Penguins' Jennifer Bullano a commanding presence
It's not often an NHL player finds himself helpless, but that was exactly Mike Rupp's situation as he faced a throng of people in his locker stall.
The crowd wasn't for him -- it was for his Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Marc-Andre Fleury, a few stalls down. But the real estate for players inside an NHL locker room makes a jail cell look expansive, and what little space Rupp had to get his skates off was occupied by well-meaning media members.
Someone once gave me advice that the minute you feel that you're at a disadvantage because you're a woman, you put yourself at a disadvantage.Jennifer Bullano, Penguins director of communications
Exasperated, Rupp stood on a bench, made eye contact and raised his hands in a "come on" gesture toward someone who could help: Jennifer Bullano, the team's director of communications.
With the effectiveness of a Stephen Strasburg fastball, Bullano swooped across the room and made the offending parties move.
"It was awesome," Rupp said.
"When she's going and gets fired up, there's people that listen," recalls former Penguins center Jordan Staal, now with the Carolina Hurricanes. "She's always just fun to be around."
Jennifer Bullano, or "JLo," as the players sometimes call her, is the only female serving in her particular job description in the NHL. And she's fitting in just fine.
In her shoes
"Someone once gave me advice that the minute you feel that you're at a disadvantage because you're a woman, you put yourself at a disadvantage," Bullano said. "I never pursued the opportunity because I thought there was a shortage of females."
Bullano is the gatekeeper to one of the most in-demand locker rooms in the NHL, mediawise, one that boasts two of the league's top players: superstar center Sidney Crosby and current MVP Evgeni Malkin.
Bullano's voice holds respect as she talks about Crosby's attitude toward media demands.
"He talks to the media every day. Every day," Bullano said. "If there is a day where no one needs him, he'll actually say, 'Am I good?' to leave the locker room. He'll actually check with us. That's unprecedented for an athlete of his stature."
Bullano's challenge with Crosby is managing the volume of media demands. The Penguins' public relations staff has a folder with requests that the staff goes over with him after practice a couple of times a week. The employees know his personality, and he's involved in deciding which media to accommodate. Requests for his hometown are important. He also tries to take care of the local TV stations once a year. Bullano said that even if requests are declined on Crosby's behalf, the PR staff will let him know.
"I don't think anybody really understands the amount of requests we get for him," Bullano said. "And he is so good about looking at all of them."
On a game day, Bullano will get to the office about 8:30 a.m. and won't see the inside of her home again until close to midnight, depending on faceoff. Her responsibilities include handling media requests and staying briefed on player injuries and on what's being reported. She monitors what goes on once the locker room is open to the media and talks with coach Dan Bylsma before he speaks to reporters.
There's also the travel: Bullano is with the team on every road trip. The Penguins recently went from Florida to Carolina to Montreal -- a trip that required a veritable Payless of shoes.
Another thing she packs is a sense of humor -- a decided asset for one of the few women in a male-dominated environment. In visiting arenas, for example, if the players' showers are located in an awkward place, she'll jokingly refer to the locker rooms as "not Jen-friendly."
She has also had people, when the Penguins are on the road, come up and inquire whether the PR director is around, then ask to see "him."
"You're talking to her," Bullano will respond, smiling.
The Penguins' organization is behind Bullano 100 percent. From her boss Tom McMillan, the team's vice president of communications, she has received invaluable advice about managing a high-profile locker room. A sports journalist in Mario Lemieux's playing days, McMillan helps let Bullano know what kinds of questions to expect from the media when it comes to managing the Penguins' superstar of this generation.
"He believed in me," Bullano said of McMillan. "And I've always respected the things he's taught me."
Road to the top
Although Bullano grew up a die-hard hockey fan -- in an eighth-grade project in which her friends chose three things to describe her, one entry was "hockey nut" -- her career in sports was more of an end-around run than a dash up the middle. Tenacious and successful in college at Penn State, she admits there was one thing she couldn't manage to get: an internship with the school's sports information department.
After Bullano graduated, a job offer from Disney soon had her working VIP tours, and she ended up working with several sports clients. Bullano was so good that retired NFL safety Brian Dawkins called to request her. She eventually decided to pursue an MBA at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and, on the first day, discovered the school had a connection to the Penguins' communication staff. She asked for the contact information for her now-boss, McMillan.
