Former Montreal Canadien Mathieu Darche has made a seamless transition from the ice to the boardroom as he enjoys his second career with international freight forwarder Delmar
Having an MBA is a prized commodity, granting the holder instant credibility in the world of business. And it’s no different in the transportation and logistics industry, earning the designation can take years of study. Unless you’re Mathieu Darche.
The former NHLer, now an executive with freight forwarder Delmar International, described his turn as a member of the National Hockey League Players’ Association’s negotiating committee during the lockout of 2012-13 as a high-level crash course in business relations.
“It was like getting my MBA in six months,” he told Canadian Shipper in an interview at the company’s Toronto offices.
“Working alongside [NHLPA executive director] Donald Fehr and across the table from [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman—there was no school that could have given me that hands-on experience.”
The holder of an actual degree in marketing and international business from Montreal’s McGill University, Darche, after failing to catch on as a free agent after the 2013 lockout, retired and was searching for a career after hockey when fate intervened in the form of his old NHLPA boss.
In the spring of that year, Darche was invited to a sports celebrity benefit breakfast honouring Fehr. “They’d always invited me while I was playing, but I could never go,” he said. “I went because of Don.”
At the event, Darche crossed paths with Delmar’s COO Mike Wagen and after exchanging pleasantries, the two met later for lunch and the idea of the former Montreal Canadien coming to work for the company was hatched. More meetings followed, including ones with Delmar founder and chairman Harrison Cutler and CEO Robert Cutler, which led to an offer Darche was pleased to accept.
He called Wagen “a great mentor.”
“Mike took me under his wing and I went to every single meeting with him that first year,” remembered Darche, who began as director of business development and public relations, before being promoted to his current role as national vice president, sales and marketing – Canada in 2016. “It was definitely an accelerated learning curve.”
Darche oversees the sales teams in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, managing existing and new accounts for Canada for Delmar, which has more than 1,300 employees across 40 offices in 14 countries.
“Mike [Wagen] told me, ‘Nobody studies to be in logistics, you fall into it,’ and I really enjoy it because it’s so dynamic and you get to meet so many people, and I like that.”
No two days are the same, according to Darche.
“Let’s face it, we all do the same thing,” he remarked on the freight forwarding business. “You can’t just sell on price.
“You can have two customers in the same industry that ship ocean freight from China, but they both have different strategies that work for them and, for me, it’s enjoyable to go through the RFQ process and attempt to bring value to a company’s supply chain.
“You have to find a solution, whether it’s a destination solution or an origin solution, find some way to differentiate yourself.”
At Delmar, that means technology.
“Our industry really lends itself to technology… I think that technology and data interchange is almost as important for just-in-time shipping as moving the actual merchandise itself,” said Darche.
To modernize its processes and maintain a competitive edge, Delmar developed its own software. While this has led to higher overhead and IT expenses, the company has gained unique capabilities that allow it to better serve its customers.
Former Montreal Canadien Mathieu Darche has made a seamless transitiion from the ice to the boardroom as he enjoys his second career with international freight forwarder Delmar. PHOTO: Denis Bernier
Lessons from a life in hockey
When their playing days are over, most professional athletes have no choice but to look for a second career and that was the reality for Darche as well.
“I got paid for over 300 games in the NHL and when I retired, by no means was I on the street, but I had to work; I still had a mortgage on my house,” he said. “The ones that don’t have to work are the minority.”
Some might think, being a former NHL player and a Canadien to boot, means Darche can book business solely based on his name. That’s not necessarily the case.
“It helps, but I’m not naïve. Yeah, it might help get me the meeting, but at the end of the day I have to know what I’m talking about. I don’t even mention it to customers. I don’t introduce myself, ‘Hi, I’m Mathieu Darche, former Montreal Canadien.’ Some people don’t follow hockey, so I don’t get recognized all the time.”
That said, “Business is networking and I have a decent network.”
That network includes his former teammates and the world of professional hockey.
Darche won’t be far from hockey; he continues his gig as a studio hockey analyst for RDS and expects to be a regular visitor to the Bell Centre, where Delmar, sponsor of TSN Radio 690’s Canadiens post-game show, has a suite for business entertainment.
But don’t expect to hear Darche dish on his former colleagues. “If they play poorly, I’ll say that, but I made it clear that I’m not there to hand out scoops on my friends,” which include neighbours such as current Hab Carey Price and former teammates Francis Bouillon and Travis Moen.
