How to focus on education and hockey like a pro

BJ Crombeen
Brandon James Crombeen is a Canadian professional ice hockey right winger currently an unrestricted free agent who last played for the Arizona Coyotes of the NHL.

If you’re serious about making it to the NHL one day, hockey is likely the single biggest focus in your life. Many Canadian hopefuls leave home in their early teens to play in the minors for a chance to make it to the big leagues. As a result, continuing their education isn’t always the biggest priority. For many, it’s actually the last thing on their minds.

But for 29-year old B.J. Crombeen, who grew up in Ontario and is currently playing for the Arizona Coyotes, making it to the NHL didn’t stop him from furthering his education. If anything, it only made him want to continue learning.

We spoke with B.J. to hear more about his experience and why he’s an advocate for continued education:

Tell us a little bit about your personal story and the sacrifices you made to play hockey.

Growing up, I was always around hockey. My dad played in the NHL and my older brother also played competitively. I laced up my skates as soon as I could and made my way up through minor hockey and into the OHL.

After a few years in the OHL, I was lucky enough to get drafted and signed with an NHL team. I am currently playing in my 9th year of professional hockey; 7 of which have been in the NHL.

There were obvious sacrifices I needed to make to get to this level, including making fitness a priority and dedicating a lot of time to improving my game on the ice. Beyond that, however, I had to make a lot of other sacrifices. I spent a lot of time away from friends and family, moved away from home for each season and never knew where my next stop would be. It was tough.

With such a hectic lifestyle, things like education often get put on the backburner for many athletes. Despite that, I still managed to complete an undergraduate business degree while playing in the NHL.

What motivated you to pursue an education while playing professional hockey? Was it difficult to balance both?

I was very fortunate to be able to learn from my dad. Because he also played professional hockey, he understood how quickly an athlete’s career can come to an end. He always encouraged me to stick with my education so that I would have something to fall back on eventually.

There were times where it was difficult to balance both, but in reality, professional hockey players actually have quite a bit of downtime on the road or between games. I used this time to my advantage and thought it was well worth the effort to pursue an education on the side.

How important is it for athletes to prioritize their education? How has your degree paid off for you personally?

I think it’s a major priority for athletes these days to pursue an education. As I mentioned, your career can literally come to an end in a split second with an injury.

On top of that, the average length of career in the NHL is also pretty short. Having a degree puts you in a great position as you can combine technical knowledge with some of the skills you’ve learned as an athlete.

Even though I’m still playing in the NHL, having an education has already paid major dividends for me personally. Once I finished my degree, I was able to spend a few summers narrowing down what kind of industry I wanted to work in post-hockey. I completed several internships at various companies and identified the additional skills, courses and requirements I could work on in the meantime. When I’m no longer able to play in the NHL, I want to be as prepared as I possibly can be for the next phase.

What advice can you offer hockey families and young players in particular?

The biggest piece of advice I can give hockey families and young players in particular is to focus on education as well as your sport. I’ve played with a number of guys who had solid NHL careers but wished they had focused more on their own development in their downtime. Even if you play until you’re 40, there’s a lot of life left ahead of you. Often times, this leads to a second (or even a third) career.

Whether you’re a professional athlete or not, it’s important to learn how to balance your commitments and keep education top of mind. If you can do that, you’ll be in good shape.

How to focus on education and hockey like a pro

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