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Sports

From the Rink to the Boardroom

A debilitating back injury forced Prab Rai to think about life after hockey at just 25 years old.
June 10, 2015, 3:00pm
Photo by Andy Clark-Reuters

Prab Rai woke up in his Evansville, Indiana, hotel room, just two days after his 25th birthday, feeling an all too familiar pain.

Rai was in the middle of his latest attempt at a comeback from a debilitating back injury. The Evansville Icemen were home following a three-day, three-game road trip, which included brutal bus travel between cities.

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Like many times before, Rai woke up with his back locked up and unable to stand up straight.

"I could just tell day-by-day my back was getting worse, my pain increasing," said Rai. "I couldn't skate like the way I used to. I couldn't move even. My back was restricting me. The pain would progressively get worse. I was getting pain down my legs, pain spreading across my lower back and into my pelvis.

"It's just that slow progression and one day you wake up again and you're just completely locked up."

Rai played a total of seven games during the 2014-15 season split between the Icemen and Stockton Thunder of the East Coast Hockey League. He registered two points, four penalty minutes and a minus-3 rating before deciding to pack it in and head home.

He was once a promising prospect. The Vancouver Canucks used a fifth-round pick to select the native of Surrey, British Columbia, at the 2008 NHL Draft. Before Rai even got a sniff at the NHL game, however, his career was over.

"I woke up and I was just in a lot of pain," said Rai of the morning he knew he had played his final game. "I was really stiff, I couldn't straighten myself out. I was kind of hunched over because my back was pretty locked up at that point.

"That was pretty much my back telling me it's probably time to step away from the game."

Rai's problems began in June 2010 after his car was rear-ended near his family home in Surrey. In the five years following the accident, Rai played a total of 38 games and missed two seasons completely.

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"I pushed myself quite a bit to see if I could play with the pain. I would be walking in to the rink hunched over. I would dress up, play the game, but I could barely stand straight," he said. "Then eventually I lost a lot of feeling in my right leg and I was forced to walk on a cane."

In the middle of his multiple comeback attempts, Rai began to think about life after hockey. It led him to set out to solve a problem, which had already cost him thousands of dollars.

"As an athlete, I've always had trouble fitting into clothes, finding proper clothes that fit me," Rai said of his business idea. "Especially with suits and stuff like that. Spent a lot of money."

Without any formal education outside of his high school diploma, which he completed while playing for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League, Rai decided to do some experimentation.

His parents were headed to India on a family vacation. So he decided to send his suit measurements along with his parents and have them try out tailors for him.

"When I got my suits back from the tailor I use now, they were just very consistent and fit my body perfectly to an athlete's body, which was hard for me before and I wasn't paying $2,000 to $3,000 for a suit like I was before and they still wouldn't fit me properly," said Rai. "That's kind of how it came to be.

"Fashion has always been a passion of mine, as well."

In September 2014, Rai launched Joseph Chanan—an online custom tailored suit and shirt company.

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The company has seen steady growth through the first nine months of operation. It has allowed Rai to open a location in the Gastown neighbourhood of downtown Vancouver.

"It's an interesting online business because you can either measure yourself or we're set up where you can go anywhere in Canada to a Stitch It location," said Rai. "They will measure you up. You walk in, you do your measurements, you pick your suit online, and it comes to you within four to six weeks."

He plans to expand the company in the coming months. No longer will Joseph Chanan offer just custom tailored suits.

"We're doing custom dress shirts, casual shirts, we're going to do polo (shirts), we're doing jeans and we're launching a women's line, too," said Rai. "We're not going to focus on just suits. We're going to be a full out brand in the near future here."

Soon after being drafted, Rai signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Canucks for a reported $1.7 million. Rather than spend the money on cars and other luxury items, Rai elected to save and invest.

It's a decision that's paying dividends now.

"The blessing in disguise was with the injury I incurred, it was always in the back of my mind 'What am I going to do if I can't play anymore?'" he said. "That's something I stayed on top of, didn't want to spend all my money and have to worry about what am I going to do for a living and things like that."

Six months removed from his final professional game, Rai is still dealing with back issues. He's also adjusting to a very different routine.

"I wake up, I have meetings all day," said Rai. "Focus on your business and making sure everything is running properly. I get a good thrill out of that too, but it's not the same, right?

"There's not that physical demand that you give everything to (and) by the end of it, you're exhausted. As an athlete, you push yourself physically to the limit, right? Now it's just a lot of meetings, a lot of organizing stuff. Just doing all that. It's a different lifestyle."