Froese family business bridged between generations with help from NHLPA UNLMT

Byron Froese is pursuing an education with future applications in mind, and a strong generational connection to his family crop farm.

Froese family business bridged between generations with help from NHLPA UNLMT

Feature photo: Getty Images

Byron Froese grew up helping on the family crop farm near Winkler, Manitoba.

Wheat, canola, soybeans and sugar beets when the local sugar processing plant was still in operation.

His father’s father farmed the land, too.

Before him, Froese’s great grandfather farmed that same land behind horse-drawn implements.

It goes without saying that the life lessons growing up in that kind of environment are myriad.

For one, the persistence and determination to work the land as a livelihood prepares you for lots of adversity.

“I was pretty much cut from every team I tried out for until junior,” Froese recalled with a laugh from the home he and his wife, Teil, and two children aged 2 and 4, share in Henderson, Nevada.

When he was hoping to play AAA hockey in Manitoba, he was playing high school hockey.

When he was hoping to be playing Major Junior Hockey, he was playing AAA hockey.

His desire finally intersected with reality when he made the team in Everett of the Western Hockey League, which led to him being drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks with the 119th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft after his first of three years in the WHL.

“It was a pretty wild ride,” Froese said.

Not bad for a kid who, when he first began playing organized hockey as a small boy, asked his parents to sign him up for the Montreal Canadiens.

Almost 15 years since being drafted, the lessons Froese carries with him and the ones he continues to learn, and impart as a veteran mentor in the Vegas Golden Knights organization, resonate far beyond springtime plantings and fall harvest.

When Froese was born, his father, John, branched off from traditional farming and, without benefit of formal training at the college or university level, became a land developer in the Winkler area, buying and developing land around the community southwest of Winnipeg on the border separating Manitoba from North Dakota.

John Froese recalled, in fact, that for most of his high school career he missed weeks of class during the fall harvest. Although, he made sure to seize an opportunity that arose to develop land in the area.

He recalled working with people he trusted and listening to advice from those people. He remembers a key to developing the land was not all that much different than working the land. That was the patience required to see an investment bear fruit, along with having the wherewithal financially to back up that patience.

Years later, Byron, the youngest of three Froese boys, would call his father with questions about a university course he was taking on wait for it land development.

John Froese was a goaltender, and readily admits that he did not really have much advice for Byron, a forward who had decided early on that he was not going to follow in his father’s skate-steps.

But when it came to advice on the business his father had been working at for decades, well, those were family trade secrets that were happily received.

Funny how things work out.

Before Byron moved on to Everett, John Froese would manage Byron’s teams when time allowed. His mother, Lottie, was a regular chauffeur and supporter when John was busy either with the farm or the development business.

When it came to the hockey part of things, looking back on it now, Froese figures those early setbacks were critical to his evolution as a hard-working player and leader.

“The best thing for me was to play at a lower level,” he said.

He learned a lot from playing in those ranks, and when he finally got an opportunity at those higher levels he excelled.

As a junior player, Froese was also a player that took care of business off the ice.

Before going to Seattle, he consolidated his high school courses and accumulated enough core credits to graduate. He was able to avoid having to go to high school while also preparing for the rigors of junior hockey. However, understanding that he needed to continue to be challenged away from the rink and prevent the ups and downs of a hockey season following him home, he took a college course.

“I found it really important to check that at the door at an early age,” Froese said of the many swings in the game that can dog a player mentally.

For Froese, studying and learning provided a solid way to separate from the game.

“I just always found that was a good escape for me,” Froese said.

After two years in Everett and one year in Red Deer, Alberta, where he recorded 81 points in 70 games, there were minor pro stops in Rockford, Toledo, Rockford again, Cincinnati, San Antonio and Toronto before he got his first taste of NHL life during the 2015-16 season with the Maple Leafs.

It was during his time in the Toronto organization that Froese met Duncan Fletcher, NHLPA UNLMT Personal Strategist.  

NHLPA UNLMT is an initiative that helps marry current players with interests outside of hockey, primarily during their playing career but perhaps also as a stepping stone to post-career pursuits.

Froese, now 33, explained to Fletcher his interest in real estate he had purchased a couple of rental properties as well as purchased homes that he and his wife occupied during their tour of the hockey world in North America.

Fletcher describes Froese as “very thoughtful, very deliberate, and I think very curious.”

He knew instinctively that some of the courses at a variety of prestigious institutions offered through NHLPA UNLMT might appeal to Froese. Specifically, Fletcher described a high-level course in urban land economics offered by the University of British Columbia.

“He said, ‘I think this would be perfect for you,’” Froese recalled.

Fletcher was not wrong as it turned out.

“With each class I realized how practical it was,” Froese said. “All of a sudden it applied right to my life.”

In one example Froese gave, he mentioned he had been working with an accountant, an old friend early in his career, to deal with his rental properties before later working with a new accountant.

Instead of the usual refunds he was used to getting, the new accountant told him he would be owing when it came to tax time.

“I was like, ‘oh, this can’t be right,’” Froese said.

As it turned out, he had just finished a section of the UBC curriculum on real estate tax that had taken a deep dive into things like capital costs, depreciation and capital cost allowance.

