New COC interim CEO Brudner steps out of background and into spotlight

Members of team Canada show off their 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic medals on their arrival back from the games at Trudeau airport in Montreal, Monday, February 26, 2018.

It was May, 1995. For Robin Brudner, it was a career-defining period.

Option No. 1 promised stability: a full-time legal position with an entertainment company. It was the safe play. But Brudner, then 32, had pursued her law degree due to a thirst for knowledge and not because of a passion for litigation.

Option No. 2 was a sixth-month contract with the Toronto Raptors, who at the time had yet to play their first NBA game.

The entertainment company had no chance.

“I bet on myself,” Brudner says now. “I was first and foremost a sports fan. When I started my career in 1989, there were not a lot of opportunities for women. But if you don’t try, you don’t know.”

She’d previously sent a resume to then-Raptors vice president of legal affairs and assistant general manager Glen Grunwald. She had followed up on a couple of occasions.

“I can still remember the day he called,” she remembers. “It was a Thursday. He asked if I was still interested. I told him that if this was going to be a three-to-five month process, I’d have to pass, because of the other opportunity. We met that day. He offered the job the next morning.”

Before accepting, Brudner checked a calendar. The Raptors’ first-ever game was scheduled for Nov. 3, 1995. That was within her sixth-month window. That was the clincher.

Did anyone at the time tell her the decision was a mistake, or try to convince her to take the other job?

“Yes,” she smiles. “But I’m not giving you any names.”

Brudner smashed the six-month milestone, staying with the Raptors for almost 20 years, through their merger with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and the massive growth of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. She was an important part of the organization, most recently serving as its executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary. If you covered any of the teams under that umbrella, you saw her, but rarely heard from her. Confident but quiet, Brudner preferred to avoid the spotlight.

It wasn’t unusual for the odd piece of mail to be addressed to “Mr. Robin Brudner.”

Those days are over. On Wednesday, Brudner was named as interim CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, taking over for Chris Overholt.

Brudner can hide no longer.

“You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone if you want to grow,” she says.

Moving on from MLSE

Back in her MLSE days, Brudner had a reputation for being polite, but firm and tough. One of the stories people tell about her comes from March 2004, the final days of Grunwald’s tenure as Raptors’ GM. It was a difficult time and stressful around the office. Grunwald was receiving a ton of criticism.

Brudner, fiercely loyal to the person who hired her, walked by him one day and said, “It’s raining out today. That’s your fault, too.”

Said one former co-worker: “There was no one else at that time who would have even tried to make that joke with Glen. He laughed, too. It broke the tension for a while.”

Former MLSE president Richard Peddie is the author of two books. Brudner said his written note in both of them refers to her as “My Favourite Contrarian.”

“I didn’t always agree with everyone, but we always had the opportunity to say what we felt,” says Brudner. “It was a company where we’d try something, and if it didn’t work, we adjusted. We made positive energy out of everything, nothing wouldn’t be considered.”

Brudner left MLSE in 2013, after the ownership changed hands to Rogers, Bell and Larry Tanenbaum. Her departure remains, for the most part, unexplained. There was a dispute and it is believed she left on principle.

But we’re not getting any more than that.

“That’s in the past.” she pauses. “But it was an incredible experience. To be a small part of building the Raptors from nothing… I worked with great people and learned a lot. I was lucky to have that job.”

There is one incredible keepsake from her time there. On NBA draft day in 1998, Grunwald’s first as GM, he told Brudner she was going to be responsible for finalizing a trade with the NBA. It is her signature stating the Raptors were sending Antawn Jamison to the Golden State Warriors for Vince Carter. She kept the paperwork.

Bitten by the Olympic Bug

After leaving MLSE, Brudner started her own consulting company, among other projects. When Marcel Aubut resigned as COC president in Oct. 2015 following sexual harassment complaints, she reached out to Overholt, who had worked with her at MLSE.

“I asked him if there was anything I could do to help,” Brudner said.

At a later point, during a better time for the COC, she sent another note, and Overholt responded with, “This time, there might be something.”

In the aftermath of Aubut’s resignation and the ensuing recommendations for change, Brudner was hired as the COC’s corporate secretary. Her job was to make sure those recommendations were implemented.

But as Canada’s success on the international stage grew, Brudner was, like many of us, bitten by the Olympic bug. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, she had her first live experience watching Canadians win a medal. It was the women’s rugby sevens, a 33-10 victory over Great Britain for the bronze.

“With the Raptors, there are people who cheer for other teams,” she says. “This was different. All of us sitting there rooting for the same team. There was this… pride.”

At this point, Brudner is not sure her move to the COC will be permanent. Ultimately, she has to want it, and the COC’s board has to want her. But she recognizes that Vancouver/Whistler 2010 changed everything. And the level of Canadian success she witnessed and felt in Rio are now the expectation, by both the athletes and the public.

“Before 2010, it was so Canadian not to boast and not to have swagger. To me, there’s no turning back. There has been so much growth. Better training. Better preparation for our high-performance athletes. And they are getting better all the time. We are not going back.”

“Chris and the COC board have done a tremendous job. They deserve a great deal of credit. People like to be associated with winners. If we give them reason to support us, they will be there.”

But the biggest file is Calgary’s 2026 Winter Olympic bid. The city’s residents will vote on Nov. 13 on whether or not they support the idea. She’s been in the background of that process and plans on allowing those who have done most of the work to stay in the forefront.

But there’s no question it is important to her. When asked if there are any other Canadian bids being discussed, Brudner replied, “Right now our focus is on Calgary.”

And, beginning now, the focus will be on her, too.

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