Striking a balance

Despite divergent career paths - he's a professional hockey coach, she's a physiotherapist with a passion for wellness - Scott and Lia Arniel have achieved a healthy equilibrium between life at work and at home

Scott and Lia Arniel have achieved a healthy equilibrium between life at work and at home

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2009

It's Thanksgiving Day and Scott Arniel is right where you might not expect to find him - at the rink tutoring four Manitoba Moose centremen on the finer points of winning faceoffs.

That's the thing about being a hockey coach. It's a wonderful life at the professional level, but sometimes it means you will be at practice when friends and family are spending a holiday together.

Across town, meanwhile, Scott's wife, Lia, is also doing something you might not expect - she's taking a rare day off.

A physiotherapist by training, Lia has an interest in one physiotherapy clinic and is the sole owner of another. Most days, you can find her at one of the clinics tending to business matters, assessing patients or instructing them on how to rehab an injury.

Given their divergent career paths, it's no surprise that life around the Arniel household carries on at a pretty hectic pace. "You really have to be organized or else you can't keep up," Lia says.

But despite their busy schedules, the Arniels have been able to find the time to build a life together, one rooted in family and the need to strike a work/life balance.

That wasn't always an easy thing to do. By many accounts, less dedicated and determined individuals might have failed to build as healthy and supportive a relationship as the Arniels, considering the circumstances.

Professional hockey demands a lot from its players and coaches, as well as their spouses. The long hours, the pressure to perform at a high level and the many days spent on the road can test the fortitude of the most committed athlete, let alone the strength of a marriage.

"It's always hard. Anytime you are away from your loved ones it's tough because you are dealing with things on your own," Scott says. "There's no doubt that in pro sports you miss out on a lot of the average things in life."

Lia concurs. "You know what? It's give and take. Our life hasn't been the normal path, but what is normal? There is no normal."

Scott, now 47, had a long career as a pro hockey player, playing 730 games and scoring 338 points in the NHL over 10 seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins, not to mention another eight seasons with a few teams in the now-defunct International Hockey League.

Today, as coach of the Moose, the Vancouver Canucks' farm team, he is proving to be just as successful a coach as he was a player, maybe even more so. Last season, the American Hockey League team had its best regular season ever and finished first overall under his watch. The Moose even made it to the Calder Cup finals in the spring, their first appearance ever, only to lose in six games to the Hershey Bears. And his work hasn't gone unnoticed. After last season, he was awarded the AHL Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award for coach of the year.

But the Arniels are more than a hockey family. If Scott's career as both player and coach has been a success, Lia has been equally exceptional in her pursuits.

As a licensed physiotherapist for more than 20 years, she is a partner at Whyte Ridge Physical Therapy & Sports Injury Clinic and the sole owner of XCEL Sport & Fitness Lifestyle Physiotherapy, a unique clinic that is part fitness facility and part clinic.

"My clinic is as much about wellness as it is about rehabilitating a damaged knee or ankle," Lia says of the XCEL centre. "Physiotherapy is really about preventative medicine, and that means making the lifestyle changes necessary to be healthy and avoid injury."

An advocate for active lifestyles, particularly for children, Lia works tirelessly to promote healthy life habits - from exercise to eating right to finding an ideal balance between work and family life. And in many ways, she, Scott, their 16-year-old daughter Stephanie and their 19-year-old son Brendan embody the wellness lifestyle.

"Our son is pretty much the epitome of health and wellness," Lia says about Brendan, who is studying at Erie College in Buffalo and playing in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, vying for a hockey scholarship in the U.S.

"I don't think you could bring a person into being who is so much of his mother and father combined, from his intellect, his wherewithal to his deep-seated attitude toward health and wellness."

Stephanie is no slouch herself. If she's not taking ballet, hip hop, jazz or tap lessons, she's studying to maintain high marks to pursue her career dream of becoming a lawyer - or an archeologist. "I'm still trying to figure that out," she says.

When Scott's away on the road, Stephanie is Lia's best friend. They watch movies together on Saturday nights, and they settle into a comfortable, organized routine for the rest of the week.

She helps out with chores around the home, including ensuring dinner is ready when Lia arrives home after a long day at the clinic.

In many ways, both Stephanie and Brendan are the glue that holds a tranquil home life together amidst the maelstrom of activity created by two career-driven parents.

Determination is the hallmark of both Lia and Scott, and it is a trait that has drawn them together. It's also characteristic they have tried to cultivate in their children.

"It's so true that no matter what you do in life - or in sports, business or school - the harder you work, the better results that are going to come from that," Scott says.

That mindset can make the difference between being a could-have-been prospect and an everyday NHL player, he adds.

Throughout his career, Scott was known as a heady, smart player. Some of that was due to his natural hockey sense - he was a star in junior, winning a Memorial Cup and a World Junior Championship. But he was also a student and learned from veteran players who embodied hard work and smart hockey. As it turned out, two of the players he admired most when he was playing, Lindy Ruff from the Sabres and Randy Carlyle on the Jets, would also become his mentors when he became a coach.

