Inside a sports agent’s playbook

Profile: Cliff Mander, Founder and CEO, CKM Sports Management

| Rob Kruyt

As one of the best roller-hockey goaltenders on the continent growing up, Cliff Mander was a hot commodity.

In his early 20s he was being flown around the world to play in competitive tournaments all over the U.S. and as far away as New Zealand and Argentina. Born in 1984, the Vancouver native was negotiating to play in professional tournaments and leagues in places like Colorado, San Jose, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

He also started picking up tricks of the trade: how to get hotels, per diems and flights thrown into the deal, and how to make sure he was being treated well as a paid professional.

“I quickly realized if you were able to connect with these teams and these coaches and sell yourself off your resumé, I was able to secure job opportunities all over the place,” he said. “I was basically being flown in as a ringer to win. That’s what it was at that point. And as a goaltender, they’re paying for everything.”

The experience set off a light bulb in Mander’s head. He loved the conversations and negotiations that took place. While he was being flown around the world to backstop professional roller-hockey teams, he was also selling cars at a dealership and attending Simon Fraser University (SFU), working toward a degree in psychology. His roller-hockey career came to a crashing halt in 2006 after he tore the labrum in his hip, but Mander pivoted quickly.

“It definitely pushed me into a business mindset as opposed to hockey,” he said. “I really realized I wanted to work with hockey players, and I wanted to work as an agent. I wanted that feeling of success and finding opportunities.”

Mander started researching what it meant to be a sports agent for hockey players and found the backgrounds of agents were quite varied. He also asked agents out for coffee and learned how cutthroat the business was.

“I quickly realized it was a very competitive industry,” he said. “And they literally would not have coffee with you because I think instinctively any advantage they provided you, you would use to become their competitor.”

Mander was undeterred; he knew he was on the right career path and, in 2010, started CKM Sports Management Ltd., a  sports-management company.  

“I had no experience,” he said. “But I wanted to understand the industry and the weaknesses in the industry. And when I continued to research [sports-management companies] I realized there were a lot of resources that they weren’t providing that directly related to the performance of the player.”

That same year Mander got his break. His first client was Michael Colantone, who was playing in the Junior A BC Hockey League. Colantone was suiting up for the Victoria Grizzlies when he was traded to the Prince George Spruce Kings.

“Everyone around him was telling him not to report and not show up,” said Mander.

Colantone reached out to Mander through his website asking for advice. Mander said he should report, and think about schooling down in the United States. One of the things Mander did for Colantone that was outside of the norm was dive into his analytics on the ice – something only a few agencies were getting into at that point. Mander found he could help Colantone improve his on-ice production by telling him to increase his passes per shift. This small tweak turned out to be a boon for Colantone, who had a career year in Prince George with 72 points in 52 games to end the 2011-12 season. After that, Mander helped Colantone land a scholarship with the UMass Lowell River Hawks, a Massachusetts-based college hockey team that played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1.

Mander’s attention to analytics, which were still on the game’s periphery, garnered notice in hockey circles, and the clients started rolling in. Dave Thomas, a mentor with SFU’s Venture Connection program, has helped Mander along his career path for years. Thomas, who is also a partner with business marketing and consulting firm Rocket Builders, said Mander’s on-ice attention to detail is what sets him apart.

“A lot of the time Cliff and I will meet in a rink,” he said. “When the puck drops, conversation stops, because he is focused on the players and how they can improve every day. Data isn’t everything, but Cliff can translate it into skill development.”

Within four years Mander, who finished his SFU degree in 2013, had amassed 40 clients, and his company now advises more than 180 hockey players. Mander, who focuses on younger players who might still be playing minor hockey, offers a host of options for his clients, including post-secondary education planning and nutrition, strength training, psychological assessments and real estate investments. He said the idea is to create an environment where hockey players can do what they do best: play hockey.

“It’s really about making sure the guys have a safe infrastructure around them,” he said, noting that most players have an entourage of family and friends. “Sometimes guys like to use friends for investments and that side, which is fine. It’s just about making sure their money is moving forward and not backward or being spent significantly. It is a long-term play for these guys because they’re not going to play forever.”

Mander is working toward his certification with the National Hockey League Players’ Association because one of his clients, Manuel Wiederer, just signed a three-year entry-level contract to play for the San Jose Sharks. Mander said his background in psychology and experience within the culture of hockey also help him identify with the players on a personal level. Many pro athletes grow up as stars on their local teams, but when they graduate to bigger leagues, the players around them are just as talented, and success can come down to factors like motivation and perspective.

“The whole culture feeds into that pressure,” Mander said. “For us, we really try to know the numbers and percentages. So especially with the younger guys, they can get tunnel vision, and if that tunnel doesn’t go to where they want, it can be very challenging psychologically.”

(A previous version of this story had stated Colantone had played for the Prince George Cougars. His previous team has been corrected to the Prince George Spruce Kings.)

Inside information: Cliff Mander

Currently reading:
Grit by Angela Duckworth

First album bought or music downloaded:
ATLiens by Outkast

When you were a kid, what you wanted to be when you grew up:
Sports agent or architect

Profession you would most like to try:
I’m doing it … but I’d say actor/movie star

Toughest business or professional decision:
To focus on my business versus complete an MBA or law degree

Advice you would give the younger you:
Maximize your creativity and ability by challenging yourself every day

What’s left to do:
Lots. I feel I’m only at the tip of the iceberg in my overall career