The first part of Jim Kyte’s life story may sound discouragingly familiar to anyone following the trials and tribulations of the NHL’s ongoing concussion debate. Kyte was a 6-foot-5, 210-pound defenceman, drafted 12th overall in 1982 by the Winnipeg Jets, the first legally deaf player in NHL history.
He played 598 NHL regular-season games and accumulated 1,342 penalty minutes before his career ended at the age of 33, as a result of post-concussion syndrome.
Unlike some of his peers, however, Kyte’s playing days didn’t end on the ice. It came as a result of an automobile accident – in 1997 his car was smashed by another vehicle in Kansas City, where he was playing for the San Jose Sharks’ minor-league affiliate, and hoping to make his way back to the NHL.
It took Kyte almost a full year to recover from those injuries, but here’s where his story takes an unusual detour.
Once the fog cleared, Kyte forged a second career in academia, earning an MBA from Royal Roads University in 2007. He is now dean of the school of hospitality and tourism at Algonquin College in Ottawa and pondering the idea of pursuing a doctorate.
So many stories about ex-NHLers, who played a hard physical game and paid a physical price, ended tragically. Kyte is the opposite of that – and proof that as debilitating as post-concussion syndrome can be, for some, there is a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
“Life isn’t easy,” said Kyte, 52. “Life is hard. But every morning I wake up, I say to myself: ‘Today’s going to be a good day.’
“My dad used to cite the 90-10 rule – life is 10 per cent what happens to you and 90 per cent how you react to it. I didn’t really appreciate that until I was the victim in a car accident. A guy ran a stop sign, an uninsured motorist. My car flipped three times I’m told; I don’t remember anything. I woke up with the fire department, cutting me out of the car. So basically, I’m thankful I’m still here.”
But Kyte did more than just survive the accident. He thrived in its aftermath. On one level, he said, it was an easy decision to walk away from professional hockey because the renowned concussion specialist, Chicago-based Dr. James Kelly, told him he would never play again. According to Kyte, it was far better to get the bad news from a doctor than from 30 NHL general managers and their 30 minor-league peers.
Determining he needed to make a clean break after his career ended, Kyte returned to his hometown of Ottawa to ponder his second act.
One of his first decisions was to stash away all his memorabilia, anything that reminded him of his playing days. It was important, symbolically, to put the past behind him.
“You can go into some guys’ homes, some of my former teammates, and you’d think you were walking into a Hall of Fame,” Kyte said. “There are jerseys up, trophies, almost a shrine to their careers. You could walk into my home and never knew I played. There wasn’t one photo up; all my jerseys were put away in a closet. To me, it was, ‘Okay, my career is over, I need to move forward, and I can’t be stuck in the past.’”
Kyte went back to school as a mature student and earned a living as a motivational speaker, while he was studying for his MBA. His academic career began with a chance meeting – the dean at Algonquin College heard him on the speaking circuit and asked him to put an advisory committee together to develop a sport-management program. Eventually, Kyte was asked to develop a business plan and when that was accepted, he was invited to run the program.
“I saw a window, a very small window of opportunity that may never come again in my lifetime – and I recognized that,” he said. “So I worked 60 to 80 hours a week to make sure I built a successful program. It turned into, not just a job, but a career.”
Life as an academic suits Kyte.
“My kids ask: ‘How come you spend so much time at work?’ and my answer is: ‘I really like going to work. I really like working with the people I’m working with. I enjoy intrinsically working with young people.’ They show up at our door, with a dream and a hope for what they want to do – and we’re there to help them achieve their dream, and support them along the way.