Women's Hockey Notebook: Brian Burke talks NHL involvement, competing leagues, and more

Puck Daddy
Calgary Flames' President of Hockey Operations & acting GM, Brian Burke speaks to the media as team members show up for NGHL hockey season-end activities in Calgary, Alberta, on Monday, April 14, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Larry MacDougal)
Calgary Flames' President of Hockey Operations & acting GM, Brian Burke speaks to the media as team members show up for NGHL hockey season-end activities in Calgary, Alberta, on Monday, April 14, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Larry MacDougal)

LINE RUSHES

1. Even if you’re just slightly into hockey, you probably have an idea of who Brian Burke is. The current President of Hockey Operations for the Calgary Flames sits, for now, on the board of advisors for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL).

I wrote last week it’s probably safe to assume Burke has had a hand in establishing the partnership between three CWHL teams and their NHL brethren. He knows the NHL side and the CWHL side better than any of us in the media could ever speculate on. He took time out of his insanely busy schedule to chat with me on women’s hockey, the NHL’s involvement, a one league market, and more.

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PUCK DADDY: You’re a Governor in the CWHL. What does that position entail?

BRIAN BURKE: Actually, I’m going to be coming off the board and taking some senior advisor position, mainly because of the difficulty of my schedule. Obviously, the whole subject of women’s hockey I support wholeheartedly. The Canadian Women’s Hockey [League] is doing a great job growing the sport.

With [son] Patrick doing work with the NWHL and you with the CWHL, why is this an important cause for the Burke family?

From my perspective, Patrick went into this really on his own. We never had a discussion about ‘why don’t we both help a different league.’ The whole issue of the two leagues will hopefully be resolved in the next year or two. I’m not sure it’s sensible or healthy for women’s hockey to have two leagues. So, hopefully that issue will be resolved. I’ve been afforded the position, at the tail end of my career in the National Hockey League, and I want to make a difference in women’s hockey before I get out.

You mentioned the next year or two. Do you anticipate a merger or one of the leagues dropping off? I know this is speculation.

I wouldn’t speculate. I guess one of those things would happen. I wouldn’t speculate on which league would survive. But for the NHL to get behind this and for clarity in the market place, for people that want to support women’s hockey, we need one league.

Is the women’s league that would eventually come of this reliant upon NHL support? Meaning, will they survive if they do not have it going forward?

The answer is, I think they do not need to address that question because I think the NHL has clearly signaled that they will support women’s hockey. A number of NHL teams already support CWHL teams in their cities; we, the Calgary Flames do, Montreal does, Toronto does. With tax subsidies and a lot of other support, so, having met with Gary Bettman, it’s clear to me, from his lips, that they will support women’s hockey but they want some clarity in the marketplace.

Can you expand upon clarity? You’re obviously way more embedded in this than I am, but trying to get a statement from the NHL on where they are in supporting women’s hockey is virtual impossible. So what do you mean by 'clarity in the marketplace?'

Well, I think, my guess is, I know the CWHL has asked for NHL support. I’m positive, without knowing for sure, the other league has as well. My clear lead in the situation is that the NHL will support women’s hockey, does support women’s hockey, but they want to wait until this situation resolves itself first. And I don’t blame them, frankly.

And by ‘situation resolving itself’ you mean the two leagues becoming one?

I don’t know. To me, I think the business model, I think the CWHL will tell you, that their business model is sustainable and the other league is not. So I don’t know if the answer is if one league survives and the other doesn’t. I don’t know if the answer is a merger. I think it would be presumptuous of me to offer an opinion on that, but before the NHL gets involved, there will be one entity.

With your position in Calgary, is it possible we see an Inferno/Flames double header in the future?

They did that in Toronto. If I’m not mistaken, they have done that. You’d have to check. I’m not sure. I think we have done that. It might have even been my first year there. But yes, that’s possible. Joint practices, we’ve talked about. We’ve got a real long laundry list of things we’ve done and other things we want to do.

You said at WickFest people need to support the women’s leagues with their feet and show up. How would you encourage that and change the marketing around to get new eyeballs?

First off, if you believe in women’s sports, don’t just say that you do, vote with your feet. Go to a game. If you’re in a city, I don’t care which league it is, if you’re in a city that has a pro team there: buy tickets. Go to a game. Bring your friends.

This is going to be a slow build. Women’s sports, other than international competition every four years … women’s sports, they’re poorly attended and poorly supported. I meet people all the time that say, “I support women’s hockey” and I’m like, “Really? I was at the game the other night and I didn’t see you there.”

I’ve got four season seats to the Inferno. I go when I can. I watched two games, I think; one game in New England and one game last year with the Toronto Furies when I was in Toronto. So, number one is, don’t just say you support these teams – do it. And bring a friend, make it a family outing. That’s number one.

Number two, long term, sponsors are going to have to understand the buying power that women have in North America. This is a viable, important market segment for sponsors. Proctor & Gamble have figured this out. Kraft will figure this out; they have partially. ScotiaBank is a major supporter. They have figured out that fans of this business are made largely via women in households in North America. It’s a staggering amount of money they control. This is a market segment we should be courting. There is an economic argument to support women’s hockey.

I go to a much more basic thing which is: I’ve got six sisters. I have four daughters. I have one son. If he’s playing pro hockey, he can support himself as a hockey player. None of my daughters can. These women in Canada and the US are such wonderful players. They have nowhere to play until the Olympics. Then they’ve got to scramble for support in the Olympic years and it’s not right. It’s not right the men have this advantage and the women don’t have. My appeal to people to support it is because these women are fantastic athletes and equality demands that they get supported.

And this is not about asking people to go watch a boring athletic contest because women are playing. The product is terrific. These women are fantastic players.

