Alum Turns Passion for Hockey into Meaningful Career Off the Ice
For Ben Robert ’81, ’83 MBA, it is his goal to create opportunities for the next generation of athletes to enjoy hockey and excel, both on and off the ice. He’s grateful for his four years as a member of the University’s hockey team, and he hopes to continue to support today’s young hockey players – as well as current Chargers.
January 12, 2023
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When Ben Robert ’81, ’83 MBA was growing up in Montreal, he and the kids in his neighborhood had one winter sport they were particularly passionate about: hockey. Robert, whose dad got him out on the ice when he was three years old, says it was hard not to play hockey in Canada. The sport became his passion, and Robert would go on to play as a University of New Haven Charger, and it would eventually become the focus of his career.
Robert was one of three French Canadian student-athletes recruited by Steve Lane, then-coach of the University’s ice hockey team, to play for the Chargers. As he adjusted to college, living in a new country, and being a student-athlete, Robert was also learning a new language. While his first semester was particularly challenging, he was determined to succeed. By the end of that November, he was able to carry on a conversation in English.
“The good news about not speaking the language is when your coach yells at you, you have no clue he’s yelling at you,” Robert joked. “But once you figured out the language, you figured out he was yelling at you all that entire time.
“There were some tough moments,” he continued. “But our coaching staff was always very supportive, and therefore, there was no quitting in me.”
Robert fondly remembers the support of his business law professor, in particular. After starting the semester speaking very little English, Robert pushed himself, successfully completing the class. It helped him gain the confidence to excel not only on the ice, but in the classroom.
“I went to see my professor, and I asked him why he gave me a passing grade,” said Robert. “My professor said, ‘My job was not to teach you business law. My job was to teach you to speak English. Who am I to fail a kid who has the guts to come here, take a scholarship, and play hockey? To shoot him down out of the gate, that’s not what I’m about in life.’ I never forgot that. Afterward, it was basically Dean’s List every semester.”
‘Something was always missing’
Even after realizing pursuing a career as a professional hockey player was not an option, Robert’s passion for the sport never wavered as he focused on achieving his academic goals. Because he’d received a four-year scholarship and earned credit for the classes he’d taken at a junior college, Robert had two more years of eligibility to play hockey for the Chargers after completing his bachelor’s degree. So, he decided to pursue his master’s degree. He’d earned both an undergraduate degree in business administration and his MBA (marketing) before he was 23 years old.
“I am extremely proud of my degrees,” said Robert. “They got yellow over time, and I ordered new ones recently because they’re that meaningful to me. There are things there’s no price tag on, as the value is in your heart.”
Despite not having previous work experience as many of his classmates had, Robert began his career in telecommunications soon after graduating. He moved to San Jose, California, to work for a Canadian company, then later relocated to San Diego to accept a sales management position with Qualcomm.
While this position enabled him to travel the world – he spent a considerable amount of time in Europe and Asia and had an apartment in Paris for a few years – he knew this wasn’t how he wanted to spend the rest of his career. While commuting from the state of California to work, he realized he no longer wanted to spend so much of his time on a plane, so he resigned.
“Something was always missing,” he explains. “I was working great jobs and I did well financially, but I wasn’t passionate. I figured out my passion. It’s hockey.”
‘I was like a beaming father’
Although Robert had planned to take a year off, he received an assist from a friend that took his career in a new direction. He called his friend, Luc Robitaille, who was president of the Los Angeles Kings, a National Hockey League team, and he offered Robert to join the team’s staff. Robert served as vice president for business development, beginning the first period of his career on the business side of the sport.
A year after Robert’s career change, another opportunity presented a new direction for his career – as well as a move halfway across the country. A contact he’d known from his days in telecommunications contacted him about buying a junior hockey team in Omaha, Nebraska. He and several partners did just that, and Robert moved himself and his family to the Midwest.
Though he at first questioned whether or not he was making the right decision, Robert kept his eyes on the goal: to put a team that was struggling financially and had been overshadowed by the city’s college team back at center ice. It required rebuilding the team’s business and its arena, and Robert and his team did both, while also building a sense of community and creating new opportunities for the athletes.
Reflecting on seeing more than 200 of the athletes go to college through the Omaha Lancers Hockey Club, Robert says the time he spent in Omaha were among the best years of his adult life.
