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How Much Potential Can Jack Han Unlock?
After spending three seasons working for the Maple Leafs, Jack Han continues to challenge conventions and imagine new career avenues.
No matter what he does in the hockey world, Jack Han doubts he'll have an audience as large as the one he reached in June of 2013.
Many, many millions of people watched Han share stories about his life in Montreal and his relationship goals when he appeared as a contestant on the Chinese dating show, "If You Are The One," just three years after it set ratings records in the country with 50 million viewers for a single episode.
"That’s probably the most media attention or notoriety I’ll ever get, just because of how big the country's population is and how high the ratings are for that show," said Han, who was born in Tianjin. "I could win the Stanley Cup, and there wouldn’t be as many people watching that night, compared to when I appeared on the show in China.”
Though he has published three ebooks and started a popular newsletter in 2020, Han is not fixated on his audience size as a measure of success. Prestige isn't really his end game either, though he garnered a good bit when he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017 and spent three seasons as a member of the NHL and AHL player development and hockey operations staff.
Several remarkable chapters already exist in the story of Han's career, which, in addition to the Toronto job and the self-published work, has included stretches as a team-affiliated writer for the Montreal Canadiens, a writer for The Athletic, a video and analytics coordinator for McGill University's women's hockey team, and a private skills and coaching consultant. Han, 31, hopes the best is yet to come. He cares about creating that which "scales and compounds." Within his recent books and newsletter posts, he blends sport-specific tactical advice with profound thoughts about human ingenuity and resilience.
"I’m not a particularly gifted athlete, but paradoxically, that’s why I’m so fascinated with sports," Han said. "It seems like every little bit of insight I can uncover to make me suck less, that’s what drives me to keep going.
"Having worked at the university level and in the NHL and with NHL prospects, the thing that I find the most fulfilling is a case of someone like (Toronto's) Pierre Engvall. You see this person, this athlete that isn’t highly regarded, but you see greatness in them that maybe they didn’t even know they had, and you kind of bring that out or make the most of it. For me, that’s the most valuable and the most interesting thing I could do with my time.
"I could perhaps work with a musician or an entrepreneur or a politician, whatever, but a lot of how I understand and how I make sense of life is through the medium of hockey. I don’t think I could do my best work with somebody who’s not at all interested in hockey, just because a lot of the mental models I use to understand the world, they revolve around sport.
"However, I also haven’t met anyone in hockey so far who has admitted this, so I’ll be the first: I don’t really care about winning the Stanley Cup. I honestly don’t think there’s that much in it if you’re not doing other stuff along the way -- developing great people or finding new ways to solve problems or maximizing the potential of what you have and who you have. If you can do all those things and win a Cup, fantastic. If you do all those things and you never win a Cup, I don’t think it’s a huge regret.
"In a small way, I always feel like I’m on some kind of a revenge tour where I have to step it up and do something special and keep pushing boundaries. ... I guess the only way for me to get out of that is to find a way to create things that scale and compound. As an example, the thing that I hate most about coaching is it’s basically dust in the wind. You prepare for an opponent, or you set up a practice, or you have a video meeting with your players. All of that stuff, you’re going to have to do it again. Whereas if you write a great book or if you do a documentary or a podcast, that stuff lives and compounds and scales. So I would rather write a great book and coach 10,000 players at the same time or whenever they read the book than individually sit down to Skype 10,000 people and go over stuff with them for an hour. I’m kind of trending in that direction with the projects I’ve been working on. For me to maximize what I am and who I am, that’s probably the way I have to do it.”
“It’s kind of like the equivalent of being a first-round draft pick and then totally flaming out"
Beer, not hockey, beckoned as Han finished his final year at McGill University in Montreal.
A marketing major who also studied political science and German, Han gravitated toward one of the more competitive post-college programs available to him -- AB InBev's global management trainee program, which rotates participants through different departments within the world's largest beer company over the course of 10 months.
He applied and advanced through successive rounds of interviews, including conversations at the St. Louis headquarters with top executives.
He lasted just three months after edging out thousands of applicants to secure a spot in the program.
“It’s kind of like the equivalent of being a first-round draft pick and then totally flaming out," Han said. "I just didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t see my life going towards the side of success being measured by how many hectoliters of beer I moved this year.
"I think I got the job because I interviewed really well. But if you look at my history throughout business courses, I wasn’t overly great with statistical analysis or putting together strong quantitative projects. I was basically the guy who looked the part and interviewed well before the NHL draft but didn’t put up any points in juniors.
"AB InBev is a very data and analysis driven company, which is ironic considering what I ended up doing later in hockey. But it just didn’t jive with me at that point in time. And I guess if I had enjoyed it and stayed with it, then none of the hockey stuff would’ve happened, so it’s all for the better.”
Han still needed to go down a couple more career paths and reverse course before he finally focused on hockey, though. After leaving the AB InBev program, he joined two startup business endeavors in 2012. Both failed. He visited China in the summer of 2013 and landed his first big break in hockey upon his return when he joined the Montreal Canadiens' digital media team.
