offer me a contract.
In the span of a few months, I realized how the world of professional sports operated.
Q: How was your relationship with your agent?
A: Being a 19 year old and not a top draft pick, there weren’t any agents scrambling to pick me up as a client. I went with a guy with limited experience, but it was someone I thought I could trust. Actually, I was his first client, so he was quite inexperienced. When I got the offer, I found that my agent didn’t know anything and I ended up doing most of the negotiations through him. After a while, I got scared that things would fall through because of his lack of experience and I called another GM of a junior team and he called up a very big agent, Don Meehan. He told Don that he had a player who was a free agent and has been offered a contract by the Ducks. I ended up firing my agent and went with Don Meehan immediately.
There’s a perception that agents are slimy, greedy people. I don’t think that agents are as bad anymore. There were agents such as Alan Eagelson that gave agents a bad name early on. He was THE agent during the 70s and 80s. He was Bobby Orr’s agent. He was a flat out crook. He was also the union leader. He had kickback arrangements with the NHL. He ended up going to jail. Anytime you have players who don’t know too much about money and how to handle money and you’re relying on a third party, there’s always the potential for you to get taken advantage of. Now, as an agent, you can’t afford to have your reputation tarnished. Agents for the most part now are more honest.
There’s another level of agents which is the recruiting side. They are getting the bad reputation now as being really slimy. It’s part of the business because the competition for players is so intense and the natural trend for agents to recruit younger and younger and give them bigger and bigger promises.
You learn very quickly who to trust in sports.
Q: Talk about your experience with the Ducks and the types of personalities you’ve encountered.
A: People go across the board in hockey. People who are playing at that level have done great things to get there. Especially in Canada, they are given a position in society, which most people have no grasp about. They have a lot more money. They great treated better in public. There are fringe benefits. People react to that in many different ways. There are some players who are the most humble people in the world. They feel that because they are in that situation, they have a perspective that most people don’t have. For example, there was a player called Terry Yake.
He had played a bunch of years, most recently with the Ducks. He wasn’t a great player, but a solid contributor. When I first came up, we connected because we came from the same area, Manitoba. He immediately grew a liking to me and showed me the ropes. He wanted me to feel like I was part of the team and that he understood what I was going through. He told me not to be nervous.
There are others who have gotten to this level and they feel like the demand respect from others. You see people abuse their position and their status in society. Another thing that exists is that during training camp, there is one contingent that knows they have their jobs locked up and the other contingent, the minor league players, who most likely won’t make the team and will rejoin their minor league team shortly.
There are also the minor league players who are so much more competitive and are always trying to establish themselves. They start trying to exclude each other where they want to eat before others, get on the bus first, etc. You don’t see that type of childish behavior with NHL players.
Q: Alright, let’s change the topic a bit and try to tie it in with HBS. Talk about your first day in camp and how it compares to your first day at the business school.
A: It’s similar in many different aspects. First, you come in with the knowledge you’ve done well in some prior level or job and because of that success, at this next level, you are now surrounded by people who have done the same things and even more. Certainly, when you’ve had success, your first inclination is to find out how you stack up. That feeling is the pretty similar across hockey and HBS.
However, there’s a lot less pressure in B-school because it’s much more cut and dry. You are monitored every step in the way in hockey. If you don’t well, you get weeded out of the system. That’s not the same as HBS. You don’t have that same kind of stress or pressure to perform well
Q: Describe the intensity and competitive spirit within hockey and its carryover into the business world.
A: Obviously, sports are competitive. It’s an interesting dynamic because you have a team versus the other teams in the league. You also have the players on the team. There’s something totally different which I haven’t seen too much in business. Players are ultra-competitive within the organization where players are always jockeying for playing time, recognition and sponsorship. However, once the game time starts, everything changes immediately and everyone gets on the same page. Even the worst teams act like this.
In business, you have internally the same competition looking for raises, promotions, etc. but you don’t have that same situation where people get together to face the competition in the same way. For example, in investment banking, people may be fighting for the biggest deal or bonus, but you don’t have that same type of teamwork where people really get together to fight the same battle. It seems that despite what people may say, everyone in business is always looking out for themselves.
