It's all about how you play the game (Executive Series)

Leadership lessons from a hockey star turned CEO
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/22/2016

It's all about how you play the game

Leadership lessons from a hockey star turned CEO

By Liz Bernier

Joey St-Aubin is very good at a lot of things — public speaking, playing hockey, entrepreneurship and leadership, just to name a few.

But one surprising knowledge gap was revealed when he appeared on the TV show Undercover Boss Canada. 

St-Aubin — president and CEO of Canlan Ice Sports Canada — can’t actually drive a Zamboni. 

A lifelong competitive hockey player and veteran of the ice rink and recreational facilities industry, St-Aubin still laughs about the Zamboni incident. But his focus has always been on the bigger picture — the overarching strategy behind making Canlan not just successful but one of the greats. 

“At Canlan, we’re very proud of our facilities — the experience is important to us. We have about $110 million worth of assets… but we spend $7 million a year in (capital expenses) and repairs and maintenance, so you can imagine how much attention goes into maintaining these buildings in state-of-the-art form, and also keeping them safe and in good repair for our customers,” said St-Aubin at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto. 

“We have over 10 million customer visits per year, so it’s important that we walk the talk when it comes to looking after our facilities.”

And St-Aubin certainly walks the talk when it comes to leadership. That skill — and many others — were honed through a lifetime of discipline, hard work and practice. 

As early as Grade 4, when St-Aubin was introduced to public speaking at school, his parents were adamant he participate. 

“My dad was my co-writer, my mom was my choreographer, and they locked me in a room — didn’t give me any food until I learned that speech off by heart,” he said. 

“It helped me break through because I became the winner of my class, the winner of my school, and the regional champion in public speaking in Grades 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. And it really allowed me to become confident in who I am, and it translated to the sport of hockey, it translated to who I was as a person.”

Overcoming an obstacle or fear such as public speaking can build a lot of confidence — and that’s something St-Aubin tries to apply to the workplace. During managers’ conferences, he makes everyone give a quick update on how things are going in their operations and then, at the end, they must give a brief overview of how they think the conference went. 

“In the past, I’ve actually had general managers call in sick on conferences because they knew I was going to do that. But you know what? You’re at a point in your career where you’ve got to be able to break through,” he said. 

“When you have a magic recipe — which my parents set up for me — I took that recipe and I replicated it. And when my kids got to Grade 4, guess what I did?”

Learning leadership

St-Aubin has had a number of influential bosses — and very different leadership styles — throughout his hockey career. Having played for the Ontario Hockey League, the University of Ottawa and for Team Canada against the Russians in Quebec, St-Aubin’s career taught him invaluable skills that translate seamlessly to the boardroom. 

“One of the things that I’m able to draw from my hockey career is a very unique parallel between hockey and the business world,” he said. 

“There’s a culture in the dressing room, there’s a culture off the ice with the parents, there are little factions that emerge over time — you get the cliques that happen, just like silos that form in our business places from time to time. There’s strategy, there’s tactics, there’s structure, there’s discipline, there’s networking, there’s collaboration, competition. So everything that you would see in sport, you can really parallel that to the workplace.”

A few years back, St-Aubin read an article that really resonated with him about a professional athlete comparing sports to the business world. 

“He said, ‘You know what? When I stepped into the boardroom, I had already fought most of the battles that I’m seeing — and there’s nothing that I can’t overcome because I’ve already been there.’”

That’s perhaps why after starting as a general manager at Canlan, St-Aubin rose through the ranks quite quickly. 

Creating an experience

Canlan is the largest private sector-owned-and-operated multi-sport recreational facility in the country, he said. 

“We’re the North American leader in the ownership and operations of multipurpose recreational and entertainment facilities. We’re the number one programming brand in the recreational facilities industry,” said St-Aubin. 

“We have a cradle-to-grave approach: We want to be sure that we’re able to cater to the newbies, the two- to four-year-olds that are learning to skate, all the way up to the seniors.”

And everything they do is based around their vision.

“‘A high-performance industry leader passionately committed to providing high-quality customer experiences every time’ — that’s our vision,” he said. “I was tasked to write that. When I became the president in 2009, I said the first thing I want to do is I want to revisit our vision, I want to revisit our mission, I want to revisit our strategy, and everything underneath.

“This really is our guiding light — this is who we want to be when we grow up. And everything we do from that point forward relates to this. Everything trickles down from our vision.”

The key words in that vision statement are “exceptional customer experiences every time,” said St-Aubin. 

“If we could all deliver exceptional customer experiences every time, regardless of what business we’re in, our businesses would all flourish,” he said. “So when an employee says, ‘What should I be doing?’ or ‘What’s my job?’ or ‘Where are we headed?’ if it’s not clear to you, just go back to the vision and read those words. Do whatever it takes to make sure that that customer has an exceptional experience every time.”

