Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON – Jon Cara was maybe 15 or 16 years old when he got his first gig helping at a hockey school.
Like every kid there, the Winnipeg native dreamed of a career playing in the pros. What perhaps made this teen unique from his peers was how much others’ success resonated with him.
“I remember the rewarding feeling of seeing a player think they can do something and then being able to do it, and I was like, ‘this would be an awesome job.”
Jump forward 20 some years, and the University of Manitoba alumnus now finds himself as Director of Player Development for The Rink Player Development, which runs a host of dynamic programs at its Winnipeg training centre.
For the 34-year-old former Canada West and Western Hockey League forward, this isn’t just an awesome job.
“It’s like the dream job,” he says. “For a guy like myself, anyways.
“It’s a dream job to work from a team concept to an individual concept in skill-based work.”
Cara oversees The Rink’s development programming, which includes both team and individual training either on site or remotely. He’s on the ice virtually every day.
“I think having the opportunity to help players that are struggling with certain aspects of their games … figure out how to get through it is the most rewarding part of what we do here,” he says.
If you asked teenaged Cara, he’d probably have figured being among the very, very few that reach the big leagues was more realistic than finding employment the likes of which he has now.
“That was always something in the back of my mind, but at that age you’re never thinking that’s a job that you can make a living at and something you could do,” he says. “You’re thinking you’re going to make it as a player.”
Cara spent time in Junior A and Major Junior hockey, sandwiching stints with Penticton of the British Columbia Hockey League around 113 games over two WHL seasons between the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Saskatoon Blades. For every WHL season, a player receives a minimum of tuition, books and compulsory fees at any post-secondary institution.
“I always had in the back of my mind that the scholarship I was receiving from the (WHL) was something I really wanted to utilize, based on life after hockey and getting yourself in a position where if you wanted to continue to play hockey, you could still get your education and play at an even higher level than you’re playing in at that time,” he explains.
“So it became a choice of looking to go play minor pro and chase that dream, or go to school and start building your education.”
After his junior eligibility expired in 2005, Cara enrolled at the U of M, heeding the advice of Penticton coach and former WHLer Bruno Campese, who encouraged Cara to go to school.
“He just said, ‘In two years from now when you look back at the decision you’ve made as opposed to some of the guys that are going to go play minor pro, you’ll understand why I’m pushing you this way,’ and he was right,” says Cara.
“I remember being in school and thinking this is such a great decision to go to school and get my education instead of bouncing from town to town in minor hockey rinks.”
During Cara’s four years at Manitoba, the Bisons reached the Canada West playoffs three times and twice won a series. His finest season individually was 2006-07, when the six-foot winger tallied 16 points in 36 total games to rank fourth and second, respectively, on the team.
“My greatest memories are everything we did as a group,” he says. “It wasn’t necessarily the wins and losses, it was more the time spent with all those guys over that time.”
So tight-knit were the players on those Manitoba teams that many would continue to play together in senior hockey on the South East Prairie Thunder, which won the Allan Cup in 2012.
“That was one of the coolest things I remember in my career,” says Cara. “We had a lot of guys that were Bisons alumni involved on that team, so it’s cool that we were able to stay together into the Allan Cup (and) get a few more years together with that group.”
When he started university, Cara’s goal was to pursue either physical education or business. The son of educators, Cara came by a passion for teaching naturally, while his interest in the latter was nurtured inside the classrooms of Manitoba, eventually leading him to enter the university’s Asper School of Business and earn a Bachelor of Commerce.
Cara had been working for The Rink in the summertime while he played for the Bisons, and became a full-time employee during his final year of studies at the U of M. He was responsible for developing The Rink’s extensive satellite training, before being promoted to his current position.
“I’ve been very lucky with the opportunities to develop that I’ve been provided by our group. Having a business degree is a huge part of the growth of those opportunities,” he says.
“I’m able to apply that daily with what I do in my position and I have a hockey job, so it ended up being the best of both worlds.”
About the CW Alumni Spotlight:
Each year a new crop of Canada West student-athletes graduate and begin to make an impact in their communities as professionals. The CW Alumni Spotlight series looks to highlight the positive impact former CW student-athletes are making in communities across Western Canada and beyond.
Canada West – training leaders, building champions.