Although it wasn't by choice, it didn't take long for Mathieu Schneider to get involved in the NHL Players' Association (NHLPA).
Early into his career with the Montreal Canadiens, Schneider was dragged, as he put it, to a meeting by teammate Ryan Walter.
"He said 'you're coming and you have no choice'," Schneider recalled. For the young pro, it was an eye-opening experience. "I really didn't have any idea or concept why things were the way they were. It kind of lit a spark when I went to that first meeting," he reminisced.
From that moment on, Schneider became actively involved in the NHLPA, joining the competition committee and serving as the Canadiens' player representative.
Over the course of his 20-year NHL career, Schneider figures he served as a rep for nearly half of that time.
As Schneider established himself as a regular in the league, winning a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1993 before moving onto stints with the Islanders, Maple Leafs and Rangers, he witnessed the NHLPA's evolution.
When he looks back to some of those changes, he can't help but think about how far things have come. "Life's a lot different for NHL players today for a lot of good reasons. In my first three years in the NHL, I made just over $100,000 Canadian," he explained.
"When I tell guys that, they look at me like I've got three heads. It's just a completely different game. You can't really compare what went on then with what's happening today," Schneider added.
By the time he signed with the Kings in August 2000, Schneider had been a fulltime NHLer for more than a decade. Although he didn't sign with the club until late into the offseason, Schneider was already out in LA, training with T.R. Goodman and a group of players who included Rob Blake.
For Schneider and his family, it was an easy decision to ink a contract with the Kings. "My wife and I both just loved southern California and I was really excited to get an opportunity to play in the West," he recollected.
Joining a blue line that already boasted the likes of Rob Blake, Jaroslav Modry, and Lubomir Visnovsky, Schneider made an immediate impact. In his first season with the Kings, he scored 51 points, his most productive season since his 1993-94 campaign with the Canadiens.
"It was one of the best stops of my career," Schneider proclaimed. Beyond his impressive play on the ice, he fondly remembers his time in LA because of how close the team was.
"We had a great team on the ice, but the guys were really close off the ice as well," he noted. "Probably my closest friends I have now are from my playing days with the Kings. Guys like Smolinski, Blakey, and Glenn Murray. We just had a really good group of guys," he continued.
Following the better part of three seasons with the Kings, Schneider played for three years in Detroit before rounding out his NHL career in 2010 with a handful of teams. When he retired, he had appeared in 1,289 NHL games, the 18th most all-time among defenseman.
When Schneider hung up his skates, he had no idea what he wanted to do next. Although he had been involved with the NHLPA during his playing career, he hadn't necessarily thought of it as a possibility after hockey.
All that changed after a series of conversations with Don Fehr, who had become the Executive Director of the NHLPA in 2010. Schneider, who was part of the search committee, had the chance to get to know Fehr during the process, and when the opportunity came up to work for him, it was something he just couldn't pass up.
In February 2011, Schneider joined the NHLPA as a Special Assistant to the Executive Director.
"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with Don Fehr, who is iconic in sports labour," he stated.
For Fehr, who had been the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1985 to 2009, said Schneider was exactly what he was looking for, partly due his playing experience.
"In the years I was in baseball, the one thing you learn is that you're never at home in the locker room unless you got there on your own merit. No matter how many times I've been in the locker room, it's always a domain I didn't quite fit in and that's true of all non-players," Fehr recently said by telephone.
Given Schneider's pedigree, Fehr knew he was the right guy for the job.
"Mathieu played a long, long time. There are just a handful of players who played as long as he did in the history of the NHL. Very few. Secondly, he had been involved in the NHLPA affairs off and on during significant portions of his career," he noted.
Although Schneider had spent 20 seasons in the NHL and was an active member of the NHLPA, the initial learning curve was steep.
"You learn a lot of things playing hockey or playing a professional sport, but one of the things you don't learn is how to run a union on a day-to-day basis," Fehr explained.
"We do a very large sweep of activities. Until you are around all the time and you attend meetings and you work with people and you see the scope and you work on the budgets, you really don't have a sense of appreciation for that," he added.
Schneider acknowledged as much. "No matter how involved you are as a player, it's next to impossible to understand what goes on in the office," he said.
Early on, Schneider spent most of his time figuring out his role and seeing how he fit into the union's operations. "When I got there I would just pop in on meetings whether in business or licensing or sit in on conference calls with our general counsel," he recalled.
Schneider may have had to do some catching up on the business side of things, but his NHL experience proved to be invaluable to the role.
"Whether it was getting traded, getting sent down to the minors, signing as a free agent, or holding out on contract negotiations at the beginning of the year. Everything a player could go through, that experience happened to me directly," Schneider explained.
While it hasn't necessarily made his job any easier, being able to tap into that wealth of experience has come in handy from labour negotiations to chairing the competition committee.
Over the last year eight years, Schneider has made the most of his time in the NHLPA - and that hasn't gone unnoticed by his boss.
"My guess is that in terms of all of those who have played in the NHL, he probably, at this point, has as much or more knowledge about how the union actually works and is supposed to work and what's important, as anyone," Fehr acknowledged.
Schneider hasn't looked too far into what the future holds just yet, but if his NHL career is any indication, he has no plans of retiring anytime soon.