Ryan O’Byrne hasn’t been able to keep a low profile this summer.
Sure, that’s usually the case when you’re 6-foot-5, 234 pounds. But it’s even more difficult when you’re going back to being a full-time college student — at age 32.
O’Byrne played more than 300 games as a defenseman in the NHL, the last eight with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so he’s used to going with the flow. But any adjustments teachers and students might have to make to the presence of the hulking O’Byrne are nothing compared to the adjustment he is making.
“It will be a transition period, no question,” said O’Byrne, who took to Twitter on July 21 to officially announce his retirement from hockey.
“It’s actually been a real good transition for me, for getting engaged in class and being expected to contribute. That’s a part of your grade, your contribution to the class,” he said. “Let’s not kid ourselves, going back to class, you’re 32 years old and everyone else is 21. It’s definitely a transition period. I’m excited to go back but there is that little bit of unknown after not going to campus for 10 years.”
A decade ago, O’Byrne forfeited his final year of eligibility at Cornell University to turn pro. The third-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2003 started with the Habs, was then traded to the Colorado Avalanche and then the Leafs before navigating his last three seasons through the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Sweden. All the while, he continued to take online courses in the hopes that he could someday complete his degree in Cornell’s hotel administration program.
O’Byrne is taking a macroeconomics class at Toronto’s Ryerson University, and just passed a course required of anyone who wishes to enter the securities industry in Canada, before he returns to Cornell as a full-time student in the fall. Deciding to return to his alma mater was easy. Walking away from hockey was hard.
It started last season in Europe with a broken nose, a painful injury followed in short order by injuries to his shoulder, MCL and back. Two years removed from hip surgery and with the likelihood of a return to the NHL appearing less and less likely, O’Byrne contemplated leaving the game for the first time in his career.
“I finally got an MRI on the back and the doctor said, ‘Your back is not in great condition. If you keep playing, it might get worse.’ Then you really start to question it. Is it all worth it?” O’Byrne said. “That was the first time I ever had those thoughts come to my head.”
So, O’Byrne called it a career and enrolled full time at Cornell. It’s a move he’s excited about and one that more former college players are making.
(2/2) Now what – I’m heading back to Cornell University to finish my degree.📚📝 Thanks for an amazing ride! pic.twitter.com/xRfYwjOlTd
— Ryan O’Byrne (@ryanobyrne84) July 21, 2016
“I probably sit down with five or six guys a year who are retiring. They call me up and say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about this. How did it go for you?'” said Ben Clymer, who played 438 NHL games before retiring and returning to the University of Minnesota in 2010. He now works as a financial adviser and has pro hockey players among his clients.
“I was very intimidated to go back. You’ve been out of school a long time, it’s kind of embarrassing to be the old guy in class. That’s weird,” Clymer said. “I thought the first day was difficult. Just trying to figure out where the heck to go, where to sit. “
Between his first three years attending Cornell and the online courses he’s been taking regularly since 2010, O’Byrne has a single semester left before he earns his degree. Then comes the most daunting task for any college graduate clutching a diploma: finding a job.
“The plan after school is to go into an area of finance: financial services, wealth management or private equity. I just need to find that right little niche for myself where I can utilize that life experience that I have,” O’Byrne said. “That’s part of the reason I’m in Toronto this summer. For Canada, it’s the epicenter of the financial world.”
His previous studies and a decade in pro hockey equipped O’Byrne with a variety of skills that should prove useful in the financial world. But none of those things helped refine the kind of networking skills required to solicit potential employers. That’s why O’Byrne has also spent part of his summer pounding the pavement and meeting for coffee or beers with people, including old teammates and opponents, working in the financial industry. Any insight they can provide could be crucial when O’Byrne begins searching in earnest for his first job not involving skating.
Fortunately for O’Byrne, it hasn’t been difficult consulting former on-ice peers for guidance. He cites Shane Hynes, a former Cornell teammate and Anaheim Ducks draft pick who eventually returned to school, as a model for what he hopes to achieve. And he has spent much of his summer lining up meetings.
O’Byrne isn’t only thinking ahead to his next career. He’s first hoping to make the most of his one last opportunity to enjoy campus life at an Ivy League school that helped mold him after he first arrived from British Columbia in 2003.
“When I was at Cornell, I built so many strong bonds with those guys on the hockey team who will be lifelong friends. We all still talk today, weekly. I look forward to going back and using that schooling in my next career,” he said. “Going back to school in the fall is kind of a blessing in disguise. I get to go back for a semester and sharpen up my skills before I jump into the next stage of my life. I have very fond memories of Cornell and I look forward to getting back there.”