Editor’s note: This is a guest article from David P. Stein, who, through interviews with new Hurricanes Director of Hockey Operations Aaron Schwartz and many people he crossed paths with over the years, documented Schwartz’s hockey journey.
The hockey story of Aaron Schwartz began over 30 years ago at the Glenview Stars Hockey Association in suburban Chicago, where he was taught on the ice by the likes of career coaches Myles Gottainer and Sylvain Turcotte.
“When he was growing up, I used to talk with his dad all the time,” said Turcotte, a goalie at the University of Vermont from 1977-1981. “He comes from a good family. Aaron didn’t let anything keep him down. If he didn’t make a team, he always kept at it.”
As a three-year-old old boy from Glenview, Illinois, it didn’t take long for Schwartz to fall in love with the game. Between just being out on the ice, and going to Chicago Blackhawks games with his father during the early 1990s, Schwartz’s life has always revolved around hockey.
“My dad and I used to go to Blackhawks games when I was younger and I can remember going to school the next day and I would have no voice because I was screaming and yelling the whole game,” Schwartz remembers vividly.
To date, Schwartz’s journey has been one of intense turbulence, but also one of deep faith, perseverance, devotion to the sport, and redemption.
“I don’t take no for an answer, and I don’t give up,” said Schwartz, who was appointed Director of Hockey Operations for the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 8, just prior to the start of the 2021 regular season. “I learned that from both my mom and dad. They both owned their own businesses. My dad’s actually still in business. Believe it or not, he’s got a retail party store even though everybody’s moved online and there’s pretty much no business left. He just doesn’t give up, and that’s kind of where I learned that from.”
Schwartz’s journey to this point is admirable because he’s truly always been the underdog. In fact, his road as a teenager growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago was a tumultuous one, and he regularly found himself getting into trouble as a high school student.
“I was suspended from my last year of high school, and got kicked out,” he said. “I had to go to what was basically a special education school, and my parents had to fight to keep me on the high school hockey team because I was now going to a different school after being expelled. It fuels me today.
Because of the struggles he was having in high school, Schwartz’s hockey trajectory was negatively impacted. And by the time he was starting to think about where he would play in college, his resume was already tarnished. “My resume was always an issue,” as he put it.
Schwartz wound up playing club hockey for DePaul University in Chicago, in the American Collegiate Hockey Association from 2004 through 2007. But as he stated, this level of competition was a ways away from any of the Division 1 programs at a major hockey school.
“The ACHA is a collegiate level of hockey that had the boys more focused on what bar to go to after the game than what systems were in place on the fore-check,” Schwartz said. “I had a lot of fun, but I wasn’t very good. I partied more than most people should be allowed to in several generations combined.”
After getting cut in his senior year at DePaul, Schwartz was once again at a crossroads.
“It wasn’t until I was cut from my college team my senior year that I realized that the end of competitive hockey was fast approaching,” said Schwartz, who decided to take a year off from school in order to sign his first professional contract with the Battle Creek Revolution of the All American Hockey League. “I didn’t want to get a shitty nine-to-five job and sit behind a desk like everyone else. I wanted to fulfill my childhood dream of being a professional hockey player. So, I spent that summer in the gym and on the ice, every single day. Sometimes, twice a day.”
Although Schwartz took time to adjust in his first year, he did manage to record a hat-trick in the same game he scored his first professional goal. But despite this performance, there were still plenty of questions swirling around his mind.
“I struggled before, during, and after each game, mentally,” he said. “I kept saying to myself ‘I don’t belong here.’ Not that I belonged somewhere else, but I doubted my ability because of my hockey resume, what I had been told by former teammates, coaches, and, well, the circumstances of reality.”
Schwartz returned to DePaul after his first season in Battle Creek, and completed his Bachelor of Science in Business Management while still playing playoff games in Battle Creek on weekends.
He spent most of the season in Battle Creek living in a rundown apartment that had paper thin walls and smelled like grease. Perhaps Schwartz’s most vivid memory from that season involved a tragic fire from an explosion nearby that lit his apartment complex on fire.
“My teammates and I immediately ran out to see what was going on,” Schwartz said. “People were screaming and running around - it was absolute chaos. One of my teammates, Ky Moje, caught a baby thrown in desperation from a second story window by a woman trapped inside the fire. If I remember correctly, and sadly, two people died that night in the fire caused, allegedly by a meth lab explosion.”
From Battle Creek, Schwartz had brief stints with the Quad City Mallards of the CHL and the Fayetteville FireAntz of the SPHL during the 2011-2012 season, but he wasn’t able to stick, and once again he felt he didn’t have the tools to make it in professional hockey.
Pretty soon, Schwartz was back home in Chicago where he was practicing, training and preparing for his next opportunity to play somewhere when called upon. At the same time, he was bartending on weekends to make ends meet so that he could pay for his gym membership and ice slot fees.
