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Sports journalists are jaded. They can spot a PR pitch a mile away. That’s why so many of us avoid the countless community events that teams publicize. We know it’s often as much about publicity for the team as it is about the actual event or cause.
Occasionally, a player comes along whose cause is so genuine and so deeply personal that it warrants attention. That is the case with former Coyote Andrew Ladd and his nonprofit, 1616.
A part of the Ladd Foundation, 1616 is working to make mental fitness & well-being a more significant focus of youth hockey, and to shift minor hockey culture to emphasize not only hockey performance, but also the development of connections, confidence and character.
Ladd endured physical and mental hurdles, banishment from the NHL, banishment from the AHL, and a long and arduous road to his NHL return with the Coyotes. Over time, Ladd learned to manage all of those challenges. He hopes to use his own experience to provide kids with the tools to manage their own challenges.
On Sunday, Ladd announced his long-expected retirement from the NHL about two months after his contract with the Coyotes expired.
I caught up with Ladd a few weeks ago to discuss that decision, his next steps, and the vitally important work that he and his wife, Brandy, are doing with 1616.
You didn’t play last season while nursing another knee injury. What have you been up to?
Ladd: “There’s lots of stuff going on with our foundation so just continuing to build that out has been a big focus. There’s a little bit of a lull after the hockey season for the kids, but we had 3,500 participants — parents, coaches and kids — that went through the program last year. Now the focus is: How do we scale? How do we create partnerships with NHL clubs all the way down to grass roots level governing bodies; from Hockey Canada all the way down to, Hockey Alberta, Hockey Calgary, Hockey Edmonton, the Oilers, the Flames, trying to get all those parties to the table to see how we can create a great environment for kids in Alberta.
“Those places, along with Winnipeg and Manitoba have given us the biggest reason to keep pushing in those places, just from the engagement from those clubs and governing bodies. The Coyotes have also been good with helping spread the word, too, so we’re doing a little more of that in Arizona.”
What’s the endgame here; what’s the goal?
Ladd: “The dream is to create a space for kids to develop as people, and that starts between their ears. I want us to be the premier program in the space, not only in hockey, but in sport in general. I think we have a terrific blueprint where other sports could just come in and white label what we’ve done. We’ve done the heavy lifting.
“We did a five-week pilot the first year. Last year, we did a full year of the program with a bunch of monitoring and evaluation. It’s research based. We have positive youth development and sport experts. We have mental health experts. We’ve really done our due diligence in terms of doing this the right way and building it as a proper business. I feel like I’ve gotten a business degree in the last three years, which has been good for me. The idea is just to bring the level of intention that we get to as adults, and especially as hockey players.”
Why are you doing this?
Ladd: “I got to a point in my career where you start paying attention to all the factors that influence you as a human being, not just your performance on ice. As you go along, you learn that all those things do impact your on-ice performance.
“It’s such an ideal place to start at a young age and give these kids a proper foundation to have success. No matter where you come from, different issues are gonna pop up between your ears. The kids that come from nothing, they’re probably a little more resilient because they’ve had that right out of the box; they’ve had to be resilient in order to survive. Then there’s the kids that are super well off that want for nothing. That in itself creates problems. I see a path for us as athletes to use our stories and use our experiences to help those kids in the next generation, whether that’s in hockey, or other sports. We’re trying to find a way to facilitate that through our program.”
When did the idea for 1616 first materialize?
Ladd: “Even when we were supporting different initiatives, previous to starting our own program, everything seemed very reactive in the space. Kids were having problems and both my wife and I have family members who have had problems, and friends. Once you start to have kids, there’s a little more worry about ‘How can we get ahead of this? How can we use our experiences to help our children?’ So it probably started there with our kids.
“It was a little bit of a perfect storm. It wasn’t a great time in my life. As you get older, you look back at the tougher times in your life and how those shaped you and how you can use those as opportunities to grow as people. I would say that was the start of that conversation between me and her.”
How did your time out of hockey fuel this project?
Ladd: “When I was in Long Island and I wasn’t playing and I was skating by myself for a full year, I was working with a guy named Dan Leffelaar out of Novus Global, which is a sports performance group. He was like, ‘What do you want to do with this year? Do you want to just mail it in and go through the motions, and you can pick up next year? Or we can make this year count, use the time you have to have an impact on the next generation and have a purpose.’ In those tough times, you’re looking for purpose. That definitely gave me purpose at that moment in my life.
“A lot of those lessons played into how we’ve created the program. I realized the value of having someone riding shotgun with you in those moments. The easy thing to do is to let our friends and family continue down a path that we know isn’t great for them. Or we can call them forward in those moments. To me, that’s what love looks like. You want to have people around you that call you out on what you’re capable of. We want to bring that type of energy to kids and young families. These are tough conversations. No one wants to have them. But if we avoid those tough conversations, or we avoid those tough moments, then we just continue down that same path. True growth happens in those moments so we want to have kids understand that at a younger age and not avoid that.”