Q: What is a leader in sports?
A: Being a leader in sports is often about being good in that sport. When you look at the captains or assistant captains, they usually end up being the best players on the team, or the hardest worker, etc. It’s so much about respect. There are no formal titles. Leaders are respected for playing ability and their commitment to win and their dedication to team and how hard they work off the ice. It also goes into how well they work with other players.
A bad example is Pavel Bure. He may be one of the great goal scorers, but he isn’t a leader like Mark Messier is. Messier may be a bit older now, but he still is one of the great leaders because he knows what it takes to win. For example, you will walk into a hostile environment and there will be many players who are uncertain about the environment or how well they will perform. The leaders are usually the ones who have been through the battles and they come to you and relax you. You feel good that they are there for support. Those are usually the leaders.
Younger players who come up are very impressionable. They see what some of these bad, selfish leaders do and mimic them. They see that these star players slack and so they think it’s OK to take days off. They see how they treat the media and they do the same thing. It’s similar to a kid mimicking their parents when they are young. However, I will argue that these aren’t really leaders. They are star players only.
In business, it’s a bit different, because you can get away with just performing at your desk and producing lots of revenues. Maybe it’s a different type of leadership, but you can get away from it. You don’t need to socialize, however people will still consider them leaders. They don’t have to hang out with the rest of their team. They can do a quick PR spin and spend a day at the factory, but yet they are considered leaders.
In sports, you just can’t get away with it.
Q: Why did you end up leaving hockey and what was involved?
A: I always had aspirations outside of hockey. I always planned on playing my 15 years in hockey and then doing other things in business or some sort of other venture. I had always kept up in school. I studied hard. I made plans. Hockey is like being an actor. If it works out, it’s like a dream life. If you grew up playing a sport, there’s nothing like making a living playing a game. However, you can also get in a rut quickly.
There are hundreds of players who have done nothing but find their way through the minor league system for 15 years. It’s very tough to get an education. You can chip away at it, but you don’t have any experience. If you decide to give up on your dream, you come up at 35 years old, with little working experience, minimal education, and not sure what to do next. You also have not much money saved up either.
There are the top players that will always make it. Then there are the players who will never make it. Lastly, there’s the group of players who are in the middle, which I consider myself a part of, that are borderline.
If things work out right, people see you on your good days, you have great games in big situations, get the right breaks, then you can make it.
I re-examined my life. I was turning 22 years old. I had one year of university education. I looked at it and where I was. I had a lot of opportunities that I was given up. I did an analysis of what the likelihood of making it into the NHL. I thought that I had a 20% chance of making it, and that just wasn’t worth it. It was something like the decision tree analysis we did in finance. My NPV just didn’t come up positive playing hockey.
Q: In terms of the flip side, what are the differences in working with people in hockey versus business?
A: To some extent it’s different. In hockey you have to manage the team goals versus personal goals, but there is a different dynamic. In sports, in higher levels where the competition is so high, players are devoting their entire lives to it. There’s a code among players that there aren’t a lot of sensitivities that you see in the business world. People are devoted to be the best players they can be. So if a coach yells at them, there’s no questioning about being fair or having a nice coach etc. You don’t fight back. There also aren’t team meetings about how a coach doesn’t treat you fairly. There aren’t task forces. You shut up, tough it out and play. In business, if you go in with the same attitude, it doesn’t work. People don’t have the same type of motivation. They will eventually leave or just under-perform. There are sensitivities in business which you don’t have in sports.
Q: Any last words about being an athlete in HBS?
A: One of the biggest misconceptions is that athletes are dumb. I think you’ll find that athletes have some of the quickest minds out there.
Maybe they haven’t been trained in the economics, or finance or marketing, but they’ve had to survive their entire lives by thinking on their feet. There’s something also about the dedication and focus that athletes don’t get enough respect for.
But the last thing I will bring up is that being an athlete, you have the opportunity to skate with some of the greatest players ever to lace it up. I’m grateful for the chance to be associated with some of the greatest minds in business here at HBS.
You’ve talked about how you wanted always to be an athlete. Well, my dream is now to be considered a man of the business world and I live it each day.