Burke, NHL agent launch hockey-centric MBA

Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

It’s been 27 years since this blogger left high school, and, back then, options in post-secondary education for a career in sports management were limited. Laurentian University has a good program, and I did apply there, but eventually decided to go to Western because its student newspaper had a good record of training reporters. (Until 1989, of course.)

There are more choices now, with at least 17 colleges/universities offering bachelor’s or master’s degrees across the country. Brock gets a lot of the attention, with two of Toronto’s assistant GMs, Kyle Dubas (Maple Leafs) and Andrew Tinnish (Blue Jays), graduates of the program.

As of Wednesday, there will be a new kid on the block. In Calgary, Athabasca University will unveil its executive MBA, “The Business of Hockey.”

The idea began with player agent Ritch Winter, who took his brainchild to Brian Burke when Burke was GM in Toronto. Burke loved it, and, a few years ago, made a presentation at an NHL Board of Governors meeting to help along the process. But it takes time.

“It was all about finding the right university,” Winter said. “What I did learn was there are a lot of rules and restrictions. You don’t just walk in and start. It took two full years to get through all of the provincial hoops and regulations.

“We are looking for a new pool of candidates,” he continued. “People who can bring a different perspective. (Blackhawks president) John McDonough came over from baseball and brought a new perspective. Is there someone in Silicon Valley who created a successful (mobile) app or a production technique? We want them to apply. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Dominik Hasek didn’t play their positions like anyone else ever did, but they changed their positions forever.

“How do we find that guy for management?”

Burke and Winter are listed as founding members. Their advisory board includes AHL president & CEO Dave Andrews, Montreal Canadiens’ executive vice-president & COO Kevin Gilmore, Edmonton GM Craig MacTavish, Robins Partnership chairman Brad Robins (one of Canada’s top sports marketers), and WHL commissioner Ron Robison. (Full disclosure: Rogers president of broadcasting Scott Moore also is involved.)

The presence of Andrews and Robison is interesting, because it opens the possibility of new post-secondary options for retired players who did not make the NHL. Winter says initial courses will be similar to those of a standard MBA program, then veer into hockey-specific classes, such as Information Technology Strategy for Hockey, Hockey Operations and Managing Franchises Strategically.

Athabasca University became the match because of its strong success with online instruction, meaning there will be opportunity for anyone with interest to take the MBA, even if not based near the school. Enrolment, initially limited to 32 but with plans to expand, begins in the next few months, with the inaugural class starting in May. The online nature of the program allows for some flexibility in completion, but we’re looking at two to two-and-a-half years. Looks like the networking opportunities will be a benefit, too.

MBAs are not inexpensive. Tuition will be approximately $75,000. (Do what my cousin did: get his company to pay for it.)

“This is going to be a rigorous MBA, a serious program,” Winter said. I am curious to see who develops from it.