Have you tried to enlist other NHL people in this venture, whether it’s players, executives, coaches, etc?
Ladd: “We have received about probably $1o0,000 in donations from NHL players (my wife and I are over $600,00). There’s around 50 professional athletes involved in the program; a mix of men and women. There’s probably close to 40 NHL guys that contributed content wise to the program. So from a player’s standpoint, it’s been great. We’ve tried to create more partnerships with the league. We’ve talked to them, probably three or four times now and we’re continuing down that path. We had a conversation with NHLPA [in August]. There’s the industry industry growth fund, too, so we’re hoping maybe there’s some opportunity there. Like anything, people want to know that this works.
“That’s been a little bit of an issue the last few years. It sounds like a great idea. Now go show us that it works. Our commitment from the start was to base this in science and base this in research. That’s why we brought in people who have over 30 years of research in this space and are leaders in the positive youth development in the sport space. That’s why part of our curriculum team is an organization out of Calgary called Impact Society that has worked with kids in classrooms for a long time. We brought in experienced people to create a curriculum so we could have a pretty rigorous monitoring and evaluation system.”
How do you prove that you are having an impact?
Ladd: “Right from the get-go, we started to get data, and the plan is to have a longitudinal study as well. But it’s tough. How do you measure a kid’s mental well-being within this week, next week? That impact is gonna come when they’re 19 years old, or maybe 25. Or it’s gonna be continuous throughout their journey.
“It’s about finding people who see the long game. I think we often look for instant gratification, and that is probably easier to sell in the nonprofit space. But with my background as an athlete and understanding the work it takes, you spend a lot of time preparing for that moment to see the impact. We’re taking that same approach. If we’re continuously getting feedback on the program and creating the best experience for these families and coaches that are involved in the game, then that’ll lead to success in the long run.
“We have an impact report out with lots of great testimonials and data that supports what we’ve done in our first year. And I think if you talk to people in the programmatic space, for a completely digital program, the engagement we have and the data that we have already is very impressive.”
Who are some of the pro hockey players involved in 1616?
Ladd: “Sidney Crosby is in a video. Patrice Bergeron is involved. Brent Seabrook, Colin Fraser, Mark Giordano, Blake Wheeler, Anders Lee, Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Jordan Eberle, Mark Scheifele. On the women’s side we have Blayre Turnbull, Saroya Tinker, Natalie Spooner.
A bunch of players have lent even a small portion of their time to help out in some form or fashion. That’s been really cool to see.
“The Flames gave us $37,500 (CA), the Jets have us $20,000 (CAD), the Capitals gave us $15,000 and the Coyotes have been great with helping get word out about what we’ve been up to and support for an event we did in Arizona last year.”
How is retirement treating you otherwise?
“It’s been good. The last five months have been an intensive training session with the group I worked with on the sports performance side and executive coaching. I just want to just understand more about what they do and have those skills. I’m looking now to make the next step. Can I work with young athletes in the space or teams in the space? I’ve seen the impact that it’s had on me.
“We’re also transitioning back to Kelowna — one more move for the family and my wife and kids. That’s our initial plan, to call that home. Like all good plans, though, they’re subject to change. Arizona made it tough because we were already building a house here in Kelowna and then we were like, ‘Hmm, we really like it in Arizona.’ So I don’t think we’re crossing that off the list for good.”
I know you were dealing with more injury issues in your last season with the Coyotes. How are you feeling health-wise? Did you get that all squared away?
Ladd: “It’s squared away from the standpoint that I’m not in pain every day. But I am still limited when I am active because the knee still swells up pretty easily. I’m still navigating getting to a point where it is not having that reaction. It might just be something that I’m gonna have to deal with for the rest of my life. I’m sure a knee replacement is in my future — one or two of those. You get to a point where you gotta do what you have to do to feel good every day. So ‘It’s OK’ is probably the best answer. It’s not what it was, but there’s no regrets there at all.”
Looking back at what you had to do to get back for that one season with the Coyotes, what is your longview on that now?
“When I look back at that time, it has impacted who I am today. It will have an impact on my children because my children watched me go through that. They were there. They saw how I dealt with it and I’m proud of the way I handled that whole situation and was able to come back and get to 1,000 career NHL games and have them experience me playing in the NHL again.
“You’re going to have experiences in your life that can define you or not. I chose to use that as a way to grow. There were great days and there were shitty days, but within those tough moments, I think you find yourself and you find out what you’re made of and what you’re all about. When I look back, I think the real me kind of came to the surface in those moments.
“In our game, we have a tendency to hide a lot of that stuff, but there’s emotion, there’s hardship, there’s feelings that all come into play when you’re living the life that we live. By navigating those with myself, with my wife, with my kids, with my friends, it’s so much better now. To come through that and realize that I’ve gotten something positive out of it is pretty cool.”
Top photo of Andrew Ladd via Getty Images