Devils defender Connor Carrick takes bold step into podcasting world

New Jersey Devils defenceman Connor Carrick (5) skates by the bench after scoring a goal. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Connor Carrick has always been quick to cultivate his curiosity.

So when a global pandemic arrived in March and Carrick found himself with a little more unscheduled time on his hands, it seemed like a natural evolution for the New Jersey Devils defenceman to become the first active NHLer to enter the world of podcasting.

Carrick had been interested in the medium since his wife Lexi introduced it to him a few years ago, but he always found a reason to delay launching his own show – mostly because he didn’t want it to interfere with his chosen career.

But also because when it comes to being first at something, there was always a level of fear associated with how the venture would be received both by his peers and those in management or coaching positions.

As tough as it is to make it and then stay in the NHL, no player wants to fall victim to self sabotage.

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At a time when social media plays a massive role in the growth of all sports, Carrick finally decided it was time to take the plunge and the response to The Curious Competitor podcast has been encouraging.

“It’s been super positive and I joke that’s because it’s not big enough yet,” Carrick said during a recent conversation. “If you look at the super successful podcasts, they garner a certain amount of attention and ridicule, so I haven’t gotten into that world yet. I’m pretty non-controversial. I’m still an active player and there are some areas that I’m not super excited to go to yet and I do take that into account.

“For me as a current player, the feedback you’re most fearful of is the feedback I’m not going to get. No GM is going to call me and say, ‘Hey, I think your podcast is full of it and you should just focus on the game.’ But as far as I’m concerned, it’s on my own time. I take my training and recovery super seriously and understand that any time you expose yourself this way, you’re opening yourself to ridicule. It makes me happy. It’s a fun way to build relationships for during hockey and after hockey. This is something that spoke to me and I’m proud of myself for taking the leap.”

Given the team-first mentality of hockey as a whole and the private nature of most players in particular, this does not come as a surprise.

Don’t confuse the self-imposed non-confrontational label with Carrick brushing off the show as being filled with non-consequential matters.

It’s quite the contrary.

Carrick has already released 30 episodes and his guests have included former teammates including Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and current teammates like P.K. Subban, but this isn’t just a place where hockey is discussed.

This podcast isn’t about athletes spitting out cliches and sharing recycled stories, it takes the listener behind the curtain while providing insight on the personal journeys and tackling a number of important topics that people in all walks of life encounter.

There have been discussions with a Navy Seal Commander, a food blogger, several entrepreneurs and multiple Olympic athletes.

The sports guests are not limited to hockey either.

Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ shared his thoughts about playing a sport where failure is common and how the passing of his father led him to embrace the practice of meditation.

“If you’re a perfectionist in baseball or if you have a rigid definition of what success is, you’re going to get eaten alive,” said Carrick, who spent parts of three seasons in the Maple Leafs organization and has 230 NHL games on his resume. “When you listen to someone like Ian talk about his mental game, it’s inspiring.

“Listening to him talk about his dad and seeing how vulnerable that he was, it was the first time that I really started to get choked up on the podcast. I was starting to unravel there for a second.”

One of the episodes that made the biggest impact was one with Carrick and his wife, which included plenty of personal reflection from how they met, how their relationship evolved over time and about how they are preparing to be parents for the first time.

Another part of the discussion focused around what it’s like to be in a relationship with a professional athlete and about what the support group is like around the hockey team, whether you’re a wife or new girlfriend.

“It was one of our top-performing podcasts,” said Carrick. “People, like I do, love my wife and see her for who she is and are interested in what our family dynamic is, because it has changed over the years. It has taken work. There is beauty in showing the process of that.

“How many jobs are you really expected to socialize and get along with your significant other’s teammates or wives. It’s uncommon. If you’re a lawyer, you don’t go to the Christmas party and be best friends with everybody. It’s a unique sport that way and it’s something Lexi takes to heart.

“Ideally, we’d like for us to have a close-knit group and to have that family atmosphere. It takes work and commitment to lean into the comfort or the initial meetings and that type of thing. There are a lot of stressors. People are competing for ice time and people’s livelihoods are on the line. But Lexi comes from a place where she has a great moral compass and she keeps what’s important important. That’s just her leadership qualities shining through.”

Watching the dream of launching a podcast become a reality has been rewarding on a number of levels.