Bullano's immediate reward was a graduate internship, and eventually she was hired as manager of media relations -- a job that had her up until 4 a.m. at one point preparing game notes. After the director of media relations for the Penguins left, Bullano stayed on.
When the position above her opened up again a few years later, she told McMillan how much she had learned and that she hoped there would be room for her to grow. That was a Friday. The next Monday, McMillan told her he was going to name her director of communications.
At the time of her promotion, Bullano was the only woman serving in that capacity in the NHL. She stresses, however, that she isn't the first. For example, Cindy Himes, now director of alumni relations with the Penguins, essentially did Bullano's job with the team from 1983 to '93, which included its Stanley Cup wins in '91 and '92. Himes was the third woman in NHL history to fill that role.
"Even though women have made great strides in the professional sports industry, it was personally refreshing for me to see a female in that role," Himes said. "I believe that she has handled it very well."
An NHL commercial that aired not long ago said winning the Stanley Cup turns men into boys. A locker room arguably has the same effect, and Bullano has earned the ultimate sign of acceptance: a nickname.
Neither Staal nor Rupp could remember the genesis of her "JLo" moniker, but Staal explained why it fits: "She's got the independence, swagger to her, almost. You always know when she's in the room."
For Bullano, the situation is akin to having 23 brothers. And she handles it well.
"She can be right there with us," Staal said. "Obviously, when you get into the locker room … some chirping and stuff like that is gonna go on, but she rolls it off, right off her back, and she can dish it out, too."
Bullano's greatest weapon might be her power of persuasion.
"Jen just had this way of kind of just being [able to laugh] it off, and kind of coming with it again," Rupp said of a time when she persuaded him to accept a media project he was hesitant about. "She has that charm to her to get her way."
Another key to her job is having the trust of the players.
"What's very clear when you are around that team, or just watching the coverage of it, is the faith and trust the players have in Jen's judgment," said Nate Ewell, the former Washington Capitals VP of communications who shepherded Alex Ovechkin through two MVP seasons. "Having the respect of the players is critical to success in media relations, and it's obvious that she has it -- not just among the star players on the Penguins but up and down the roster."
Perhaps the biggest testament to the players' trust in Bullano was HBO's "24/7" all-access program that followed the team in the 2010-11 season. As part of the project, Bullano had to persuade Rupp to allow HBO cameras into his home Christmas morning. Another curveball in that same series was Staal's return from injury to play in the Winter Classic. The league is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to injury details being shared publicly.
"There were times where sensitivity was there. Jen worked through it," Staal said.
Trust also appears to be a big factor in Bullano's relationship with the team's other superstar center, Malkin, who is from Russia and was initially uncomfortable speaking English in public. She has worked with him on learning the language, including writing and practicing speeches. In one speech, she purposely put a laugh line at the beginning, knowing the audience's response would make him feel more comfortable.
In the end, persuading Malkin to talk to the media has been a long process, one Bullano admits involved pushing and arguing.
"He's probably one of the most intelligent athletes you'll ever meet," Bullano said, adding of the language barrier, "It's not that Geno doesn't like to talk to the media, but he's so smart that he knows that he understands what they're saying, but he's not happy with what he's conveying back to them."
Handling the critics
Of course, being the arbiter of an athlete's media availability and interview length will inevitably turn PR staffers into someone's villain. Bullano has had to find a way to deal with the criticism, including one particularly disparaging online remark.
"I remember thinking, 'Don't take it personal,' but it's hard to see that, because I'm a nice person. … I just have a difficult job," Bullano said. "Maybe it is part of me being female that I have to be a little more stern right off the bat, because there have been times where I've said, 'Last question' three times and it becomes frustrating."
But there's also the positive feedback. Bullano recalls an NHL event at which a girl approached her and asked whether she was Jennifer Bullano.
"She said, 'Oh, I'd just like to introduce myself. I think it's so great that you're a director and you're female,'" Bullano said. "That day always stands out to me because I was never one to look at myself at a disadvantage because I was female."