"They're two guys that I respect a lot and two guys that played the game very honestly," he says. "To see them today as head coaches is no surprise, and having the chance to work under them has helped me learn an awful lot about the right way to handle situations."

When Scott's career as a player was winding down in the mid-90s, then playing for the Houston Aeros in 1995, he was offered an assistant coach/ player position. Despite being the thinking man's hockey player, up until that point, he had never given coaching too much thought. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after hockey. Maybe I'd retire and take up golf full-time or go back to school."

Then he got his first taste of coaching in Houston. "I started going to coaching seminars in the summer," he says. "I went to see guys speak and became more knowledgeable, and all of a sudden, I became addicted to that."

Scott took over the role of head coach of the Moose in 2006 after working under Ruff in Buffalo as an assistant for four years. During that stint in Buffalo, his family often flew in from Winnipeg to visit him. In the past, the family would have moved where his career took them, but by that time Lia had become a partner in the Whyte Ridge Clinic and opened the XCEL Sport & Fitness clinic.

Surprisingly, physiotherapy was not her first choice. Since she was in grade school, she imagined herself as a doctor, but as her relationship deepened with Scott over the years of courtship while she earned her bachelor of science at the University of Manitoba, she realized it might be an impossible dream.

"The physical therapist with the Jets suggested that I consider Scott's profession," she says, adding that pursuing a medical degree would require as much flexibility with regards to mobility as being a professional athlete. If he was traded to another team, there would be no guarantee she could find a residency in the same city.

"Basically, there's not chance we could both be that busy and still have children."

And they did want children, but Lia wanted to ensure she had her career path established first. They were married only after she graduated from physiotherapy in 1988, after six years of being together, much of that time spent 1,500 kilometres apart.

Lia is a licensed physiotherapist in Canada, but she is also a physical therapist - the American term for her profession - licensed in the U.S. because the early years of her career were spent working wherever Scott was working.

The precarious business of hockey made it tough on both of them.

"Buffalo was where my first job was, but as soon as I got it, Scott was traded back to the Jets, so I didn't work there long," she says, adding she also has worked at a clinic in San Diego when he made the jump from the NHL to the former International Hockey League's Diego Gulls in 1992.

In fact, the trade back to Winnipeg made perfectly clear that while the players are treated like royalty in one respect, they sometimes can also be treated "like a commodity," Lia says.

Scott was thrown in at the last minute in the blockbuster trade that sent Dale Hawerchuk and a first-round pick from the Jets to the Sabres in exchange for defenceman Phil Housley and their first-round pick.

"Certainly, at the time, I was very upset because I really enjoyed Buffalo - we had a home there; we had just had our son; we were married and were just starting to settle, and then we had to pack up and come back out here," says Scott.

But looking back, everything happened for a reason, he says. Despite moving from team to team in the 1990s, the Arniels eventually made Winnipeg their home base.

During the many, long hockey seasons, which can last 10 months out of the year with only a handful of days off, childcare primarily fell on Lia's shoulders.

In the early days at the Whyte Ridge Clinic, the children would come there after school and have dinner in the kitchen and rec lounge that was built in the back.

Lia credits organization as being the secret to their ability to juggle children and careers. Her Sundays are usually spent preparing six days worth of meals, all portioned properly to meet her family's nutritional needs. The menu is heavy on fresh veggies and fruit. Ground turkey replaces ground beef, and lean chicken breasts and fish are the norm. Beef is a treat, reserved only for the summertime when Scott is home and barbecues steaks as part of his increased parental load to make up for the lost time.

When he is home, Scott is as hands-on a father as he could be, Lia says. "To Scott, the few minutes he gets driving Stephanie to school every morning means the world to him," she says, adding he has enjoyed coaching in Manitoba because it affords him more time with his family.

Because he has spent so much time away, he ensures that when he is home he takes an interest in his children's school or extra-curricular activities - which his daughter, Stephanie, finds very endearing and just a little amusing.

"My teacher was laughing that my dad had read the entire readings for our literary circle," says Stephanie. "He just started reading and finished the whole thing, which was several pages."

Of course, this came as no surprise to his family. Scott is a voracious reader, knocking off a book practically every road trip. After a practice on Thanksgiving Monday, he listed off the current books on his digital reader, incidentally the best birthday gift he says he ever received from his family.

Besides reading a book on the psychology of coaching, he was also reading Dan Brown's latest, The Lost Symbol. And he was also working on a non-fiction piece, Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi War Criminal.

"I do like reading a lot of history about how things were, how companies were started, how things evolved over the last hundreds of years," he says, adding he especially likes military history. Past exploits of famous generals, however, don't work their way that often into his game plans as a coach. "I wouldn't go by what General Patton did or what Winston Churchill did," he says. "Every now and then I will put quotes up on the board that can be anything from Lance Armstrong to a poet or a musician from a rock band."