Eventually, Schwartz got a call from Paul Gardner, who was coaching the Bloomington Blaze of the CHL at the time. Gardner wanted Schwartz to play that night against the Dayton Gems.
“Aaron’s resume came through with lots of others,” said Gardner, who played 447 games in the NHL and is a member of the 200 goal club. “I didn’t have him right off the start, but once one of our first injuries happened and the season started, I needed players quickly. And because he was close, I brought him in and he fit in right away.”
From 1998 until 2003, Gardner was also an assistant to Barry Trotz on the Nashville Predators coaching staff. Gardner had high praise for Schwartz’s tenacity and work ethic, something he could spot right away.
“There was one time where we played at 7 o’clock, and I called him at 4 to come play,” Gardner said. “It was a two hour drive but he still drove in to play and get into the lineup. He played defense, he played forward, and just would do anything he could.”
Meanwhile, there was still a voice in Schwartz’s head telling him he didn’t belong. His fellow teammates and opponents had mostly played Division I NCAA or major juniors while Schwartz had played high school hockey and college hockey at the club level. But with the CHL now on his resume, he turned his sights toward opportunities in Europe, and eventually signed with HC Trutnov of the Czech Republic.
“No one spoke English and I certainly didn’t speak Czech,” Schwartz said. “Some of my teammates lived in the hotel with me and we communicated and started to become friends with the use of Google translate –provided there was WIFI. The long bus rides encompassed classic American comedy movies dubbed over in Czech. Every post game meal included a local beer and heavy Czech food.”
When his season ended in the Czech Republic, Schwartz was owed a couple weeks of pay and a flight back to Chicago. He never saw the money, nor was he reimbursed for his flight home to the United States.
“I filed a grievance with the Czech Hockey Federation but never saw a dime. I got to travel Europe and played hockey, for a living, in a foreign country. It was all worth it,” he said.
.From the Czech Republic, Schwartz returned to North America in 2012. Unfortunately for him, the NHL lockout meant that the AHL and ECHL would be filled with talent from hockey’s top league.
But he still managed to sign with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL, and although he only lasted a couple weeks before being released, he became friends with former
NHLer Riley Armstrong before heading to Kansas City for his next opportunity to play for the Missouri Mavericks.
While playing with the Mavericks, Schwartz sustained a concussion after being on the receiving end of a major hit.
“I went into the training room barely able to move my arm and was severely concussed,” Schwartz said. “Trainer said I was done, I refused to listen. I knew I had to show the coach that I was tough. I tried to finish the game and took another shift. I was barely able to pass the puck. I was in a lot of pain and my head hurt bad. I didn’t want to tell anyone that I had a concussion because I knew that I would lose my spot.”
While injured, the Mavericks released Schwartz, who once again found himself back home in Chicago trying to figure out what his next move was going to be.
He began the 2013-14 season by signing with HC Orli Znojmo in the Austrian league, formerly known as the EBEL. By the end of that season, he had played for a few teams, including HK Nitra and HK Dukla Trenčín in the Slovakian Extraliga.
“I stayed the night at his house and moved into my apartment the next day,” Schwartz said. “It seemed to be a legitimate club and it had a ton of history. This was where Hossa, Gaborik, and several other Slovak NHL stars played before the NHL.”
From Trencin, his next stop was to Katowice, Poland, where Schwartz’s already wild ride through Europe got even crazier. But as it turned out, the Polish Ekstraliga eventually found itself in a lockout, and Schwartz and some of his teammates were told they couldn’t be paid anymore and would have to leave.
Schwartz played in four exhibition games for Katowice against Slovak Extraliga teams.
After playing for four different teams in three months while floating around Eastern Europe like a lost soul, Schwartz knew his playing dream was basically over.
“I knew I had to retire, but I didn’t want to actually make the decision. I spent my whole life chasing this dream and I didn’t want it to end,” he said.
Before leaving Poland, Schwartz and a couple of his teammates were involved in a standoff with Polish mob members over a payment settlement. As the hockey team’s enforcer, Schwartz was on the front lines. Fortunately, things never got physical and he soon returned to Chicago in order to prepare for life beyond playing professional hockey.
“I got back to Chicago and had not the slightest clue of what I was going to do,” Schwartz said. “I started sending resumes out and contacting the hockey community in hopes of finding a job. I had offers to coach, but for nominal money. I needed something that was as cut-throat as professional hockey.
Schwartz eventually decided to go to law school, so he began to study for the LSATs. On his first attempt, he scored a below-average score, not nearly good enough for any of the top schools. But determined to rise above, Schwartz studied harder and took the LSATs a second time.
