A conversation with Brian Burke
Brian Burke is one of hockey's most prominent executives. A former college player at Providence, he has served as an NHL general manager for the Hartford Whalers, Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks and, until recently, the Toronto Maple Leafs. In between, he also spent four years as the league's head of hockey operations and was GM for the 2010 U.S. Olympic men's hockey team, which won the silver medal in Vancouver.
Now serving as a part-time pro scout for the Ducks, the team with which he won a Stanley Cup in 2007, Burke talks about the rapid growth and quality of women's hockey and his no-tolerance stance on bigotry in sports.
Question from Val Ackerman: Many important developments in women's ice hockey took place in the 1990s, including participation in the first Olympics, world championships and NCAA championship, and the first girls-only teams sanctioned at the high school level. How would you describe the sport's growth over the past 20 years?
Answer from Brian Burke: No sport has developed more in the past 20 years than women's hockey. If track and field for men had kept pace with women's hockey, Usain Bolt would run a 7-second 100 meters. [Women's hockey players] have come light years in terms of the quality of play, speed of play, how they shoot, their fore-checking schemes, their offensive schemes. It's been truly remarkable to watch.
Don't just say you support Title IX, don't just say you support women's athletics; buy a ticket, bring your family. Buy a sponsorship on a team, put some money behind this thing, help it grow. If you really believe in women's sports, there's an opportunity to show it in a very direct way. Fans vote with their feet. Show up at a game.Brian Burke
Q: Is there anything in particular that you think has fueled this development?
A: I think, first off, Wayne Gretzky really changed things in the United States. When [he was traded] to Los Angeles ... it made hockey more popular and gave it some cache that it didn't have. So, I always give Wayne credit for that and I think it had an impact on the women's side. I think whenever the men's side sees growth, the women's side sees growth.
No. 2 has been expansion of the NHL in the past two decades to nontraditional Sunbelt markets in Dallas, Phoenix and Anaheim. Wherever you put a team, you generate interest and you generate participation.
The third factor that's not linked to women in particular, but just generally to the growth of hockey, is the proliferation of minor-league hockey. I don't think the average American realizes that we have teams in all these towns in Texas and we had teams in Shreveport and Gwinnett, Georgia. And everywhere we put a team, youth hockey springs up around it. So, you might have 50 kids that play and then you'd put an East Coast League team in there, a Central Hockey League team, and now that number is 600 within two years.
And then the final thing is -- and this will sound like a small factor, but it's not -- when NHL players settle in their communities, they tend to get involved, and the quality of coaching goes up right away and the number of athletes that participate goes up. That's had an impact -- the second generation of NHL players coaching their kids. So, those are all non-[gender]-related factors that have added to the growth of hockey.
With the women, I think [you have to give credit to] the pioneers. In Canada, there were Angela James, Hayley Wickenheiser and Cassie Campbell. For the U.S., Cammi Granato was such a star and so was Angela Ruggiero. So, I think there's a pioneering aspect. And then there's Title IX. No one should ever, ever, ever, ever, ever underestimate the impact of Title IX, where a young woman now can go get a four-year scholarship for hockey in the United States. It's been remarkable. [It] also helped having women's hockey in the Olympics as a medal sport [starting in Nagano in 1998]; that's a magnetic lure to any young athlete.
Q: Are you seeing any parallels between how men's hockey developed and the way women's hockey is now evolving?
A: Girls used to play with girls, and girls used to play ringette in Canada. The average American won't know what ringette is, but it was an ice sport for women with no body contact. It was designed to give them something to do on the ice. Well, those girls play hockey now. And the fastest growing segment of our population with USA Hockey, in terms of registrations, has been girls and women. So, I think it's tracking in a way, but it's also exceeding in a way what the men and boys have done in that same time.
Q: And so are you seeing more girls playing at the grassroots level?
A: Yes, and more girls playing with boys, especially in smaller towns. The notion that girls have to play with girls ... [had always been] rigidly enforced, but it broke down in small towns where there was nowhere else for the girls to play, so they said, "OK, well, you can play with the boys." Now that's commonplace. If you're a good enough player, you can play with the boys; it doesn't matter how big of a market it is, which I think is a great development. I think, ideally, we get to the point where there are so many quality players, boys and girls, that they just play in their own groups.
