TORONTO — Over the course of two days, the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference served up career advice, industry insight and no shortage of entertaining anecdotes for those in attendance.
The event, co-chaired by Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke, was also coloured by the former National Hockey League general manager’s tendency to enthusiastically jump into panel conversations with commentary or questions from his seat in the front row. The business of hockey and sports in general is clearly still very near and dear to Burke’s heart, and there was a wide range of discussions for him and everybody else in the room to engage with, from the legalization of sports gambling and cannabis, to the ongoing challenge of trying to get more women in the industry and on the fields of competition.
Here is a sample of the broad conversations that occurred at the event.
• Both Hayley Wickenheiser — the recently minted Hall of Famer — and her former Team Canada teammate, goalie Sami Jo Small, shared their view on the current state of professional women’s hockey. Wickenheiser said she had a good conversation with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday night at the Hall ceremony and she is of the mind that for things to move forward in the wake of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League collapsing last year, the United States-based National Women’s Hockey League must fold and allow for a single circuit to take hold.
"I do think the NHL has a plan and I think they want to support the game. It’s not the NHL that’s holding professional women’s hockey back, it’s the current league that exists (the NWHL) that, quite frankly, won’t fold and needs to fold for the right reasons. I’m going to say that because I know the best players in the world, they believe the same thing. When we get the best players in the world in a four-to-six-team league, that’s going to be really good hockey."
Small served as GM of the CWHL’s Toronto Furies and, though she acknowledges it might take a while, the Olympian believes women will find a way forward.
"How do we get (the) two factions to work together? We as women are supposed to be able to do that and I think what is going on right now in women’s hockey is OK: It’s OK to have different opinions, it’s OK to fight, it’s OK for that to play out on the national stage because it allows women’s hockey to be talked about and women’s sport to be talked about. There’s going to be this amazing, great league that comes out at the end, (but) we’re going to have a couple years of a pretty rough ride, a roller-coaster ride (to get there). Ultimately, it’s about hearing all those different voices and ensuring that what we have at the end is this amazing league that showcases these amazing women of diverse backgrounds."
• Wickenheiser, who was interviewed by a big fan in Burke, shared a great story about winning the gold medal at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.
"I idolized (Wayne) Gretzky and the Oilers of the ’80s. I was the first player in the room because I just wanted to get in the room and celebrate. I opened the door and there’s Wayne Gretzky and (former Oilers defenceman) Kevin Lowe standing there. And there’s (Canadian men’s team coach) Pat Quinn standing there with tears coming down his face. I thought — (as) a little girl from Saskatchewan — I loved those guys and there they were cheering for us."
• One of the best lines of the event came courtesy Jessica Berman, who spent more than a decade as with the National Hockey League as vice-president, community growth and development. This past summer, Berman became the first woman to hold the position of deputy commissioner in any North American pro sport when she took that post with the National Lacrosse League.
"I like to describe diversity as getting an invitation to the party, and inclusion as having fun at the party."
• Kevin Abrams is a Canadian working as an assistant GM for the New York Giants. During a panel on player evaluation and development, he noted NFL clubs face their own challenges when drafting players — namely, the fact some of them compete in NCAA conferences with weak competition — but said his fellow football executives always marvel at the difference between what they’re asked to do selecting early-20s athletes who’ve spent multiple years developing in college versus what happens in leagues where talent hawks are drafting teenagers who are barely old enough to drive.
"When we speak to our counterparts in hockey and baseball, we always say it boggles our minds that they’re trying to evaluate 18-year-olds in different countries who (speak a different first language), they’ve got to learn a new language when they get here. You’re trying to evaluate a baseball player using an aluminum bat in the hills of the Dominican against a 60 m.p.h fastball and trying to project what he’s going to be at 22 years old, trying to hit a Clayton Kershaw fastball? It’s staggering to me."
• Legalized sports gambling is starting to take hold in the United States and there’s a notion it will spread quickly in the coming years. David Goldstein, chief operating officer for the Canadian Football League, explained why he’s in favour of legalized gambling by sharing a tale about what can happen when it’s left to exist in the shadows. Goldstein’s background is with U Sports at the Canadian university level and while working in that realm, he came to learn there was all kinds of online betting action on U Sports — specifically prop bets on things like who would score the first point of a game — in black markets in Asia. (The rationale was that U Sports games have integrity, post results fast online and also doesn’t attract a lot of attention, something criminals appreciate.) Upon looking into it, Goldstein began to get a sense for the shady things that can go on in that underworld.
"This is a true story. At a women’s professional volleyball match in Europe there was a prop bet on who would win the first point of the match. Illegal gamblers had paid an actress to show up in a wheelchair and sit in the front with a sign that said, ‘It’s my dream to serve one point for Team So and So. The other team saw it and thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that sweet. Let’s let her serve, we’ll give them the first point and we’ll continue from there, It’s a five-set match, who cares?’ She serves, they win the point, someone makes a bundle."
• More than one person expressed a specific concern with the legalization of cannabis in Canada. Players employed by Canadian NHL clubs obviously spend a lot of time in the United States, where things like the CBD oil an athlete could take to treat a number of ailments isn’t legal in every region. Because NHL players travel under much more relaxed circumstances than the rest of us — they take a bus directly from an arena to the tarmac of a runway and get on a private jet — there’s a fear they might not always be vigilant enough about making sure they’re never carrying anything they shouldn’t be over an international border. As Burke said, "Make sure you grab the right shaving kit."
• When you think of agents in pro sports, most minds automatically go to the men and women who represent the players themselves. General managers and coaches have representation too, though, and Toronto-based agent Gil Scott is a person who works on their behalf. He shared a story about the unique time when Barry Trotz was looking for a new job just days after winning the Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018.
In the years that followed Trotz originally signing with Washington, coaching salaries had spiked significantly, which prompted him to resign his post instead of working under the unfavourable terms of a two-year extension that automatically kicked in if the Caps won a title. Lou Lamoriello had just taken over the GM chair with the New York Islanders, so Scott was in contact with him at the NHL Draft that June in Dallas about the vacancy behind the Isles bench. However, Lamoriello wasn’t the only person interested in Trotz’s services.
"While I was meeting with Lou in his suite, I had to inform him that another team had just rented a private plane and was flying to Seattle to meet with Barry. They had to meet with him that day because they also wanted to hire him, but they had coach and they had to make a decision that night on whether or not to tell the coach to come to the draft the next morning, because they were going to fire him if they got Barry. Late into the night, he had to make a decision and his final decision was, ‘I really can’t say no to Lou, so we’re going with the Islanders.’ I was able to call Lou and tell him that, then I had to tell the other club (they weren’t getting Trotz), which was difficult because they’d just got on a private jet, flown all day to see him, then flown back to (the draft in0 Dallas and met with me that same night. So that coach didn’t get fired, he’s still coaching that club and that club will remain nameless."
The moral of the story?
"It’s great when you have leverage. When I did (a contract for) Bruce Boudreau with Minnesota, there was another club involved. Bruce got fired one day (from the Anaheim Ducks) and a couple days later more than doubled his salary when he went to Minnesota."