How much of that is about growing American interest, especially in the CWHL? American buying power seems like something missing in the CWHL. How do they grab those American fans?

I think if you look at the way our commissioner in the CWHL has driven sponsorships, sponsorship dollars are up massively. It’s still a fraction of what they need to be, but there are corporations that get it, ScotiaBank and Proctor & Gamble. There are people who have seen [women’s pro hockey] is future and it is important, but it’s going to be a slow build, there is no question.

There were teams in the CWHL two years ago averaging 600 people [at a game] and are now at 900 or a 1000. So there is steady growth and incrementally, that is significant growth, but it’s still a slow build. It’s a slow build before they can fill an NHL building. You need to just stick with it. You need articles like this one you’re writing. need people to vote with their feet. Buy a ticket.

What part of the responsibility do you put on the media then to cover this sport equally?

I actually think the media is doing their best. When they have bosses that tie coverage to actual attendance, I think they get phenomenal coverage. If you look at a game with the Toronto Furies on a Saturday night might get 1000 people and the Maple Leafs are 19,000, and yet the Toronto papers will cover the game or the series. So, I think the media has been responsible and responsive. We’d like more but I don’t think they’ve ignored this product at all.

But we need more of everything. We need more media coverage. We need more ticket buyers. We need more sponsors. We need more women playing the game. We need better ice time in the recreational leagues for the women leagues. We need more of everything.

So ‘we need more’ is the theme?

Absolutely.

1A. Burke is honest and open with his opinions especially in things he feels the most passionate about. It was a really interesting interview and the one thing that stood out to me the most was the talk about the NHL’s position.

Taking Burke’s comments at face value, NHL involvement in women’s hockey beyond what they are doing now is going to happen; however, the NHL is waiting on the women’s leagues to sort it all out (i.e. decide which one is closing up shop to join the other). It’s great they’re willing to take this step, but something doesn’t seem right.

Business wise, I get it. Totally makes sense to not split talent between two leagues. But why now? The CWHL had been around for seven seasons prior to the NWHL’s arrival. The NHL had plenty of time to invest before the NWHL went from idea to reality and created to competing leagues. I feel like the two league reason for not investing is something to buy time, or even a way for the NHL to pick a winner. Speculation is endless.

My inclination is to be cynical but I should be optimistic at the same time. I wrote about the need for NHL involvement, and the NHL had no comment on their position in the women’s pro game. Yet, if what Burke says is true and the NHL is ready to fully support a women’s professional league, then that is HUGE.

Again, we’d love for the women’s leagues to make it on their own, but in reality they need way more money than they have right now. If sponsors aren’t going to open their wallets then the NHL jumping in full tilt is necessary.

(I did the interview with Burke on Friday and in the short turnaround, I asked for a comment from the NHL – if they have one – on Saturday afternoon. Hopefully I’ll have something by Monday when the weekend recap rolls out.)

1B. My other takeaway was something that’s probably nothing. Burke didn’t call the NWHL by its name. Instead he called it ‘the other league.’ Again, probably nothing… but after years of Burkian message sending at the NHL level, it could, maybe, possibly be a psychological move.

2. Hilary Knight posted this video to her Twitter account this past week. Watch it before you read further.

(I’ll admit it. At first I thought someone was really asking Sidney Crosby about his love life…)

If this were the NHL and a media member asked Crosby something to that effect, that reporter’s credential would be yanked by the team before the person even finished their sentence. These are questions female athletes are posed with ALL THE TIME by those who don’t know how to talk to female athletes. Which is ridiculous because the answer is: THE SAME WAY AS MEN.

#CoverTheAthlete.

3. The CWHL announced on Friday their All-Star Game plans. The game will take place in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre (home of the Toronto Maple Leafs) on Saturday, January 23 at 1:00 pm ET. 

Details of the event along with ticket information can be found here. Rosters have been determined and fans can play a part by picking captains. Teams will be determined via street hockey style contest. 

The game will air on a two hour tape delay on Sportsnet at 3:00 pm ET.

3A. The NWHL's All-Star Game is the following day, Sunday, January 24. The league released details about their version of the All-Star draft and a fan contest.

3B. Personal opinion, both leagues are getting a little overly creative in trying to bring a different fan experience to the All-Star Game and I say the same about the NHL, too. People who watch online or on TV it is much more difficult to engage the crowd and I can see the need for creativity, but at a point, it feels too gimmicky.

For the fans at the festivities, as much player interaction as possible is the best thing they can offer. The best example is giving the opportunity to skate with the pros. What could be more inspiring than skating next to your hero?

One thing for sure that is different than the NHL, these All-Stars will play their hearts out. Grateful for the opportunity to merely appear is an understatement.

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THE BIG SHOW

Saturday

CWHL

Toronto Furies (1-8-1) @ Calgary Inferno (9-1-0) – 8:15 pm ET

Brampton Thunder (6-4-0) @ Boston Blades (1-9-0) – 8:20 pm ET ($ stream $)

NWHL

Buffalo Beauts (1-4-1) @ Boston Pride (3-3-0) – 7:30 pm ET (Stream: ESPN3)

Sunday

CWHL

Brampton Thunder @ Boston Blades – 10:50 am ET

Toronto Furies @ Calgary Inferno – 2:30 pm ET ($ stream $)

NWHL

New York Riveters (2-4-0) @ Boston Pride – 3:30 pm ET (Stream: ESPN3; TV: NESN)

Buffalo Beauts @ Connecticut Whale (6-0-0) – 4:30 pm ET (Free Stream)

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Jen Neale is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow her on Twitter! Follow @MsJenNeale_PD.

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