It’s that camaraderie and being part of a team that Darche feels is something that can be carried over to the working world. He learned more from his 14 years of pro hockey than just how to execute the neutral zone trap.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest link. Same thing in hockey, everyone has to pull in the same direction. I work with people’s strengths and try to get the best out of everyone. When you play hockey, you deal with people from all sorts of different backgrounds.”
Including age. During his time in Montreal, he played alongside Louis Leblanc, a 2009 first-round draft pick, who was closer in age to Darche’s two sons (Samuel and Benjamin).
Adapting and making adjustments as you go is another lesson Darche brought with him from his playing days.
Former Ottawa Senators bench boss Guy Boucher, who coached Darche in Hamilton for the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate during the 2009-10 season, told him: “I don’t coach a team, I coach 23 individuals.”
“It’s the same in the workplace,” said Darche. “You can be hard on the issues, but softer on the people.”
Pressure is also nothing new to Darche, who loved playing in front of his hometown fans, “except for all the ticket requests,” he joked.
“I played three years for the Montreal Canadiens, I’m used to being criticized. I know how to handle pressure. I don’t get flustered. In hockey it’s a different kind of pressure. At work you can screw up and your boss will know, but in hockey, you screw up it’s in front of 22,000 people and the next day it’s in the newspaper.”
For someone who took the unusual path to the NHL from a Canadian university hockey program, Darche remains a staunch believer in the value of higher education, something instilled in him by his family early in life.
Darche and his older brother (by two years) J.P. grew up loving sports, playing both football and hockey.
Their mother Lucie, was an elementary school teacher and their father, Edouard, was an accountant.
“Our parents always pushed us toward school. I remember coming back home from school and university and talking hockey with my dad. And the next thing you know, my mom gets over him and she’s like, ‘How were your classes today?’
“We always had a balance.”
Recruited by McGill to play football, Darche turned down a hockey scholarship from the University of Massachusetts so he could play both in Montreal, including a year alongside his brother, who would go on to play nine seasons in the NFL, capped by an appearance in Super Bowl XL with the Seattle Seahawks. Nowadays, J.P. is the team doctor for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Before McGill, Darche played hockey at Choate Rosemary Hall, a Connecticut prep school better known for educating several generations of Kennedys than for developing NHL players. At McGill, where he dropped football after his first year to concentrate on hockey, Darche racked up 129 points in 75 games over his final three seasons, and was named the Dr. Randy Gregg Award winner as the outstanding Canadian Interuniversity Sport student-athlete.
Journeyman might be the best description of Darche’s hockey career. After signing as a free agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2000, he went on to play with 13 teams in the NHL, AHL and Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga.
After a decade he finally found success at the age of 33, playing his first game for the Canadiens in 2009 and enjoying two-and-a-half seasons as a full-time NHL player, eventually being nominated by the Montreal chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association for the league’s Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 2011, awarded annually to a player who exhibits perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
His hard-earned success in Montreal was another lesson learned, he told The (Montreal) Gazette at the time.
“In Tampa, every time I got called up I was playing not to make mistakes instead of doing something. When I got called up I had a talk with my brother, and as we were talking I decided: You know what, it’s one of my last chances to make it up and if I have to go back down, I will go down swinging. I will play the way I play, and if it doesn’t work and doesn’t help the team, well, so be it. At least I gave it my all.”
Darche is still working hard at the game he loves as president of a school hockey league in Quebec—La Ligue de Hockey Préparatoire Scolaire (LHPS)—which currently boasts 26 schools and over 2,000 players, including his boys, Samuel, 15 and Benjamin, 13.
Begun during his years as a Montreal Canadien, it was a concept based on prep schools in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer and former Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis—who went to the University of Vermont—is an adviser with the LHPS. Darche said the league’s mandate to ensure young players aspiring to reach the pro level be sufficiently educated to make a living off the ice. Hockey is the only sport where all the major programs before turning professional are not school-based.
“I have nothing against Junior hockey if that’s the choice people make, but when you look at the percentage of junior players in the NHL, something like one per cent, if not less, make it to the NHL,” Darche said. “So I say: ‘Yes, it’s okay to dream, but you can’t dream foolishly.’ I think I stuck around in the minors as long as I did because I knew I had options. I wasn’t nervous about what I would do if I didn’t make it.”
He had good reason not to worry. All those experiences on and off the ice made for a smooth transition to life after hockey, helping him move forward.