Nik Ledgerwood always knew that one day he’d have to hang up the boots, so during his playing career he always had one eye on the future.
While he was still playing, the 38-year-old from Lethbridge, Alberta picked up his coaching badges, wanting to be able to jump straight onto the touchline when the decision to retire finally came, which it did in January 2022 after three seasons in the Canadian Premier League with Cavalry FC. In his 20-year career, he played over 400 games across stints in Canada, Germany and Sweden — as well as picking up 50 appearances at the senior level for the Canadian men’s national team between 2007 and 2017.
He did his UEFA B License while he was playing in Germany, and in his final season with Cavalry in 2021, he finished up his Canadian A License, the top available coaching certification in the country.
“It was something that I knew I wanted to do while I was playing, when I was 25-26 in Germany, I knew that at some point I wanted to go into that direction,” Ledgerwood told CanPL.ca. “One thing that I wanted to ensure was that I didn’t have that long transition time between playing and coaching.
“I wanted to make sure that I had the certificate and the learning behind it to help me jump into it right away and be educated.”
Immediately upon retiring, Cavalry hired their former captain to be an assistant coach, working with Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and the rest of the staff from a new perspective. During his final season, Ledgerwood was more involved with the coaches and some of the on-field decisions being made by the club, and when the time came for him to transition into a coaching role, he wasn’t starting from scratch.
“It was an easier transition than I thought it would be, and I think that’s due to the help from the staff,” he said. “They brought me in with a lot of the decisions that were made, and into the coaching room, and my opinion was very valued in what we’re doing. I already had an insight on the ‘why?’ behind a lot of the stuff we were doing, so I think that made the transition a little easier.
“Just being involved within the same club, the familiarity of the club, and the structure of the club, I think made the transition that much easier.”
Ledgerwood says that some aspects of now being a coach as opposed to a teammate and captain to a lot of the players took some getting used to. While friendships remain with all of his former teammates, and the new players coming in, everyone knows and respects that he also has a job to do as their coach.
“I think that’s the tricky balance you need to find,” he said. “You go from teammates to a coaching role, and I think you just need to divide the friendship and the work a little bit more. At the end of the day, I still have really good friendships with a lot of the players, and I think we respect the roles that we’re in – me as a coach and them as a player.
“It’s a respect thing, we know what we’re there for, and we know what we want to do. We have a common goal, so it’s just finding that balance.”
An intense player during his playing days, Ledgerwood sometimes misses being out there on the pitch. Never one to shy away from a tackle, and a tireless runner in central midfield during his playing days, that driven spirit he possesses hasn’t left him.
“I still miss the competitive side of being able to be out there and really affect the outcome of a game that you’re actually playing,” he said, before laughing about something he’s glad he doesn’t have to deal with anymore. “I don’t miss waking up the next morning and feeling sore and the injuries that came along with it, though.”
Ledgerwood picked up plenty of insight and experience from playing for many different coaches over the years, who have all shaped the coach he has become.
Tommy Wheeldon Jr is the coach he’s worked closest with, as a player and now coach, but Ledgerwood says he’s picked up nuggets of information from every coach along the way, and that that mosaic of different coaching philosophies and experiences is always useful when applying it to his own players.
“I guess the interesting thing with that is you always take the good and the bad with all the experiences I’ve had as a player,” he said. “You learn a lot from coaches that you’ve had, what worked in the dressing room, what came across properly, or the right way to motivate the team, and you take that with you.
“The experiences that I’ve had – whether it be in Germany, Sweden, with the national team – you take bits and pieces from each of the coaches or managers that you’ve had, and you start building or forming the philosophy that you want.”
One philosophy that he really believes in, and one that Cavalry prioritizes, is the idea that a successful workplace is a happy workplace. Ledgerwood spoke about his former Canadian national team boss, and former Halifax Wanderers head coach, Stephen Hart very fondly in that regard.
“Stephen was one of my very first coaches with the national team so I’m very fortunate that he brought me into the mix,” Ledgerwood said. “The one thing I remember a lot with him is that he always wanted to create an atmosphere where players love to come in, and a very happy environment. I think that one of his biggest philosophies is that players and staff succeed best in an environment where they’re happy.
“We always wanted to come into camp, always wanted to play for the national team and be a part of it, and I think that’s exactly what he created. I think he did the same in Halifax, but at the end of the day they didn’t have the quality there to be consistent contenders along the way.”
That’s a mindset that remains with the national team to this day, pushed to the next level by the current crop of players and head coach John Herdman, and their idea of the squad being a “brotherhood”, as they like to say.
Hart and Ledgerwood are far from the only people in Canadian Premier League circles with national team ties, and over the first few seasons in CPL history, the league has proven to be a place where former professional footballers can find new jobs as coaches and in teams’ front offices.
At Cavalry, for example, Ledgerwood (who is also the club’s Community Relations Manager) is joined on the non-playing staff by former Cavalry defender and captain Mason Trafford, who retired this past offseason and became the club’s Commercial Director. Oliver Minatel, who played for Cavalry from 2019 to 2021 before spending one season with York United, also retired this offseason and became Cavalry’s Head of Recruitment and Player Development.