“Particularly during the down time with Covid, I’ve been able to reconnect with the why – and why I did it,” said Carrick. “At first, I enjoyed storytelling and listening to smart people tell me their story and be open with me and I was grateful for that. But I really get excited about being able to help others. I know how hard it is to foster change and foster growth in my own life. How dedicated and how detailed in the process you have to be to facilitate the change that you want in your life.

“If I can bring to light a story, a person or an example to an audience that can lead to positive momentum in their life, that fires me up. We’re all more impressionable than we’d like to think. We’re usually a couple of good decisions or bad decisions from being part of a momentum cycle – and I try to be on the positive side of that process.”

The goal of the podcast is simple, even if the subject matter can often be complex.

Carrick hopes to resonate with players of all ages, from youth players to juniors to those already at the pro level and provide some advice on how to deal with both the obstacles and success that comes along the way.

Providing examples of dealing with coaches or handling certain situations comes up regularly in discussions.

Carrick also hopes his message connects with parents of young athletes and he makes himself available to answer questions to those who reach out to him.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

The other part of the audience Carrick aims to speak to has nothing to do with sports, at least not directly.

“I call it 20-somethings trying to do something,” said Carrick, 26. “I have a lot of friends who get out of school and maybe their health is struggling or they’re not super happy with where they’re at, whether that’s in corporate America or elsewhere and they’re looking for inspiration and permission to do their own dreaming and their own planning.

“The podcast is something where I’m not sure I was ever going to consider myself perfectly qualified, but I was going to go after it and try to compete with the best I knew. If I can take a leap, hopefully it inspires someone else to do the same.”

Where does Carrick’s own curiosity come from?

“I was always this way, a philosophical kid and everyone has their own relationship with the hamster upstairs running on their wheel and mine always seems to go a million miles an hour,” said Carrick. “I enjoy that aspect of myself. It’s been a strength and a weakness, but I’ve been curious my whole life and what stemmed from it is that I’ve had an obsession for the body and training. I’m always chasing that thrill of what I master and what I know, and then trying to look at things through a whole new light when I’m introduced to a thought or a process that I usually become pretty obsessed with.

“Curiosity is what allows for career and personal evolution. It’s the fuel that gives life to the process that gives you the best shot for results.”

Carrick understands why some people might assume that investing his time in something like a weekly podcast could get in the way of his professional goal, but he urges them to see the alternate side of the coin.

“There are things that cost you energy and there are things that are energy generators and that’s what I’ve been able to find with the podcast,” said Carrick. “Most days with the podcast, it’s not something I’m expending. It’s an investment that usually has great returns.”

Of course there are some days when he’s not feeling as sharp as he would like but that’s no different than jumping on the ice and finding you don’t have fresh skating legs.

On those days, you stay committed to your personal process and power through.

“You grind it out sometimes,” said Carrick. “You do your best, grow from it and do better the next step.”

Since its inception in 1998, the Hockey Fights Cancer initiative has resulted in millions of dollars in donations to support cancer research institutions, children’s hospitals, and many player and local charities.

Winnipeg Jets forward Andrew Copp believes Carrick was a natural to become the first active NHLer to tackle this venture.

“He’s one of those guys that is always looking for the next best thing, whether it’s nutrition or training or recovery or therapy. He’s looking for an edge,” said Copp, who first met Carrick at a hockey tournament when they were 14 and later became teammates with the US National Development Team Program. “I’m not surprised whatsoever that he’s the first to make the leap into the podcast world.

“He’s a very intellectual guy and he’s well-rounded. Connor is sticking true to who he is and I don’t think he’s doing it for any other reason than to have great conversations with people and try to share that with his fans and with people who pay attention to him on a daily basis.”

As someone who is always looking for ways to improve as a player, Carrick applies the same principles to growing as an interviewer, consuming a number of podcasts while regularly interacting with friends, family members and listeners who provide feedback.

“What I get excited about are first-time listeners who get so motivated to reach out and comment, or people close to me – those who say ‘I listen to as many podcasts as possible, but this one was special,’” said Carrick. “Or another form (of feedback is) if people go out and follow and look for more of my guests. I love when that happens. I’m conversational and like to include anecdotes. I don’t think facts have ever motivated people to do great things. It’s usually the personal story element that is most exciting.”

Authenticity is something Carrick prides himself on.

“Put in the work and try and nail it,” said Carrick. “With the spoken word, it’s a little bit harder to keep the train on the tracks and enunciate perfectly the first time. You are both trying to be present as a listener and when you do that, there might be a moment before you recognize where you want to go next.

