Shnarped in the show

From the pros to the Den: speaker shares his hockey story

Dustin Sproat founded Shnarped Hockey with a former teammate in 2011, soon after his retirement from professional hockey.
Dustin Sproat founded Shnarped Hockey with a former teammate in 2011, soon after his retirement from professional hockey.

Dustin Sproat grew up in Red Deer, played hockey in England and was enlightened in Nashville.

The former professional hockey player arrived in Kingston last Thursday to appear on a speakers’ panel at the ninth annual Queen’s Sports Industry Conference (QSIC).

A former captain of the Princeton University hockey team, Sproat played four pro seasons in the United States and abroad. In 2011, along with an ex-teammate, he founded Shnarped Hockey, a social networking app that allows fans to send and receive messages from professional players.

Sproat tested his entrepreneurial chops on the CBC reality show Dragon’s Den in 2013, eventually settling an on-air deal with all five Dragons. Despite this, it was an earlier experience that spurred his entry into sports business.

As his playing career was ending in 2011, he attended an NHL game in Nashville, during which the home Predators clinched their first-ever playoff series victory. Surrounded by emotional season ticket holders, Sproat was suddenly committed to making it in hockey once again.

“I got to thinking, ‘I don’t know what exactly I’m going to do, but I’m going to stick with sports,’” he said.

Before addressing QSIC’s delegates, Sproat sat down with the Journal to discuss his business venture, his dance with the Dragons and the passion of his student audience.

What made you want to come speak at QSIC?

I just finished my MBA at UBC. A lot of interesting people came to speak to us, and it was an honour to be approached in that way [by the QSIC executive]. I’ve never been out to Kingston, and I didn’t really understand the journey it was going to be, but it’s been great.

How did the idea of Shnarped Hockey come about?

A bunch of us played hockey together at Princeton University. We first started this charity called Hockey Fights for Cancer. It was this player-driven initiative where we’d go out and do reading programs and children’s hospital visits in different communities.

It worked really well for the guys, because guys move around from town to town a lot and you can kind of bring these programs with you. We came up with Shnarped out of that. We had built this big network of 150 hockey players in eight countries around the world.

We noticed some players had a tough time staying in contact with one another, and we were trying to reach these guys all the time. Cell phones change all the time, guys don’t respond to email, and once you make it big, you can’t be on Facebook any more, basically. We created this social network to bring guys together.

What was it like appearing on Dragon’s Den?

It was pretty nerve-wracking. We decided we wanted to do it for PR purposes. As a digital media company, they’re an older demographic than you usually pitch ideas to. We were prepared for the worst and pleasantly surprised at how things turned out.

What’s the process of applying to Dragon’s Den?

A bunch of producers show up, and you go in and pitch to them. You have to come up with something entertaining that you can do. I always say it’s about 70 per cent entertainment, 30 per cent business model. I think they get a lot of people that pitch digital products and apps, and it’s really hard to make an entertaining pitch.

What’s happened since Dragon’s Den?

There’s been a really nice boost in users. It’s a social product, so the more users that are on there, the more content and the better it is for everybody. The Dragon’s Den experience was just a really good introduction to who we are.

What perspective are you hoping to get across at QSIC?

It’s about breaking into sports, basically. For us, we had the advantage of a huge network in the pro community, but that didn’t necessarily get us into the fan community.

Everybody has business ideas, and a number of times I’ve heard people say something like, ‘If you can get Paul Bissonnette or Alex Ovechkin to tweet about it, it’ll just take off.’ We thought that too, and it’s not true at all.

Generally, what’s been really good for us is creating value for everybody along the way, and if you do that, they’ll keep you around and want you to be a part of it.

What about QSIC are you most excited for?

I love the student experience. I’m excited about all the events here and the fact that people seem to care what I think, for whatever reason. A lot of people want to get into the business of sports, and I’m sure there’ll be a lot of enthusiasm here this weekend. I like being a part of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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