Former Rebel Mpofu Reflects on Rise from WHL to Pittsburgh Penguins’ Front Office



By Cami Kepke via Western Hockey League

RED DEER, Alta. – It’s a moment both coach and player remember vividly.

In the spring of 2014, Red Deer Rebels forward Vukie Mpofu walked into then-Head Coach Brent Sutter’s office for their end-of-season meeting.

“We’re talking about the Memorial Cup team that following year and the role that he could he could fit into,” Sutter recalled. “I could just tell that his wheels are turning. I asked him, what does he really want? He says, I’m not sure if I want to continue to pursue playing and then he says, I want to go on and go to law school.”

“I felt so strongly about what it was that I wanted to do,” Mpofu said. “I think it was actually a bit of an easy decision after I had taken enough time to really think it through.”

To be clear, the decision had nothing to do with a lack of passion for the game.

Quite the opposite, actually.

It had everything to do with the dream evolving in Mpofu’s mind as he grew up in Saskatoon.

The youngster had become obsessed with hockey after his first skating lessons at the age of four.

It was new territory for his parents, Chris and Debbie, who had met in Zimbabwe before Chris’s education and work as a pediatric oncologist took them to England and the United Arab Emirates (where Vukie, the youngest of three sons, was born) before finally landing in Canada.

“Nobody in my family really had much of a hockey background,” Mpofu recalled. “Given that I was enjoying skating so much, and kind of begging every day to go back to the local rink, the ACT Arena in Saskatoon, which was maybe like, 10 minutes from our house. Compared to a lot of other kids, their parents were from Canada and their parents were kind of teaching them the sport, whereas in my case, I was kind of learning it with my mom and learning it with my dad together over the years as I was playing.

“I grew up watching the Saskatoon Blades all the time. I would go to games multiple times per week… For a lot of guys, the first dream before even getting to the NHL is playing in the Western Hockey League.”

That dream would be realized sooner than Mpofu thought.

His early years were filled with success and after back-to-back trips to the TELUS Cup with the Saskatoon Contacts - once as a defenceman and once as a forward - he caught the eye of the Rebels.

After getting called up for a handful of games in 2012-13, Mpofu made the squad on a full-time basis the following season, putting up nine goals and six assists in 65 games while establishing himself as a hardworking, formidable opponent.

“He was always game,” Sutter said. “He wore his heart on his sleeve, but he did that in everything he did. He cared very deeply about his teammates. He cared very deeply about wins and losses. Vukie cared very deeply every day in practice, to be a hard-working player and he always had a smile on his face. You know, that was infectious.”

“Red Deer was a great opportunity for me to mature and learn a lot about pro-style hockey,” Mpofu added. “Playing for Brent Sutter, who had extensive experience playing and coaching in the NHL and getting to go there and play for him, I think he taught he taught us a lot about accountability and self-evaluation and discipline and work ethic. Those are the sorts of things that I’ve kept with me.”

With that in mind, Mpofu was sizing himself up against teammates like Haydn Fleury and opponents like Leon Draisaitl and Sam Reinhart - all three would become top-10 selections at the NHL Entry Draft that spring - and realized he might not make the big show as a player.

But he had been studying up on how people got into the NHL as executives and found they were largely either former players or lawyers.

A lawyer? He certainly had the smarts and work ethic to do that - and why wait until he was 20 to start the long journey to get the bachelor’s degree he would need to apply to law school?

Mpofu used his WHL Scholarship to pursue his political science degree at the University of Saskatchewan before being accepted into the University of California, Los Angeles, which offers a unique sports and entertainment law program.

“UCLA has connections with Bob Myers, who was the former general manager of the Golden State Warriors, and Sam Fernandez, who was legal counsel for the L.A. Dodgers,” Mpofu explained. “They have sort of a year-long negotiation project where one student is representing the player and the other is representing the team in a mock negotiation. Each student on either side of it has sort of a mentor who’s kind of overseeing their preparation for an arbitration case where a player’s salary is argued and an arbiter determines the contract that the player will receive- very much like we have in pretty much all of the North American professional sports, namely baseball and hockey.”

Under the tutelage of his mentor Andrew Lugerner, the director of legal affairs for the Vegas Golden Knights, Mpofu secured an internship with what was then the newest franchise in the NHL, wrote the California Bar exam and got his first job offer from the L.A. Kings - with a glowing reference from his former junior coach.

“I had a conversation with (Kings General Manager and Vice-President of Hockey Operations) Rob Blake and we talked about Vukie,” Sutter said. “I told Blakey he’d be awesome. Very smart young man. Back when he was at that age when him and I sat and talked, you just knew this was going to happen at some point for him.

“I’m so thrilled and ecstatic that it’s worked out like it has.”

After two years in Los Angeles, Mpofu is in the midst of his first season with the Pittsburgh Penguins as the team’s director of hockey operations and legal affairs, heading up player contract negotiations, maintaining compliance with the collective bargaining agreement and salary cap and leading Pittsburgh’s research and development department.

Have we mentioned that Mpofu is just 27 years old?

“Having been around the league for four years now, I’m starting to see situations come up that I’ve seen before,” Mpofu said. “There’s patterns and cycles to every season and there’s types of issues that might come up at certain times of the year. Coming in and being so young, just seeing so many situations for the first time was a challenge, but it was also an incredible opportunity for me to see things in a way that maybe some people who had been around for longer may not see it. I was maybe bringing a fresh set of eyes to certain situations.”

“The opportunity to be around stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and Erik Karlsson and just see how they approach their work each and every day and how diligent they are with their preparation and their training and their attention to detail. That’s inspiring for anybody who has the chance to kind of see how much those guys really put into it and, you know, try and apply some of that to their own role, whatever that may be.”

Funnily enough, Penguins netminder Tristan Jarry was the top goaltender in the WHL the season Mpofu played - and he even got a few goals past the 2014 Memorial Cup champion back in the day, though he’d never bring it up now.

With a mental check mark next to his goal of making the NHL, Mpofu is focused on the next task at hand - doing everything he can to help build a Stanley Cup contender in the Steel City.

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