It's just one of many techniques he's picked up over the years to inspire his players to work harder not just so they can put wins in the statistics column, but so they can develop into better players, which is the main reason they are with the Moose.

But while some AHL clubs' sole purpose is development, in Winnipeg, management also cares about the team's performance. "Myself, as a coach, I wouldn't want to be in this position and not go out every night with the chance of winning a hockey game," he says.

Although a seemingly reserved, relaxed individual, whose thoughtful, soft-spoken voice can barely be heard occasionally during media scrums, Scott can get emotional when required. "There is the odd time where I will blow up on the bench where maybe we're playing really badly and I call a time out," he says. "Maybe I'll vent my frustration there, but most of the time, in the years that I played, when a coach does that too much, players tend to tune you out."

His true strength as a coach, however, is his ability to teach, Lia says. "He's a natural teacher, both with his players and the kids."

His teaching skills were on display at the Thanksgiving Day practice. He took aside the four centremen on the team and worked with them on their faceoff skills for about 15 minutes, showing them tricks on how to win draws in key defensive situations - his specialty as a player.

"We have all left-handed centremen and it's tough to take a draw in our right defensive zone," he says. "We just wanted to give them some ideas and thoughts about it, and it was also a good opportunity for them to talk about it as well."

Because of his past life as a player, he intimately understands the challenges his players face. "Being an ex-player and having done exactly what they've done, I feel for them - although I will say these players train now 12 months a year," he says. "They train a lot harder than we ever did."

And while he's keenly aware of their difficulties adjusting to pro hockey on the ice, he's even more sensitive to the impact it can have on their personal lives and those of their loved ones, particularly their significant others.

He holds no illusion that his wife didn't sacrifice a lot to see him succeed, even when she was equally ambitious in wanting a career for herself.

"Lia was very driven at school to be the best, and probably my career and having a family stopped her from going on to be a doctor, but she loves being a physio," he says.

Her love for her job is evident as she works one Thursday afternoon at XCEL Sport & Fitness Lifestyle Physiotherapy at Kenaston and McGillivray.

If Scott is reserved, Lia is somewhat the opposite. She speaks as quickly as she moves. And she covers a lot of ground during a nine-hour day at the open-concept clinic, assessing one patient on his shoulder, then moving on to acupuncture for another and racing over to another patient to ensure she's doing exercises correctly on a BOSU ball.

More often than not, she has to demonstrate the exercise to show patients exactly how it's done. And this day is no exception. Lia climbs onto the BOSU ball - a large half of a giant, inflated ball with a circular, plastic platform on top. Designed to improve core strength in the mid-section, the BOSU can be potentially injurious for a novice without the necessary muscle strength to maintain balance, but Lia hops on as if she were on terra firma.

"I make it look easy because I do it all the time, and I have a very well established core," she says.

The strength in her mid-section is representative of everything she believes about wellness. A strong core group of muscles is the base upon which a healthy life can be built.

Because the majority of people lead sedentary lives, their muscles in their hips, abdomen, pelvis and behind are rarely used to their full potential.

"It's a totally active area up until basically giving birth or sedentary job life. All of a sudden you become locked up and nothing moves as freely as it should," she says.

While her clinic is geared toward sports injuries, she says most of the patients she sees are there for "life's injuries," largely caused from a lack of core strength, which affects all other muscles, joints and ligaments in the body.

"We get a lot of patients with injuries through sport, but they're really weekend warriors," she says, adding her husband now fits in that category too.

Although it's troubling to see so many adults sliding toward inactivity, and obesity as a result, she's even more concerned about the conditioning of children today.

"They are not developing proper movement strategies that they would have in the past," she says. "They don't climb trees or fences. They just don't run around and play like they used to, so they are not developing physically in the same way as they would have in the years gone by.

"That's why we see a lot more injuries among youth." And although her family's rule is not to bring work home - even going as far as having to check the cellphones and BlackBerrys at the door - her beliefs as a practitioner are infused in every aspect of their home life. And that includes more than just eating well and exercise. It means making sure their kids know the value of hard work.

"The kids are well-trained," she says, adding Stephanie (and/or Brendan when he's home) will prepare dinner when she gets home from school. The entire family helps do chores around the house. "We work as a team, both on and off the ice."

Whether it's shovelling snow off the driveway, raking the leaves, mowing the lawn, or scrubbing the toilet, the Arniels are hands-on. They could easily afford to pay someone else to take care of the housework, and who could blame them considering their hectic lives? But for them, it's all about setting the right example for their children.

"Everything that I got I had to work for, and I know my kids both respect that process," Scott says, adding his son had to work two jobs, getting up at 6 a.m, while training for hockey over the summer to save money for a car.

"It's not just an open vault where they can get anything they ask for," he says. "That's just a great lesson for later on in life - that things aren't just handed out."

Joel Schlesinger is a Winnipeg writer.

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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