“Every year I had 23 guys, and I was like their dad,” said Robert, who also has a son and daughter of his own. “When they would come to my office and tell me they had a scholarship to Michigan, to North Dakota, to Harvard, I was like a beaming father every time. I was not there to sell the game of hockey – I was there to sell what we were doing for the kids through the sport of hockey. This turned young boys into men, and we took care of them.”
‘Building youth hockey’
Robert was ready for a new challenge when he received an unexpected phone call from a friend who asked him if he wanted to help bring an expansion team back to Quebec since the Nordiques, an NHL team, left the city in 1995 and had become the Colorado Avalanche. Initially skeptical, he was told it would be his responsibility to help build the arena and try to get the city an NHL team again.
Robert spent the next two years commuting from Omaha to Quebec, successfully building the arena, but he and his partners were not able to obtain the franchise that was awarded to Las Vegas.
After returning to California, Robert was focused on consulting when he realized there was a major gap in junior hockey in the state. He set his sights on a new goal: to establish a Tier I junior hockey league in California.
“California’s professional hockey teams have done a great job of building youth hockey, but when a kid reaches age 15 or 16, they typically have to relocate to the Midwest or Canada,” he explains. “They have to leave home to pursue a career or play college hockey.”
‘I say thank you’
After presenting his project to USA Hockey, the governing body of the sport, Robert had to put his plans on hold. In September 2020, he was diagnosed with chronic leukemia. He says he got “really lucky,” since his illness was caught before it became acute. As winter approached and the COVID-19 pandemic surged, he was told he’d have to spend eight weeks in the hospital away from his loved ones. He’d go on to have radiation, chemotherapy, and a stem cell transplant.
Leaning on his team of support, Robert says his friends and family pulled him through. He received gifts large and small: a transfusion of his son’s stem cells and text messages with quotes from one of his former Chargers teammate Scott Brazis for 100 days in a row. On Christmas Day, a nurse told him his white blood cell count was starting to go up, as his son’s stem cells were taking hold. He ended up being released from the hospital in half the expected time.
“I go to bed at night and I say ‘thank you’, and I get up in the morning and I say ‘thank you,’” said Robert. “One thing I learned from a very young age is to never forget where you came from. This December, I had my two-year anniversary of my stem cell infusion, and my blood count is great. My bone marrow biopsy was great. The two-year mark is a big mark. Now I want to give back.”
‘Grow the game of hockey’
Robert has scored a hat trick, of sorts, in finding important ways to give back. After his recovery, he was more driven than ever to start a junior hockey league on the West Coast because he wanted to make a difference in the lives of the young athletes, much as he’d done in the Midwest.
“When I was the owner of that team in Omaha I was like a beaming father,” he said. “That’s what I want to do. I want to keep the California kids home as much as possible. First and foremost, I want to help grow the game of hockey on the West Coast and to provide the kids the highest standard of junior hockey.”
The league has received support from west coast NHL teams as well as Robert’s fellow league founding members. They’re still working out some of the logistics, and he expects the junior hockey league will be operational in October 2024.
Committed to making an impact in his home country as well, Robert has been working on a $100 million project over the past two years to build 45 acres of greenhouses in Quebec that would increase local autonomy and access to locally grown produce.
‘What the University did for me’
Robert has also been giving back by connecting with his alma mater. A member of the advisory board for the University’s alumni, he recently returned to the University to speak to current students, something he was “humbled and honored” to do. It was a full-circle moment, a poignant reminder of how far he’s come.
“When I look back at my life and at when Dr. Ceyda Mumcu invited me to speak to students, I thought about two things that reflect what I’m now doing and why I’m here: the University and Steve Lane,” he said. “Having my coach in the audience and some of my teammates was meaningful. At the end of the day, it’s the people who really matter.”
When Robert looks back on his time as a Charger and on his life and career since earning his degrees, he keeps returning to one word: gratitude. He hopes to continue to express that gratitude by creating opportunities for young hockey players and by supporting the next generation of Chargers as much as he can.
“I told the students I spoke to that if they need guidance, if they’re trying to get a job or an internship, I’ll do my best to help them,” he said. “I would love to help them all. I know what the University did for me.”