But for now, where there is still a disparity, if a young girl can play with the boys, that's going to help her development. And I will tell you, I coach hockey schools, and I would rather coach the girls.
A: The boys are stubborn and entitled and they tend to not listen. The girls I've coached are so eager to get better; they work so hard, they are so coachable. I really enjoy it. And when I still do hockey schools and I get girls in the group, perfect. Give me more.
Q: How would you describe the differences between men's and women's hockey?
A: If you turn on the TV and women are playing hockey, and if you're not paying attention, you don't realize it's women at first. And then you [notice] the facemasks and the long hair and then you see there's less body contact.
In women's hockey, body contact is permitted, but not body-checking. That's the difference that leaps out at you, although I've seen games where you could argue that's a difference without a distinction. I've seen games where the "contact" that's permitted sure looks like body checking to me. [Laughs.] And the women want body-checking -- the women I've talked to are like, "Let's bring it on and put it in."
So, that's the only difference when you watch. The style of play, the quality of skating, the offensive schemes, the defensive schemes, the special teams -- there is very little difference between the men and women. There's some velocity on the shots, that's a little different ... [but] that's about it. They're terrific to watch. The women have come so far, so fast. It's a great product.
Q: Much has happened in NCAA women's hockey over the past 20 years. There's now a Women's Frozen Four, top players from Canada and other countries represent a significant portion of school rosters, and the top programs are very seriously managed and, in some cases, even use dedicated rinks for their women's teams. What's your assessment of this segment of the game?
A: If you're an elite women's hockey player, you go to the NCAA and then hopefully your Olympic aspirations either take place while you're matriculating or while you're enrolled or afterwards. But [the NCAA is] the magnet right now and that is really where you think of the value. I have been fortunate to see several women's [college] games in recent years. If you put someone in a time machine and they went back five or 10 years and watched women's hockey there, they'd be absolutely astonished at how quickly and dramatically it's improved. ... And I think the coaching is really at an all-time high.
Q: Let's shift gears a little bit and talk about the Olympics. That's really the apex of women's hockey right now, and it's looming with the Sochi Winter Games around the corner. What opportunity does that event represent for women's hockey to take another leap forward?
A: The biggest issue facing women's hockey is the fact that you've got the "twin towers" [the U.S. and Canada] and not much else. When Canada plays anyone besides the U.S., it's normally a lopsided beating and the same when the U.S. plays anyone other than Canada. So the biggest challenge facing women's hockey is to get some of these other nations to commit funding to development. It takes money; it's an expensive sport. Ice time costs money; equipment costs money; all-star teams, where you put together the best players and travel, that costs money. And we need more countries to commit more dollars to women's hockey so there is, in fact, a field of teams that can compete.
[The question isn't] how do the American and Canadian programs get better; it's how does their competition get better.
Q: Let's talk about the future of women's professional hockey. There's currently a league in Canada, the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which doesn't pay its players, but is providing a competitive opportunity for players who want to continue their playing careers after college. What kinds of factors do you think have to line up in order for women's hockey to attract the dollars needed to establish a true professional outlet for the best players?
A: Is [women's pro hockey] viable yet? No. Is it going to be any time soon? Probably not. It's going to take willpower and determination. The Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs have both stepped up to support the [CWHL] with cash and other support in-kind -- it's going to take that type of support [as well]. And then it's going to take time. But if anyone who's [reading] this wants to support hockey for women, then buy a ticket. Go find the [CWHL] schedule and go see a game. You'll love the product, you'll love the athletes; these women try so hard and they're so good and they're so gracious and you'll go again. I guarantee you.
Q: What are your thoughts on the best way to market women's hockey? How do you can take advantage of the fact the players are great athletes but also women, especially given the way they're completely covered up by their uniforms and facemasks?
A: The more engaging and marketable an athlete is off the court or off the ice, the better off your sport is. Forget whether they're men or women; if you've got someone who's camera friendly and attractive -- I'll use a word that's gender neutral -- and articulate, you've got a far better chance of getting people to like that athlete.
If people like the athletic contest and the athlete, you've got a way better chance. So, it's a twin-track marketing [approach] with women's hockey. You do have amazing athletes, but you [also] have these articulate, educated and, in some cases, gorgeous women. And yes, I think that's a selling point whether people want to admit it or not. I know some of these women and they are appealing in person, they are impressive in person. See, you should be able to build on both of those.
