Over his 30-year relationship with the Michigan hockey team, Steve Shields has held a lot of different titles — player, coach, director — but, through it all, one thing has stayed the same: He’s been looking out for others.
That role, though, goes back much further than 30 years.
Shields was adopted from a foster home when he was just a couple months old. Growing up with his adopted parents and sister in North Bay, Ontario — the Canadian equivalent to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — Shields never considered being adopted to be anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until he was older that he realized his experience differed from most of his friends and had most likely shaped who he is today.
“When you’re an adopted kid, you have that innate feeling, that instinct that you were left or abandoned at some point when you were very young,” Shields says. “When you’re growing up adopted, there’s an instinctual feeling that you don’t have that unconditional love. So what do you do when you don’t have that unconditional love? You please people so they don’t leave you. You can come to terms with that as you grow up if you deal with it, but it never really goes away.”
As an adopted child, Shields feels he’s much more aware of how others perceive him. While that can have negative consequences, he thinks it’s the reason he’s always gravitated towards those who need help, something he does every day in his role as director of player development.
When Shields graduated from Michigan, he knew very little of life outside of hockey.
As a goaltender for the Wolverines, Shields’s world revolved around practices at Yost Ice Arena and his classes. He graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in education, but very few practical skills that would help him get a job. When asked if he was focused on his future at that age, Shields laughed.
“No, absolutely not. … I was solely focused on playing hockey. I had no idea that hockey could end in a day. Telling me that at that age would mean nothing to me.”
The opportunity to play professionally allowed Shields to put off his future a while longer. He played 12 years after college — 10 in the NHL — but eventually retired in 2006.
By that time, Shields was in his mid-thirties with little idea of what to do next.
“I didn’t know anybody,” Shields said. “First of all, I didn’t have any idea how to network. I didn’t know what my options were, I didn’t know what my interests were and I didn’t know what I was good at.”
He spent a couple years working in software development and bouncing between different pet projects, but he found himself drawn to positions where he could help others. Shields has always felt an innate ability to sense when someone is stressed or unhappy, and he wanted to put that skill to use.
Two years after leaving the world of hockey, he jumped back in with a new purpose: helping players reach their full potential on the ice. Shields worked as an assistant coach under then-Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson before joining Florida Panthers’ coaching staff in 2013 as a goaltending consultant.
In 2015, Shields returned to Ann Arbor to assist with the goaltenders under then-Michigan coach Red Berenson. And as he worked with more and more players over the years, he started to see a hole in the system, the same hole that had left him feeling so unprepared years earlier.
While the University offers countless resources for student-athletes, Shields found that his hockey players weren’t taking advantage of them.
“When a student athlete comes to Michigan, they have two things that are mandatory: They have to go to class, and they play on their team,” Shields said. “The hole in the system is that anything that has to do with their future in the business world or life after Michigan is optional for them when they have time.”
Here, he saw his opportunity to help.
He pitched his idea, first to Berenson, then to Pearson when he replaced Berenson. Pearson approved, and Shields became the program’s first director of player development — a position he’s held for the past two years.
He works closely with athletes and advisors, serving as a “touchpoint” between the two to make sure the hockey players don’t get lost in the shuffle. Michigan’s Athletics Career Center consists of only two staff members for 900 athletes.
While his job isn’t to prepare the players for any certain career, his goal is to get them to think about a future outside of hockey — a Herculean task when you consider most of his players are primarily focused on making it to the NHL.
“For how many of those guys is it going to work out where they play in the NHL, retire from hockey and never have to worry about finances or a career?” Shields said. “One or 2% of the time.”
Shields starts small. Initially, he just asks the younger players to identify interests and skills they have off the ice. He knows that it’s unrealistic to get any of these players to focus on a career, but he hopes his work will get them a little more prepared for whatever life has in store after graduation. The hockey team was the first at Michigan to have all their players make a resume.
As much as Shields still loves the game of hockey, he’s happy with his current role and can’t imagine a return to coaching. To be a coach, you have to put the total wins and losses about all else, something Shields doesn’t think he can do.
“The score of our games is probably the least important thing to me,” Shields said. “So, does that make me coaching material long term? Probably not.”
But being “coaching material” isn’t Shields’s goal. Now, he wants to help players access resources that he didn’t have.
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