“I’m always listening and that’s how I learn. I’m interested in the different verbiage and how people signal, how they change topics. I’m very interested in identifying mistakes. As a podcaster, you hear yourself say ‘um’ or you realize that you lost your train of thought and it’s very easy to cycle down that negative self talk in real time. The show is rolling, get it together, but then you go and listen to the best of the best and you realize that they make mistakes too. That’s something I do in hockey. You can get caught up in the highlight world. As a young D-man, sometimes you have to watch how often Erik Karlsson punts and flips the puck out of his own zone when he’s under duress. Not every play is going to be a Picasso. You have to focus on the process and witness other people’s work as they build.”

It’s not just revelling in the day-to-day life of an NHLer either. Carrick has shown vulnerability in talking about dealing with injuries and reflecting on his time in the minors when he wasn’t sure why he wasn’t recalled or why he may have been spinning his wheels.

Modern-day Connor Carrick can provide some perspective for guys enduring those challenges right now, things the 26-year-old version of him would like to discuss with the 21-year-old version if he could go back in time.

“I sure hope so,” said Carrick. “I loved my experience in the AHL and I wish I was able to go back and have that conversation with a younger me and tell him, don’t wish this time away, don’t hit the fast forward button. Enjoy every moment here and do your best daily. You’re going to turn the puck over, but you’re not going to get crossed off in red (ink). You might miss a shift or two, but this isn’t life or death. I know the pressure that a lot of young pros put themselves under, but with the right mindset and tools to reset game in and game out, the experience can be everything that you could want – and more.”

That’s the benefit of experience in an age where every second not spent in the NHL seems like wasted time for a prospect, when the reality is that those moments in the minors are often critical to enjoying success at the next level.

After spending the bulk of the off-season in his hometown of Chicago, Carrick is back in Hoboken, N.J., skating with several of his Devils teammates and preparing for the coming season.

Although the Devils are among the teams that haven’t played a game since mid-March, Carrick has found a way to remain upbeat and focus on his training.

“For me, it’s honestly been no issue. The process has remained the same,” said Carrick. “I’m including a few big rocks in my life, whether it’s the podcast or being a father to be. I’m an all-in kind of guy. My training and skating regiment has always been extensive and that hasn’t changed. I’m really just trying to exhale and go all-in on two other things. I was already giving 100 per cent in my life and now you have to come up with more. More of me, more effort, more energy and that’s just the evolution of myself as a person.

“For me, I’ve been lucky that I’ve had the structure, I’ve had good culture and good people around me, so it hasn’t been difficult to come to the rink and give my best every day. Some days you need to interact differently because of the disease, but these are things you handle.”

When the topic of becoming a father is broached, Carrick’s pride is bursting through the phone line.

“Oh gosh, it certainly is something I’ve given a lot of thought to,” said Carrick. “I feel very readily unready. I’m not exactly sure how life is going to change and it’s hard to totally imagine, but I also know some of the values that are present in my life and my wife’s life that we would really like to instil in our child. We respect the fact our child is its own unique being and soul and on its own journey in life. We’re going to try to guide without steering.”

Carrick isn’t looking at the podcast merely as a way to prepare for life after hockey, especially since he believes his best days in the NHL are still ahead of him.

Sure, it’s possible that his experience could help him transition to a possible career in the media or public speaking or even someone who remains in the podcast field, but Carrick is focused primarily on taking his game to the next level.

With Lindy Ruff taking over as the Devils’ head coach, Carrick understands there’s an opportunity to cement himself as an NHL regular with a group that is determined to turn the corner.

“My goal is to play the full season. To be an everyday guy,” said Carrick. “I’ve gotten really close a couple of times in my career and got hurt at tough times. Staying healthy is both something you prepare for physically, but also mentally you play the game the right way, so you’re not putting yourself at harm’s risk.

“My goal, five-on-five wise, is to be someone who can defend, shift in and shift out, and exit through the middle and make those nice pop plays and contribute offensively. To be particularly good at the blue line and in transition and to do that shift in and shift out. Be tough if I have to. With the Devils, we always want to play a gritty game.

“Special teams is something I’ve been able to be on second power plays and penalty kills, that’s something for me here, that it’s being able to solidify that day in and day out and make sure, if I get that role, don’t look back. I recognize what a good opportunity looks like and I’ll make the most of it.”

Just like he’s done with this foray into the podcasting world.

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