Cari Duggan, first female to attend the Business Hockey Institute's MBA Program

Blazing the Way for Women in Hockey

By Renée Hartleib | fall 2018

The year was 2015, and Cari Duggan had just scored an exciting new role with Canadian Blood Services as a lead negotiator. This was a dream job, one that the SMU grad had been building toward for years. But before she’d even settled into the new position, something happened that would change not only the course of Cari’s career, but her entire life.

Returning from a family trip to Florida in March of 2015, the plane carrying Cari, her husband Colin MacNeil BComm‘98 and their 8-year-old son James, crashed at the Halifax International Airport. Photos from the scene show that the plane’s landing gear and one of its engines were ripped out upon impact. Of the more than two dozen injuries, Cari’s was one of the more serious. She broke her back in the accident and spent most of the next year at home, bedridden for several months, and then involved in intense physiotherapy.

“In those moments when the plane was going down, I honestly thought this was the end,” says Cari. “So when the plane stopped and they carried me off, I wasn’t feeling traumatized at all - I was just feeling very, very excited to be alive.”

This sense of positive relief and excitement fuelled her recovery and astounded her family and friends. People asked her all the time why she wasn’t more upset about what happened. “It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been through it,” she says, “but most people don’t survive similar accidents. I just felt so lucky and so grateful. Every moment after the accident felt like a bonus.”

Ironically, ‘resilience’ was a topic that Cari had been actively promoting for years.

After her graduation from SMU in 2000 with a BComm’98 and an MBA’00, Cari was snapped up by Bell and over the next 15 years worked her way through HR, eventually becoming Senior Manager – Labour Relations. “In all of our labour negotiations, one of the most important messages was about the need for resilience and learning the ability to positively reframe any situation that is thrown at you,” she recalls. “And now, here I was, after the accident, having to do just that.”

The biggest test came when she was informed by medical professionals that returning to her dream job just wasn’t an option. She simply wouldn’t be able to sit for the long periods required of a Lead Negotiator.

And this is where Cari’s story takes a rather unusual and magical turn. It’s where a volunteer side-gig as a hockey manager for her kid’s team evolved into a mind-blowing opportunity that Cari could never have seen coming.

When Cari was laid up in bed with her broken back, one of the hockey coaches she had worked with while volunteering became increasingly persistent about them starting a business together. Coincidentally also a SMU grad, Chris Pierce BSc’05 was very interested in Cari’s unique approach to hockey management. “He kept telling me we should start a hockey school together.”

The longer Cari was laid up, the more time she had to reflect on the accident and her life. “I started thinking more big-picture about the concept of meaning in work and wanting to make a difference.” She loved working with kids and also really enjoyed working with Chris and felt their approach to business was sympatico. “Chris is a bit of an “off the beaten track” kind of person. He takes a unique approach to his work, very similar to what I have always done. When we worked together, we enjoyed the work and achieved great results.”

It started very small, with Cari sending emails and writing some marketing materials for Chris’ previous off-ice training program. “I was using all the marketing skills I’d learned at Saint Mary’s,” says Cari. They came up with a name, a logo, and a brand, and by the following Spring, they had several off-ice groups, teams training, and two of their own Spring hockey teams.

Within their first year, and with only a tiny training gym, Outside Edge Hockey Development was already being recognized as a place to send your hockey players for training. Cari gives full credit for this to Chris. “He really did his homework on researching the best practices in the industry for on and off ice training at all levels. Athletes are able to see great results with what he has designed.”

This growth culminated in Chris being asked to train the Halifax Mooseheads, and in 2017, and just two years into business, one of Outside Edge’s first athletes was chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft. That changed everything.

Cari and Chris had the amazing opportunity to attend the NHL Draft and see their athlete through the process. It’s here that the next chapter began to unfold for Cari. Always one to expand her skill set, she expressed interest in finding out more about an MBA Program in Hockey Management through the Business Hockey Institute (BHI). “Before I knew it, I was talking to the Managing Director who was very interested in my corporate management and marketing credentials.” They’d never had a female accepted into the Program.

“Cari’s enrollment as the first female student in our program was a big day for BHI,” says co-founder Ritch Winter. “Her vast accomplishments as a labor relations/human resources professional are as impressive as her hockey business accomplishments – owning and operating a successful organization training and developing elite Canadian Hockey League players and NHL prospects.” Winter cites a report from the Harvard Business Review that concludes that women in executive positions worldwide are not only succeeding, but also being rated by their peers, their bosses, and their direct reports as better overall leaders than their male counterparts.

“What we’re seeing is that having women involved contributes to the health and effectiveness of companies and will become increasingly important to the success of hockey organizations as we move forward,” says Winter. “We’re delighted that we have scored an extremely qualified student in Cari, someone who has already shown the determination to succeed in all she does. She is spearheading the exploration of options for women in hockey.”

Cari was offered one of only 16 spots available in each year of the program, and was also granted a prestigious “Top Prospects” scholarship, the maximum amount awarded by the Business Hockey Institute. When she accepted, she became the first female in North America to join this elite NHL professional hockey management program.

“I am so honoured to be the first woman accepted and really see this as a great trailblazing opportunity,” says Cari. “Making women feel more welcome in the hockey world and demonstrating some leadership in hockey from a female perspective feels great. Hockey's a big industry, so there's something to be said about that.” Cari laughingly admits that she never would have seen any of this coming. “When I was sitting at the NHL draft, I felt awed that this is my new normal. It's so very different from what I used to do.”

As for the accident that began it all, while Cari would never have chosen to be in a plane crash, she can now see it as a crucial fork in the road. “Losing my career could have been devastating for me, but it’s all about how you choose to look at challenges. I see it as an event that sparked a whole new way of making a difference.”

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