Froese knew the material and, after reaching out to his former accountant for some advice, knew the questions to ask his new accountant who ended up changing the approach for Froese’s tax filings.

“Right away I knew what he was talking about because I’d just learned it in my class,” Froese said.

Being proactive turned what initially looked to be a $15,000 tax payment into about a $15,000 refund.

“I was like, ‘wow, right there my schooling has paid for itself,’” Froese said.

Froese has completed the course work and has applied for his diploma.

He would like to take a step forward in his business ventures when the timing is right.

“I would definitely like to look into something commercial,” Froese said.

The course work already completed would have unexpected benefits, leading Froese to connect him to experiences that his parents had dealt with as they branched out from the family farm into their other business operations.

Most notably the final project for the UBC coursework was essentially a mock land development project that involved working up a business plan on an imagined project, including a feasibility study and ensuring that all legal standards were met. It involved all the minutiae of putting together a land deal.

As he had throughout the course process, when Froese found himself wondering about different aspects of such a multi-layered enterprise, he knew just who to call.

“It’s been so cool to connect with my dad on it a lot,” Froese said. “Just how his mind works. I’ve learned a lot from him. That was a really cool family moment for me.”

“He’s a pretty calm and collected guy but I’m sure it’s pretty cool for him too,” Froese added.

John downplays his role in his son’s academic achievements, but the pride and delight is obvious when hearing both father and mother discuss their son’s dedication to building his future.

“He’s very determined to accomplish what he sets out to do,” Froese’s mother, Lottie, said. “He’s self-directed, self-motivated.”

Both parents praised the support that Byron has received from his wife, her family and from the extended Froese family.

Froese’s wife, Teil, was a nurse before she turned her focus to helping accommodate the family’s transient hockey life.

“She’s never wavered that way,” Froese said. “She’s always been supportive, always understood.”

Unlike some remote college-level courses that Froese had been involved with, the UBC course demands more from students.

“You have a deadline every week,” Froese said. “It’s not crazy, but during the hockey season you have to make sure you stay on top of it.”

As he worked his way through the course, each segment grew harder and harder, and the assignments became more demanding.

“It’s no joke,” Fletcher said of the UBC land development course. “It’s not a light lift. It’s a very rigorous diploma program.”

“Hats off to him for putting the work in,” Fletcher added. “Now he’s got something, he could land a gig with that diploma.”

Apart from the bonus of sharing his academic pursuits with his parents and extended family his two older brothers are also active in the local business community in the Winkler area.

Froese has been proactive about sharing his experiences with his mostly younger teammates, having spent time with the Golden Knights at the NHL level and with the Henderson Silver Knights at the AHL level, both this season and last.

He has been in leadership roles in many of his hockey stops in recent years, including serving as captain in Laval, the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, and now as a mentor to many of the young players with the Golden Knights’ top farm team.

While he makes sure the younger players are aware of what is available to them through NHLPA UNLMT, it may be even more impactful when they see their veteran teammate taking time on the road to work on assignments and push towards the finish line.

After speaking to a group of his teammates in Stockton a couple of seasons back about his experiences with NHLPA UNLMT, Froese said half a dozen or so have signed up to take classes of one kind or another.

Whether players have been pursuing documentary film making, podcasting or business ventures through NHLPA UNLMT, one of the consistent and tangible benefits has been providing an escape away from the game through an avenue which might also be useful both during and after their playing careers.

If you do not have something to keep you occupied, Froese noted, you can start overthinking the game, especially if things are not going well for a player or his team.

“You need something besides the game,” Froese said.

Froese also understands the fleeting nature of being a pro athlete.

“It feels like yesterday I turned pro, here it is 13 years later,” he said. “I’m one of the oldest guys in the league.”

“I want to make sure there are multiple avenues I can take when I leave the game so it’s not complete panic,” Froese said. “I just don’t want to come out and go, ‘now I have to figure out my life.’”

To hear Froese describe the usefulness of the UBC course as it related to his own real estate investments is music to Fletcher’s ears, and it speaks to the very heart of what NHLPA UNLMT looks to achieve.

“At the end of the day his information needs to be useful and it’s something that needs to be applied,” Fletcher said.

The fact that Froese is pursuing something that has not just future applications but speaks to a strong connection with his family and his family’s past, adds another layer to the narrative.

“He’s taken it upon himself to pursue the education to be able to contribute and define his own pathway, it’s really quite cool,” Fletcher said. “When you take in that generational aspect to it, it’s even more fascinating. Byron’s done an awesome job.”

It is not necessarily the goal for players to graduate, but rather to explore pursuits that appeal to them at the appropriate level that makes sense for the player and his family.

“If a player is able to get across the finish line, then we’ve probably done a good job of putting them in a position to pursue something that actually really does meaningfully align with what they’re trying to accomplish,” Fletcher said.

As for having Froese’s voice amplify what NHLPA UNLMT is about and what it offers to other members of the NHLPA, especially younger players, well, that is pretty special, too.

“At the end of the day, that’s massive,” Fletcher said. “If you have athletes that we’re working with who are speaking positively about their experiences and how it’s positively impacting their lives, that is the best possible advertisement we could get.”