It’s become something of a trend around the league as well this offseason, with other CPL captains Jamar Dixon (Pacific FC), Daryl Fordyce (Valour FC) and Drew Beckie (Atlético Ottawa) retiring over the past few months before taking off-field roles with their respective clubs. Jordan Wilson (York United) also retired this offseason, taking a job at OneSoccer as an analyst.
Forge FC assistant David Edgar did the same thing following the 2020 CPL season, as did former Cavalry midfielder Mauro Eustáquio, who is now the assistant coach to another former national team player, Martin Nash, at York. Nash took over from another Canadian national team star, Jimmy Brennan, who coached the Nine Stripes from 2019-2021, with Paul Stalteri his assistant.
Long story short, there are a lot of new jobs in Canadian soccer, and Ledgerwood is happy to see many of them filled by ex-professional players.
“I think it’s a great fit, because these are the ex-players that have seen it all, they’ve been through the trenches, they’ve had to move overseas to pursue their career,” Ledgerwood said. “Now they have that hunger and drive still to grow the game in Canada. You have a lot of former national team players that still want to push soccer in the right direction in this country.
“Now I’ve been given an opportunity to do that, I think it’s great and speaks volumes of this league.”
Over the past few months, Ledgerwood has had another exciting opportunity, working with the Canadian women’s national team. Bev Priestman and her staff wanted a former national team player to do some work in performance analysis. He has since taken on an expanded role that also includes time on the pitch with the players, helping with the coaching that way — more similar to his role at Cavalry.
“They wanted somebody who had the experience of playing at a high level and the experience of doing these things, and to be able to share the analysis side with the players and to have a very valued opinion in doing that,” he said. “They reached out and contacted me and asked if it was something that I’d want to be a part of.”
“It was great to go into camps and adapt and be a part of the performance analysis side of it. It was a new world to me to be able to see the coding, the clipping, everything that goes on in the prep for the team meetings, the post-game and the previews of the game. It was definitely building that complete experience for me, to see all the sides of the coaching staff.”
After being a part of the men’s national team for a decade, he is now embracing the opportunity to now work with — and learn from — the world-class women’s national team.
“Growing up as a player, I wanted to try and learn as many sides of the game and as many different positions as I could, and I don’t think coaching is any different,” he added. “I just want to absorb as much as I can in the early years of it, so I have a better understanding of it all.”
With the Women’s World Cup on the horizon, and a handful of Canada camps — including the recent SheBelieves Cup — under his belt, Ledgerwood has learned and adapted to how coaching at the international level is compared to the club level. The biggest difference, he says, is how much time they get to work with players.
“Coaching at the international level, you get your players for the week or ten days, and you’re really just prepping towards one or maybe two games,” he said. “You have to be very detailed in what you do, and you can’t overload what you want to do, just because you don’t have the time to do it. “At the club level, you have a full year, you have week-in, week-out to work with these players and make adjustments with them, whereas at the national team level, you don’t have the time to do that. Usually, when you come into camp, you have about three days of prep before the first game, it’s really about making sure everybody’s on the same page.”
The experience has been rewarding, and Ledgerwood said that he takes lessons learned from Bev Priestman’s staff back to Wheeldon Jr and Cavalry to implement and evolve how they coach there.
“It’s been a great experience, it’s been very eye-opening to see the coaching at the highest level — coming off an Olympic gold medal — and the attention to detail that this group has,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be on four camps with them, and just coming off the SheBelieves Cup as well [and seeing] how they operate within a tournament format. To be able to take some of those learnings and be able to bring it back to the staff at Cavalry, we talk about what stuff may be beneficial for us and the stuff we do, and just taking a different perspective on some of the coaching tools and what we’ve learned.
“The women’s team, where they’re at, is the gold standard of international soccer for them, so it was great to be a part of those camps and to see how they work and how to get the best out of the players.”
Ledgerwood also has very high ambitions for himself as a coach, and told CanPL.ca that he wants to take his coaching career to even higher levels.
“I am setting the bar quite high for myself, I think I can have a bigger ceiling coaching than I did playing,” he said confidently. “That’s what I want to do, I want to be a head coach or a sporting director, I definitely want to go in that direction. After the first year of getting the experiences, and then also the experiences with the women’s national team and the standard with them, I just want to keep absorbing and learning. At the end of the day, the goal is to be a head coach.”
In the short term, however, Ledgerwood’s attention turns back to Cavalry and the rapidly approaching Canadian Premier League season.
Cavalry’s preseason is underway, with players already working out in preparation for the season. Next, they will be heading south of the border to Portland, Oregon for a 10-day training camp. They will play the Tacoma Defiance and Portland Pilots while they’re there, before returning to Canada for friendlies against Valour FC and FC Tigers Vancouver. After that, it’s go time for the 2023 Canadian Premier League season.
“The next focus is on the CPL, and just focusing on getting a very good preseason,” Ledgerwood said. “With Cavalry we have some new players coming in, we need to get everybody on board properly so that they’re all on the same page. Our preseason camp kicks off here next week, so right now my focus is with them and the start of the season, just to make sure that we get off to a really good start.
“We’ve got a couple players that are just finding their way right now in the new system, but I think it’ll be a very dynamic team, and that’s exactly what we’re looking for with the DNA of the club.”
Cavalry will open their season against the team that has ended their title hopes on two different occasions, in 2019 and 2022 — Forge FC. That match will take place at Tim Hortons Field on Saturday, April 15 with kickoff set for 4:00 pm ET.