And what exactly makes an exceptional customer experience is constantly changing, he said. 

“Now, because we’re living in a world of technology, the customer experiences are not only when they walk through the door, but it’s online,” he said. 

“Your websites have to be clean and fresh and updated, and easy to navigate… so now we’ve got this whole online customer experience that we have to deal with. And not only that, we have to be innovative in the way that we differentiate ourselves from the competition.” 

Leadership about sticking to the basics

By Trish Maguire 

If I had to sum up the leadership lesson Joey St-Aubin spelled out at a recent event, it would be “stick to the basics.”

St-Aubin  started his career with Canlan Ice Sports Canada in the role of facility general manager in 1997 and held various senior management positions until 2009 when he was appointed president and CEO. He accredits his company’s success in the recreation and entertainment industry to the unique combination of innovative programming and world-class facilities. However, once you hear his leadership learnings, it’s apparent there is far more behind that combination.

A shared vision
What started out as a personal vision for the organization in 2009 turned out to be a shared vision: “A high-performance industry leader passionately committed to providing exceptional customer experiences, every time.” To ensure the vision did not “become wallpaper,” there are clearly defined values and guiding practices designed to specifically support and enable the collective achievement of the organization’s strategy.  

Every word in the vision statement is clearly articulated, along with a carefully crafted mission statement, where both are constantly used in every business practice, serve as the core deliverables for the key performance indicators (KPIs) and cascade down into everyone’s daily activities. The actual words in the vision act as a guiding light for everyone, regardless of their role, title or whether they are full-time or part-time. 

By imbedding the words into every process and practice throughout the organization, people have a real sense of what is important.  

Well-defined cultural statement
To help clarify and accelerate the achievement of the shared vision and mission, the executive team also introduced a cultural statement: “We are a high-energy, action-oriented culture, focused on exceptional service with a strong foundation in teamwork, pride, respect and accountability, while consistently striving for excellence.”  

The vision, mission and cultural statements were a great start. To achieve notable results, however, St-Aubin recognized you need to tap people’s commitment, ideas and opinions. Like any organization, the challenge lies in how to instill and maintain that consciousness within employees, not just the leadership team.  

Open, honest communication 
Building an effective and successful organization requires a culture where people are open to new ideas, able to communicate effectively with each other, understand their organization and work together to achieve the vision, mission and  business strategy.

Canlan’s process to building greater understanding, shared meaning and helping people to grow began in 2010 with regular town hall meetings and a cultural survey every two years. The subsequent open and honest feedback given to the leadership team became a valued contribution, resulting in a review of the messaging at town hall events and cultural survey roundtables. 
With people expressing interest in hearing more about other people — not just last month’s corporate financials — town hall sessions now include personal interest stories. As for the cultural roundtables, every general manager is required to facilitate the sessions at each of their facilities and share the cultural survey results. Open-ended comments from the surveys are then worked on by different sub-groups, with an explicit mandate to focus on the problem areas and to action relevant changes.  

Canlan’s first survey results in 2010 classified all eight designated cultural capabilities as either primary or secondary opportunities, with no strengths. In 2014 and three surveys later, four cultural capabilities were classified as strengths, two as secondary opportunities and two as primary opportunities.  

By taking the time to hear what people were saying — without pre-judging, assuming or making decisions — and taking actions based on partial or biased information, the Canlan leadership team is creating an accountable and action-oriented culture. It all takes time and patience. The more openness and safety people feel for saying whatever needs to be said can only enhance the organization’s ability to learn and grow faster than the competition.   

Lifelong learning lessons
Canlan’s leadership team is a great example of the constructive difference that can happen when leaders are willing to learn from their errors. Under St-Aubin’s leadership, his team continues to uphold a deep commitment to learning how to create a space where people can work hard, have fun, strive for excellence and help live the vision to ensure achievement of the strategic goals.  

St-Aubin’s story of diligence and persistence illustrates how by “sticking to the basics,” you can creatively influence a leadership team to develop organizational structure and processes that help build a vital and focused organization for the long term.  

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at

CEOs: Where there’s a will, there’s a better way

By Michael Clark

When I consider organizational effectiveness and the CEO, I say it is a CEO’s overarching accountability, then consider if the individual has the skill, will and mental horsepower to handle the role.

Based on his presentation at SCN, Joey St-Aubin, president and CEO of Canlan Ice Sports, has, in spades, the requisite skills, knowledge, experience and cognitive capability. 

What I found most intriguing, though, was the demonstration of his “will.” It was a reminder that a truly great CEO — a transformative CEO — must be as inclined to articulate his will as much as articulate profit and loss. Without being permeated with a CEO’s will, an organization lacks a vitality that drives sustainable effectiveness.

