Aaron Johnson tried not to think about life after hockey, but the former NHL'er knew "the real world" was waiting for him.
"It's scary," said Johnson, originally from Port Hawkesbury, N.S. "I was one of those guys that just, I wanted to play professionally. I wanted to be in the NHL."
Like many players, his life had revolved around hockey. He moved away at 16. He played Major Junior, Canada's top level of junior hockey. Then, he jumped to the NHL, where he played for numerous teams for a decade.
"I've been fortunate enough to … be able to play and do everything really I've wanted to do," he said. "I did always want to go to university, so I did miss that opportunity." Or so he thought.
The more I looked into it, it just seemed like the right thing to do.- Aaron Johnson, ex-NHL player
While promoting hockey in Australia in 2018, Johnson heard about a U.K. program combining professional hockey with education.
"The more I looked into it, it just seemed like the right thing to do," said Johnson, who signed on that September with the Sheffield Steelers to play in the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL), the United Kingdom's top professional hockey league. "It was a pretty easy decision."
Nine of the 10 teams in the EIHL have partnerships with universities, allowing select players to play professional hockey while studying for their education tuition-free.
James Bettauer of Burnaby, B.C., caught wind of this "too-good-to-be-true" arrangement when friends told him he could get his master's degree while playing professional hockey.
"Not if you don't have an undergrad," Bettauer recalled telling them. "And they're like, 'Yeah, even if you don't have an undergrad, you can get a master's.'"
To his surprise, they were right. Bettauer signed with the Sheffield Steelers in 2018.
A recruiting tactic
There's conflicting information over who came up with the idea about 20 years ago. Some credit the Nottingham Panthers. Others credit former Coventry Blaze coach Paul Thompson.
"I used it to try and get the player at the next level for less money," Thompson said. "What I used to do was sell this opportunity of come and play pro hockey, and we'll get you a master's degree in a year, as well, in international business."
Other teams across the league have since jumped on board.
It's a superb situation so, you know, it gives them something for later on in life, and obviously, it gives the clubs what they require in the short term.- Paul Thompson, former Coventry Blaze coach
"We were winning everything at that time, and I think everybody thought that was the reason," said Thompson. "It's a superb situation so, you know, it gives them something for later on in life, and obviously, it gives the clubs what they require in the short term."
Saying the U.K. is not particularly well-known for its hockey would be an understatement. Yet, 101 Canadians currently play in the EIHL and by using education as a recruiting tactic, the skill league-wide is increasing along with its popularity.
An opportunity not to be missed
In Sheffield, players laugh about how they are routinely stopped for photos. Bars offer to change the music to country — in a stereotypical assumption that all Canadian hockey players listen to that — and some even have drinks named after them.
"It feels like you're almost in the NHL," said Steelers player John Armstrong, smiling though a row of missing teeth.
Partnership details vary from team to team. But in Sheffield, players can sign a two-year deal to get their MBA with no undergraduate degree required.
"Fortunately, I was one of the ones that got my high school degree. That would be the last time I stepped into a classroom," said Johnson. "To say I was intimidated last year when I went to my first class, it'd be an understatement."
A couple of years ago, Bettauer started a company to help get ready for his life after the sport, but calls the chance to do an MBA a "giant quantum leap forward."
I mean everybody knows you can only play hockey for so long.- James Bettauer, professional hockey player
"I just really didn't want to miss the opportunity, to be honest," he said. "I mean everybody knows you can only play hockey for so long."
Former professional hockey player Gord Baldwin of Winnipeg has already gone through the program. He retired with the Sheffield Steelers in 2015 after completing an MBA program.
"The job that I worked for the past three-and-a-half years was exactly what I wrote my dissertation on," said Baldwin, referring to his time as an account director with the Western Hockey League. "You start thinking about, you know, what's going to happen when you're done because you haven't made the money that you can just retire on comfortably."
OK missing a practice now and then
Talk about the hockey-university partnership seems to travel by word-of-mouth. Like Johnson and Bettauer, Baldwin learned about the opportunity from other players. He has also recommended it to many more, including Armstrong.
"There's a lot of hockey players out there.… We make an OK living, but we're not going to be able to live off of our salaries from playing professionally," said Armstrong, of Unionville, Ont. "So as soon as we're done playing, we've got to get a job, and that terrified me."
Armstrong went to play for the Sheffield Steelers specifically to get his MBA.
"It gives you confidence that you can do something else," he said. "Teams in the U.K. have realized that there are players that come here to do school, so they're OK with you missing a practice now and then."
As for Baldwin, he loved Sheffield. He loved the fans, and he won a championship. But for someone who only ever wanted to be a hockey player, one of his best moments occurred off the ice.
"I remember the exact moment I got my final grade for my dissertation. We were literally five minutes before pregame talk," said Baldwin. "I just put my hands in the air as I read the email. And it was, honestly, one of the greatest feelings I've had in my life."