Pro hockey and doctoral studies don’t often go together for a player. And even when they do, it’s rare for them to mix mid-career.
As a forward with the Coventry Blaze and a PhD student at Coventry University, Russ Cowley is doing just that – juggling professional hockey in the British League along with his anticipated post-playing career in academia. He’s heading into his 15th season, and for the past five he’s been teaching sports management at his university. He's earned two degrees, a bachelor in sports management and an MBA in international business, while continuing to play pro, and last season he entered the PhD program at his university to study consumer behavior in sports. So along with the usual physical rigors of training for a new season, Cowley has spent his summer doing a ton of mental lifting.
“It’s so much reading right now,” he said. “It’s just reading, reading, reading.”
Cowley, 31, is able to balance his two lives with help from both team and school. The Blaze have a partnership with Coventry University that allows players to earn degrees while they play. So during the season, Cowley practises in the mornings, teaches in the afternoons and plays games in the evenings. For faraway road games, he gets his classes covered.
“Even though hockey is a full-time job,” he said, “you still have a lot of downtime.”
Cowley lives in Coventry with his English wife, though he’s actually a transplanted Canadian. He was born in Edmonton, but his family moved to the United Kingdom when he was baby. When Cowley was around 10 years old, his father brought the family back to Canada, this time to Vancouver, where Cowley became a Canucks fan, growing up watching the 1990s teams of Pavel Bure, Cliff Ronning, Geoff Courtnall and Sergio Momesso. In his late teens, he moved back to the U.K. where he’s played pro for more than a decade, most of it in Coventry.
All that back-and-forth, however, has left Cowley with a bit of a confused accent.
“A lot of people think I’m Irish,” he said. “They always ask, ‘Where in Ireland are you from?’ ”
That’s not the only playful ribbing he gets. The egghead side of him is an easy target for teammates. Given his high academic aspirations, Cowley is earning his nickname.
“Everyone is calling me doctor, ” he said. “Guys say, ‘Hey, doc!’ or ‘Ask the doctor, he’s sure to have the answer.’ ”
Cowley expects to finish his doctorate by 2017 and plans to keep playing pro while he completes it. After that, he’s leaving all options open, including a possible return to Canada to teach once his playing career is over.
“Hockey isn’t going to last forever,” he said. “It’s great that I’m still learning. Whether it’s in hockey or something, I’m still learning.”