To what degree, then, has St-Aubin imposed his will at Canlan?

 “Will” is motivation and commitment that emerge from attitude and values. To what degree is the incumbent motivated by, and committed to, the work of the role? Does the incumbent exhibit the most effective attitude for the role and to what degree are the incumbent’s values aligned with the work? 

What personal values did St-Aubin demonstrate that align with being the CEO of Canlan? For starters, he loves hockey. He grew up in hockey, almost went pro, and his eyes light up at the thought of new ice. Match that with a life of leading and coaching, and it’s clear he values directing and growing teams of people to achieve goals — literally. 

I particularly noted the sport-experience-CEO attitudes St-Aubin demonstrated. A team orientation is ingrained in him: He knows in his bones that team success is only possible when the team is aligned and united. 

He crafted the vision statement on his own. How many CEOs do that? He has used his will to ensure every employee has a coherent touchstone on which to align all work. 

St-Aubin’s defining attitude is a fundamental, energetic optimism: Every challenge is an opportunity. He has demonstrated a willingness to challenge himself and the status quo, to explore options and jump into ingenious re-invention. He said himself he was the autocrat when he joined an ailing Canlan, became the democrat during growth, and is now the great transformer, remodelling the business to stay relevant. 

And, how does his will show up in motivation and commitment? I would say it is his innate entrepreneurialism and competitiveness. Based on his life in sport, I’m sure St-Aubin would be the first to ask, “If winning doesn’t matter, why do they keep score?” 

He is a self-confessed serial entrepreneur, choosing, for example, to layer on top of his academic and hockey careers opportunities to “make lots of money.” He combines a conviction to work in the business as well as on the business.

In short, if St-Aubin hadn’t grown into the opportunity to be CEO of a sports experience company, he would have willed the job into being. His personal, optimistic, team-leadership orientation, combined with his sporting values and a streak of entrepreneurialism, are inseparable from organizational effectiveness at Canlan.

Michael Clark is director of business development at Forrest & Company. Forrest is an organizational transformation firm, with over 25 years experience in developing the organizational and leadership capacity in organizations. 

Strategic capability not built overnight 

By Karen Gorsline

Canlan Ice Sport has grown from a startup to the largest private sector owner and operator of recreational ice sports facilities in North America. While it might seem like the success occurred overnight, it took  a great deal of effort and time. Joey St-Aubin’s story carries lessons both leaders and organizations can use to better understand what contributes to building strategic capability.

Discipline and practice: From a young age, St-Aubin played hockey. He learned that discipline and practice helped him develop skills to move to the next level.  As his passion for the game grew, discipline and practice became an integral part of the game and his life.

Facing fears to build confidence in new skills: In junior school, his parents insisted he participate in presenting a speech.   The same discipline and practice he learned in hockey was now required to develop a new skill. St-Aubin mastered the task and went on to win speaking contests in school. He excelled in this skill and has come to rely on it in a variety of situations in his life and career.

Taking advantage of unexpected twists: Playing with Ottawa, Kitchener, Ont., and the University of Ottawa, St-Aubin experienced the different ways people work together and different cultures. He used his speaking skills with the media. He learned different approaches from different coaches. He played tournaments and learned lessons that would serve him well in his business career.

Making the best of what you have: At 27, St-Aubin became general manager of an unbuilt sports facility. There was an empty field and an unadorned trailer for an office. He decorated the trailer to be presentable, developed approaches and worked on gaining interest and support so that when the facility opened, it was packed.  

Conscious focus: The vision for Canlan was centred around exceptional customer service, every time. Discipline and practice were required to ensure the vision was not just a sign on the wall. There was an awareness that teamwork and employee interactions impact that customer experience. There is a formal culture statement and this too is reinforced by ongoing actions, including a regular culture survey. Culture happens regardless of a formal process but formally acknowledging and embedding it can make it more compatible and supportive of an organization’s vision.

Open to new ideas and opportunities: For-profit facilities devoted to ice surfaces and sports face competition on a number of fronts, including municipally supported facilities. Canlan has added the concept of a “sportsplex” and diversified to provide access to soccer and other field sports. Most recently, it developed customizable programming to market the venue for office team events. 

By thinking in terms of its strategic capabilities, what it has to offer and how those capabilities can be deployed in new and different ways, Canlan has taken a seasonally oriented business and expanded it into a year-round operation with a much broader potential customer base. 

Often in business we use words such as resilience, learning and agile that tend to lose their meaning and become just jargon. Or we look for concrete proof or research to point us in a certain direction. Yet, stories like those shared by St- Aubin are often more meaningful, feel more authentic and provide a mentoring quality.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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