Brian Burke: Female NHL coach a question of when, not if

Hayley Wickenheiser is one of the biggest stars in women’s hockey history. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

The NBA has two female assistant coaches and the NFL recently hired one. Is the NHL next?

Longtime hockey executive Brian Burke says “it’s a question of when, not if.”

“What I think has to happen is the leagues lower than the NHL — college hockey, junior hockey, American League — would have to train and bring qualified, capable women along. It can’t be a rookie assignment,” the Calgary Flames hockey operations president said.

Women aren’t coaching men in those leagues yet, so by Burke’s rationale, a woman in the NHL’s coaching ranks isn’t imminent.

As any job-seeker has learned, it's who you know. Contact has yet to happen between a men's team with a vacant position and a woman with the ambition and the right credentials.

"The relationship I'm sure is a big factor in the hiring," said Melody Davidson, Hockey Canada's director of female hockey. "It doesn't matter what job you're trying to get, but even more so in coaching and sport, the relationships are huge. Those relationships have to be built first in the women's game before those opportunities are there."

Davidson coached the Canadian women to back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2006 and 2010. She has the deepest resume of any woman in hockey, including scouting, coaching, managing and international mentorship of other coaches.

The 52-year-old from Oyen, Alta., was also an assistant coach in the Alberta Junior Hockey League for four years.

No men's league higher than that has sought her services, but Davidson acknowledges she bears some responsibility.

"Never been asked," she said. "Again, it's about relationships. Who is to say if I hadn't started to pursue something or go after something, or if someone else does it, it might not come about right?

"I can't lay it in the hands of someone else to come and ask me."

Canadian star Hayley Wickenheiser, who has played men's pro hockey, and former captain Cassie Campbell-Pascall think a woman could be an NHL coach or in hockey operations within the next five years.

Campbell-Pascall rubs shoulders with NHL coaches and general managers in her job as a television reporter on national hockey broadcasts. Her husband Brad is an assistant general manager with the Flames.

She expects a woman to be an NHL scout or assistant general manager before there is a female coach.

"I'd love to see someone in management," Campbell-Pascall said. "How close the NHL is? I'm not sure."

Wickenheiser believes the first woman in could be an assistant coach, but that person needs a lot of "hockey cred" and a healthy ego.

"You have to have garnered the respect of the male colleagues you were working with," Wickenheiser said. "Otherwise you would be thrown to the wolves a bit.

"It comes down to having the skills and confidence to go into that environment. Not everyone can or wants to. It's not an easy environment to operate in. It's cut-throat and it's about performance and you have to have the right temperament."

Wickenheiser is a candidate when she stops playing. The 37-year-old plans to compete in a sixth Winter Olympics in 2018.

"If you get someone who has been around, someone like Wickenheiser, who has the knowledge about hockey then I could see it working," said Daniel Alfredsson, the Ottawa Senators senior adviser of hockey operations.

Said Wickenheiser: "I personally have had that conversation a couple of times over the years with GMs and people who have asked me 'Would you like to be involved at the NHL level?' But obviously I'm still playing. I would definitely be interested."

The NHL and its teams employ female executives and women in front offices, but hiring them into hockey jobs is not top of mind.

"We have plenty of women in management and teams have their own hiring policies," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said recently at the general managers' meetings in Florida. "I think the clubs have been pretty progressive in their hiring."

Burke said five years is a "reasonable timetable" for a woman to join an NHL coaching or managerial staff.

"Women have made a significant impact on the business side for decades now," he said. "But what we call the talent side, no impact that I'm aware of.

"Cassie is probably right. There's no reason why women aren't contributing on the talent side. That will happen. That might happen before an assistant coach, but I think they'll both happen. The question is when."

Hockey operations staffs are larger now, which means more job opportunities.

Many of today's players, coaches and general managers grew up seeing women in professions traditionally dominated by men, so the idea isn't far-fetched.

"If a woman has the ability to coach at this level and is deserving of the job, then I would have no reason to do anything other than to listen to her and try to learn," Edmonton Oilers forward Matt Hendricks said.

The San Antonio Spurs made former WNBA player Becky Hammon the league's first full-time female assistant coach in 2014.

The Sacramento Kings followed a year later with Nancy Lieberman, who had previous experience coaching men's pro basketball with the Texas Legends of the NBA's development league.

Kathryn Smith spent a dozen years climbing the organizational ladder of the NFL's New York Jets before the Buffalo Bills named her special teams quality control coach in January.

Burke is open to anyone working for him if that person helps the Flames win a Stanley Cup.

"What can you do for my hockey team?" he asked. "I don't care what church you go to, I don't go what gender you are, I don't care what colour you are. What can you do to help me win?"