“I think the biggest value out of that whole (business) period was getting familiar with the mindset of running a startup or the idea of finding the product-market fit," Han said. "That’s really important because it was only maybe this year that I really started thinking, 'OK I can actually run my own business and actually feel like the product-market fit is coming together.' Back in 2017 when I was wrapping things up with the women's team at McGill and (now-Maple Leafs general manager) Kyle Dubas reached out to have me interview for that job in Toronto, I didn’t think what I was doing could be a self-sustaining business. I felt like I had to be hired by someone to do hockey stuff. Whereas today, my mindset has changed, and I feel really good about maybe never being employed by anybody else again."
"The stay-in-your-lane type attitude, all it does is reinforce the past"
For Han, the writing job with the Canadiens left an enduring impression, even though the contract lasted one season.
The job opened him up to a multitude of new possibilities within hockey, almost none of which required him to possess exceptional playing ability.
It also gave Han his first taste of hockey's stubborn traditionalism.
Han has on several occasions recounted a conversation he had with his manager, who, after reading a number of Han's stories, questioned why a team-affiliated writer would try to analyze coaching decisions or on-ice tactics. What did Han, a 20-something with high school-level playing experience, know about analytics and strategy in pro hockey?
"The mindset which I think hurts a lot of organizations, whether it’s teams with a lot of history or big businesses set their ways, is the conservative, stay-in-your-lane type attitude, because all it does is reinforce the past," Han said. "If you’re well set up for the future as an organization, then great. But if you’re in a position where you have to change or start doing things differently, then you’re going to have some problems.”
Han's path to hockey made it easy for him to embrace different perspectives about the game. He knew nothing about hockey until after he arrived in Canada at the age of 6. His parents gave him the opportunity to play, but they barely followed the sport themselves. Han enjoyed women's hockey about as much as the men's teams and leagues. He appreciated hockey analytics blogs as much as the newspaper stories and TV coverage he came across.
Even when he moved from writing to coaching and player development, Han continued to draw inspiration from data, other sports and behavioral psychology and economics.
He doubts he'll ever completely settle for convention and conformity, no matter his occupation.
"I never knew of Anatoly Tarasov before he passed away in 1995, but I identify with him on many levels," Han said, referencing the man regarded as 'the father of Russian hockey.'
"We were both brought up in communist countries, where we didn't have a lot. Many North American hockey people aim to imitate his way of developing players or coaching a fluid possession style of play. But I think what they overlook is that all of those great Tarasov initiatives came from a place of scarcity rather than abundance. He looked for multi-sport athletes because no one played 'Canadian hockey' in the USSR when he took over the national team. He encouraged his players to pass and move because they couldn't beat a Canadian, Swede or Finn playing one-on-one. He consulted with chess grandmasters because no one else in the country knew much about hockey tactics.
"For me, Tarasov's genius was his ability to make a coherent, beautiful whole out of very little. It's a very Sino-Russian trait in my view. I try not to forget about that."
"The feeling of reinventing yourself, I’m pretty familiar with it"
When Han started sharing his #1MinuteTactics videos on Twitter during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and 2016-17 NHL season, he managed to find receptive audiences outside of the traditional hockey analytics crowd.
When Han published his ebook, "Chel Guide," earlier this year, he branched out again, potentially tapping into a video game audience that has a different relationship with hockey.
"In terms of future projects," Han said, "I’d love to go back to that video concept and have a one-minute tactics clip every Saturday night on Hockey Night In Canada. That’d be amazing. You take something that’s going to help fans or young players or anybody interested in the game understand the game better in 60 seconds, and make it really insightful without it being clunky."
Maybe a regular segment on Hockey Night In Canada would give Han an audience that's closer in scale to the one he entertained for one night in China. Maybe there's a way for Han to build a hockey community in China -- he said that's a difficult task for now due to the high cost to play, and the families with money move to hockey hotbeds if their kids show enough promise in the sport. But Han's mind stays busy with big ideas, so rule nothing out.
"My girlfriend is always telling me, ‘You seem really intense all of the time,' but it’s just because I’m always thinking about something I could do better or something that should be done differently," Han said. "When do I stop? I don’t know. Not often. … It’s more about striking when the iron is hot. I don’t ever wish to stop.
"The feeling of reinventing yourself, I’m pretty familiar with it, and how my career has gone is a lot along those lines. Even in the way that I got into hockey, and how it’s progressed from there, I feel like I’ve kind of shed my skin and become something else three or four times in that span.
"What I’m doing now and the types of things I’m doing now, I’m kind of going back to how I first fell in love with the game. Instead of reading books about hockey at the library, I’m writing them now. Or I’m asking myself questions like why are certain players good, or why do teams do this? I have those answers now, and I’m sharing them with other people, which is really interesting. It’s kind of a full circle type of thing.”