In 2015, Schwartz enrolled at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
“Here I was again as the underdog,” Schwartz said. “Barely getting in and already thinking I wouldn’t have what it takes. I was imagining sitting in the dean’s office being asked to leave for poor grades, similar to how it had panned out time and time again in hockey.”
Instead of allowing his fear of failure to overwhelm him, Schwartz decided to apply many of the lessons he learned in hockey to his path towards becoming a lawyer.
“Hard work, focus, and calm under pressure,” he said. “I reminded myself to keep my sights on achieving my goal. Every time I wasn’t studying I knew someone else was. I knew someone else was working harder than me, just like in hockey. So, I spent every minute of free time I had studying.”
Graduating in 2018 in the top three percent of his class, Schwartz went on to work for the Washington Capitals as a legal intern, and then the Montreal Canadiens as a consultant to John Sedgewick. Prior to joining the Hurricanes, Schwartz had also been an attorney for two years at the Seiden Law Group in Chicago.
Over the last couple years, Schwartz has gotten plenty of practical experience in the legal world, even outside of hockey. For example, last year Schwartz argued a federal criminal appeal before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; a case which received national recognition. Schwartz’s opponent in that matter was the U.S. Department of Justice’s Scott Meisler, formerly the appellate specialist for the Mueller Investigation.
Schwart’z first dream might’ve been to lift the Stanley Cup as a player, but he’ll be glad to achieve that goal as part of his second hockey life as an NHL executive.
“That’s everyone’s goal, and especially here in Carolina, we’re not settling for just making the playoffs,” Schwartz said. “We’re always trying to make our team better in order to achieve that goal, but I’m also stepping in at a time where most of the work has been done the last three or four years.”
Prior to joining the Hurricanes, Schwartz interviewed for executive positions with both the Arizona Coyotes and the American Hockey League. After being rejected for those positions, Schwartz’s wife continued to keep things positive.
“My wife told me I was on the right path,” he said. “She said there’s a reason that you didn’t get those other jobs because it’s leading you to where you are now. And I never believed it of course, until it happened.”
Since getting the job in Carolina, Schwartz has heard from many who’ve crossed his hockey path, like Gardner.
“I was thrilled for him,” Gardner said. “He wrote to me about a day or two before it became public that he had gotten the job. He was thanking people who had known in hockey, and who had helped him along the way, and I was one of them. That made me feel really good.”
Others, like trainer Rob Rosmis of the Chicago Wolves, were overjoyed for Schwartz. Having trained with Schwartz over the years, Rosmis got to witness his devotion to hockey and to getting better every day.
“He’s probably one of the most dedicated guys I’ve ever known,” said Rosmis, who believes that all the relationships Schwartz has been able to cultivate through his various hockey endeavors are going to pay dividends for him and the Hurricanes. “We started our friendship playing hockey together, and when I went to join the Wolves as their strength and conditioning coach, he trained with us in the summertime with a couple local players who came home after the season.
“I think it’s helped him up until this point because he’s established relationships that really revolve around the players and always doing the best for the players. I think in his role, and being more of a player advocate has been probably one of his strongest attributes.”
Schwartz was also a player agent and advisor in Sweden for Alterno Management from 2014-2017, where he thrived in his ability to connect with hockey people.
“He helped a lot. He helped me sign all of my contracts in Europe,” said Jean-François Jacques, who played for the Edmonton Oilers from 2005-2011.
But after playing his final NHL games for the Anaheim Ducks during the 2011-2012 season, Jacques eventually left North America to go play in Austria and Germany.
“If I had to sum up the kind of service and representation I got from Aaron in two words, I’d say he was dedicated and compassionate to all of his clients,” added Jacques.
Former New York Islanders defenseman Bruno Gervais was another of Schwartz’s clients, and he echoed these very sentiments.
“He’s one of those guys who’s willing to do whatever it takes. He was learning and he was putting in the work. He’s the type of guy who always wants to keep on building,” said Gervais, who is now a television analyst with the french-Canadian network RDS.
The emptiness Schwartz felt when he eventually conceded that his professional playing days would be ending was unlike any other he’s ever felt, but as he continues to keep on figuring out, his hockey journey is far from over.
It was always Schwartz’s dream to make it to the NHL, and although it didn’t happen for him as a player, he recalls being inspired by the words of Martin St. Louis during the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
“For all the kids out there listening, follow your dream, believe in yourself. When it seems like all the doors are closing, look for a window and find a way in. The reason that some people don’t reach their full potential is because they quit too soon. Maybe most importantly be a good teammate both on the ice and in life,” St. Louis said in front of the hockey world.
Schwartz often felt unwanted or unsure of himself throughout his days as a player, but that is no longer the case. He and his wife just bought a home in Raleigh because the Hurricanes truly are the first organization to show this much faith in him at any level, and that could be because he finally belongs.