TORONTO – Did you ever hear the one about the kid who started at a pro sports team as an intern and went on to become assistant general manager?
It’s no joke. It’s the real-life story of Corey Wray, who began with Toronto FC in 2006 as an intern while still going to school and went on to hold senior management and director’s positions with the team over the next decade before being named GM Tim Bezbatchenko’s right-hand man last month.
Wray, a 32-year-old native of Mississauga, Ont., was promoted to assistant general manager, team operations and strategy. As part of his new portfolio, he will focus on player recruitment and athlete relations while continuing to work on player contracts, player movement and budgets for TFC’s farm club and youth academy.
“For me, to be hear since Day 1, and to work my way up from an intern, and even before that as someone who dreamed to work at a soccer club anywhere in the world, to just go through this journey has been pretty remarkable,” Wray told Sportsnet in a lengthy one-on-one interview.
“There’s been some good times, and a lot of bad times, but it’s been a lot of fun. I’m very thankful to the people here for believing in me every step of the way.”
Wray’s amazing journey from intern to assistant GM began when he was a senior at Brock University where he was studying sport management. Part of the program included completing a four-month internship. A life-long soccer fan, Wray set his sights on Toronto FC, who were set to play their first MLS season in 2007.
One of Wray’s university professors put him in contact with someone at the Toronto Marlies hockey club, who then connected him with someone in ticket sales at TFC, who passed him on to a person in marketing, who then sent him to someone at MLSE before he was interviewed for an internship position. His first job as an intern was to serve as the media sign-in person at TFC’s open tryouts it held in December 2006.
“For me, I was just happy to be there and get [my career] started,” Wray recalled.
From there, Wray landed a paid job in the game operations department while also working on the marketing and promotions side of Toronto FC before moving into team operations in January 2008. As manager of team operations, Wray was TFC’s “fixer” and took care of booking team travel and hotels, arranged the pre-season campaign, and was responsible for countless other tasks.
He was also a driving force in setting up a special department that dealt with the needs of players and their families to help settle into life in Toronto – everything from helping players find schools for their kids, arranging English lessons for players from abroad, and providing banking information.
In building the department, Wray studied what other clubs from around the world did while also picking the brains of TFC coaches and players who played abroad to get a sense of how the team could better serve their off-the-field needs.
“We were all learning on the fly. Mo Johnston [the club’s first GM] was very helpful to me. People like [former players] Jim Brennan, Greg Sutton and Carl Robinson gave me a lot of advice. [Former coach] John Carver is a great friend of mine and someone I still speak to, and he was helpful. Those guys helped me understand the levels and standards that they had seen at different clubs, and what we should be working towards,” Wray explained.
“The goal was to make sure that we took care of everything off the field so that when the players stepped onto the pitch they didn’t have to think about any of that, they just had to worry about playing. That was a hallmark of the operations department that I started to create.”
It wasn’t always easy for Wray when you consider TFC went through eight coaches in its first eight seasons.
“My head was always spinning. It was highly stressful. I had a difficult time adjusting to different people – you learn how they work and then all of sudden we change to another. That was always challenging. You’d have to go work at nine different clubs to get that type of experience that we’ve had,” Wray said.
Johnston was someone who Wray learned a lot from, but the former Rangers and Celtic star was also a taskmaster.
“He could be difficult to work with at times. He was such a competitor and he was not afraid of anything, and so sometimes his methods of communication were very direct. But he looked out for me, and he would look after you in a way that was very caring,” Wray explained.
Being the club’s “fixer” also came with a lot of headaches, as it meant everybody came to him for almost everything. The circumstances weren’t always pleasant, like the time during the 2012 season when former players Luis Silva, Nick Soolsma and Miguel Aceval were involved in a brawl outside a nightclub in Houston. They were arrested and jailed for public intoxication, and news of the fracas made headlines in the Toronto sports media.
“I was walking out to get a coffee, and I was one of the first people to receive a phone call… It was a horrible experience to go through. Those were really dark days for TFC, especially to have it on the front page of the newspaper. We’d thought we had hit rock bottom, and it just kept going lower and lower,” Wray recalled.
He later joked: “I’ve been told that [I should write a tell-all book]. I know where all the bodies are buried.”
The desperate state of affairs at TFC – the team failed to make the playoffs in each of their first eight seasons in MLS, hired and then fired coaches, and the player turnover was massive – tested his resolve, too.
“We all struggled with it from a morale standpoint. We always had good people in here behind the scenes, and they were trying, but sometimes it just wasn’t working. We either didn’t have the patience to stick with something, or we stuck with things too long. The league was growing so rapidly that we were always trying to catch up. Sometimes we were just making decisions too quickly or not quickly enough,” Wray offered.
Wray has seen it all at TFC, so many of the club’s lowlights. He’s been there for the highlights, too, including the team’s run of form over the last two seasons that has seen it become the best club in MLS.
He counts Danny Dichio’s spectacular goal on the final day of the 2007 season when fans poured onto the field after the final whistle, and last year’s 5-0 win playoff win against New York City FC in Yankee Stadium as his favourite TFC moments.
“Danny scoring that goal was unreal. We finished in last place but to have the fans rush the field and celebrate like they did, that was special to me. Winning in New York in such emphatic fashion was surreal too because I’d never felt such a lack of stress in a game. I’m always like, ‘Are we going to win, are we going hold on?’ I never had that lack of stress before, and in such a high stakes games,” Wray said.
Wray’s ascent from intern to assistant GM is extra special for him because he’s made the journey alongside his wife Jaime McMillan, a long-time TFC employee who, like her husband, worked her way up through the organization and now reports to club president Bill Manning as team director, administration and operations.
“I’m not her boss by any means. I would actually say she’s the boss of me. She’s more important than me around here,” Wray quipped.
“This place runs smooth, and everything is balanced because of her. I’m proud of her. She started at a lower position like myself, and worked her way up through hard work and perseverance. Plus, she’s a woman in a male-dominated industry, and she’s a tremendous asset to this club. It wasn’t easy for her, but it goes to show you the strength she had.”