Betting on himself: Saskatoon hockey player looks to future in U.S. sports business world
Major junior leads Vukie Mpofu to job with Los Angeles Kings
There isn't a long list of notable hockey figures born in the United Arab Emirates. Add a Zimbabwean background and a Saskatoon upbringing and the list gets even shorter.
Vukie Mpofu moved to Saskatchewan prior to his first birthday and soon became immersed in Canada's pastime. Now 25, he has found himself on the path to increasingly high-profile work on the business side of hockey.
That path has already included stops analyzing contracts for the Vegas Golden Knights and interning at Wasserman Media Group in Los Angeles. The company represents the likes of some of the game's biggest stars in Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
While those players figure in the highlights night in and night out, Mpofu has been making strides in his own right. In the past month, he graduated from the UCLA school of law and was hired by the Los Angeles Kings.
Mpofu's love for the game came naturally growing up in hockey-crazed Saskatoon, even though it didn't feel so natural to his Zimbabwean parents.
"I got really involved in hockey when I was very young and my parents were sort of unsure about it," he said. "No one in my family had played hockey before."
Despite this, he transcended the ranks within the grassroots level of the game and was selected by the Red Deer Rebels in the 2011 WHL bantam draft. He emerged as a standout forward with the Saskatoon Contacts of the Saskatchewan Male AAA Hockey League and made two appearances with the club at the Telus Cup, the national championship for under-18 teams in the country.
But after one season with the Rebels, Mpofu let head coach Brent Sutter know he would not be coming back for another season.
"I learned a lot during my time in Red Deer. One of the things that I probably learned from Brent and probably one of the best lessons I took from him was about self-evaluation," said Mpofu.
"That was something that he emphasized a lot — just having the ability to look at yourself and assess your own game, your own situation and your own work ethic, and if you are being a responsible and reliable person."
'Bet on myself'
Mpofu grew up enthralled with the business decisions made in professional sports, particularly as a fan of the Colorado Avalanche. His fandom spurred curiosity regarding salary cap-related decisions and potential ways to improve a hockey team outside of playing.
"When I sort of came to the realization that, OK, I might not be an NHL-calibre talent, that was sort of the natural progression from there," said Mpofu.
"I sort of decided to bet on myself."
Already having an eye toward the business side of hockey and the pursuit of a law degree, Mpofu decided to begin his education sooner rather than later and enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan, where he received a bachelor of arts in economics and political science.
His bet paid dividends, parlaying into Mpofu's eventual acceptance at UCLA's school of law, which has a sports and entertainment program. It allowed him to take part in exercises like mock negotiations within classes such as sports loss simulation.
Despite losing one of his top players, Sutter couldn't be more happy for him.
"He's a real smart kid. He had a mission; he had a dream of what he wanted to do," he said.
"You knew he was going to be successful at it just because of the way he went about it and just being very loyal to what he wanted to do and committed, disciplined and hardworking."
A home in Hollywood
The NHL season may have just finished, but Mpofu's career is only getting started as one of the newest members of the Los Angeles Kings front office. As the team's manager of hockey operations and legal affairs, Mpofu will oversee contract negotiations, salary cap management, collective bargaining issues and analytics with the Kings when he starts with the team in August.
After speaking with several teams, Mpofu elected to stay in California, excited by the idea of working with a hockey club in the midst of a rebuild after winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014.
"It was just sort of a perfect fit for me," said Mpofu.
Mpofu joins a star-studded front office, which includes Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake, a Stanley Cup champion with the Avalanche in 2001 — the team that made Mpofu fall in love with the business side of the game.
"Having a chance to do something that you love and wake up every day excited to get to work and excited about different opportunities is something that not everyone has and is certainly something that I don't take for granted."
Mpofu's path to where he is today has already presented him with some unique opportunities.
While in Los Angeles hosting a group of friends from Saskatoon, he ran into a group of Pittsburgh Penguins including Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang.
"I remember Sidney was calling Saskatoon 'Toon Town' and he knew about 'Toon Town' from guys like Colby Armstrong [a Saskatoon native and former teammate of Crosby's in Pittsburgh]. That was pretty hilarious," said Mpofu.
'Off the charts'
Mpofu lists as influential figures in his life Saskatoon minor hockey coaches Marc Chartier and Chris Jacobson, as well as Kelly Riou of Next Level Training and Brad Devine, a former agent with Thunder Creek Professional Player Management in Saskatoon who has come to know Mpofu through the hockey community.
"Vukie is a class act. He's an intelligent, hardworking young man who is going to have an impact on the hockey world. He has mapped out where he wants to go in life and, combined with his tremendous work ethic, he will get where he wants to go," said Devine.
"His poise and maturity is off the charts for someone his age."
Devine believes that while Mpofu had the potential to follow his path as an agent, the traits he possesses can continue to carry him to where he wants to go.
"I'm not a betting man, but if I was, my money would be on Vukie."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.