I [also] believe in tying this product to junior hockey, to minor-league pro hockey, to the NHL [and its teams]. Before I left Toronto, I said, 'Why don't we have a [CWHL] game right before ours? And for anyone who comes, we'll open our gates early and the ticket to see the Maple Leafs game will also get you to watch the game here.' And so, we've got a ready-made audience that doesn't know this product and they might see it and say, "Wow, this is amazing." So ... let's try and tie these products together a little bit.
Q: Looking ahead, what factors are going to be most important as women's hockey continues to grow? What do the next 10 or 20 years hold?
A: Well, the next tipping point is Sochi, and I think it's an opportunity where NBC is determined to show virtually 360-degree programming. I think it's women's hockey's next best chance to shine. And then, we all face the same problems [in growing the sport], men or women, with the infrastructure of arenas in Canada and the U.S. We need more arenas. Many were built in Canada right after World War II, believe it or not, and many built since then are privately owned and charge far more for ice.
We need to keep this game available and affordable. Those are the two big question marks for men or women; it's gender-neutral. But I think the next marketing vantage point for women is Sochi, and the women need to have a good tournament and build on that.
Q: How important is the female fan base to the future growth of hockey?
A: If you look at the research marketing people do, women control so much of the spending power and buying power in the home. They make most of the major day-to-day financial decisions; they're a key component of our demographic. We're very fortunate in the NHL: We've got a real strong female demographic. Women watch this sport; they like this sport. From my perspective, you've got to try and keep growing that against other sports. We've had great growth in the NHL, and women's hockey should be able to benefit from that.
Q: How do you see professional opportunities shaping up for women who want to make a career out of working in hockey?
A: It's gone from virtually zero opportunity to very extensive, if not unlimited, opportunities in pro sports. Women played a negligible role until the past 15 to 20 years in all sports; you could say that right across [the board]. I think it's changed dramatically on the business side. On the talent side, the player evaluation side, women have yet to make a meaningful impact. With rare exceptions, the talent side, where you draft, trade, cut, sign players, that is [still] male-dominated. It's the last door that needs to be kicked in.
You don't have to have played the game at a high level [to do this]. You can acquire the ability to evaluate players. It involves a significant investment of time and effort, but it can be done. And that's the last bastion, the last wall that women have to kick in in terms of employment. I'm not suggesting there's equality in the marketplace, but what I'm saying is, in terms of numbers or impact, that's really the last area women haven't entered one bit.
Q: You include coaching as well, right?
A: Yes, and that will come over time. Some of these attitudes and cultural barriers are not doors you kick in; they are walls that have to erode over time. Time is our greatest ally. It will take time, but it will happen. No question. On the business side, the opportunities a woman has in all the [other] departments within pro teams [have grown]: they've got HR, they've got IT, they've got sales, sponsorship, marketing. Women have made, and continue to make, tremendous contributions in those areas; it's just on the talent side that they have yet to break that wall.
Q: You've been very outspoken against homophobia in sports. Do you think women's sports are held back by perceptions or biases people have about the sexual orientation of female athletes?
A: In my mind, there is no excuse for bias or bigotry or ignorance [in any sport]. Don't understand it; never have, never will. We want to support all athletes regardless of their sexual orientation. I had a wonderful son who was gay and a hockey player and he did not play for his high school his senior year in large part because of the homophobic nature of the commentary in the dressing room and so on. I'd say male, female, black, white, there is no place in our game or any other game for bias or ignorance. And again, I feel the generation that plays the game now, I think they accept gay people. I don't think that's the door that needs to be kicked in; I think it's my generation that we're dealing with here.
I know women athletes [who have said], "Oh, because I'm on this team or that team, people assume I'm a lesbian." And my answer would be, "OK, so what if you are? First off, whose business is that? Second, who would care?"
So, if that's a burden that faces women's sports, my sense is that's a vanishing burden, as well. I think younger people are more enlightened already, and as people from my generation maybe see the light, it won't be an issue.
Q: What other thoughts do you have about how women's sports can keep moving forward?
A: I think this should be a call to action. If, in your mind, you support women's sports, then support them. Don't just say you support Title IX, don't just say you support women's athletics; buy a ticket, bring your family. Buy a sponsorship on a team, put some money behind this thing, help it grow. If you really believe in women's sports, there's an opportunity to show it in a very direct way. Fans vote with their feet. Show up at a game.