Brian Burke and the Business of Hockey
Brian Burke is sui generis in the media-spin world of pro sports.
A singular combination of “shoot-from-the-lip” candour and thoughtful eloquence, Burke punches out his views with clarity and energy. His exceptional communication and leadership skills, combined with three decades in pro hockey as an agent, scout, general manager and senior executive, have landed him among the NHL’s power elite.
This broad range of experience helped form Burke’s collaborative vision for an educational path to best practices in hockey management. In 2014, he and NHL agent Ritch Winter established the Business of Hockey Institute and partnered with Athabasca University to create the first hockey-specific, executive MBA. It went live in the spring of 2015 and its first cohort is scheduled to graduate in early 2018.
Brian Burke’s belief in the value of education, and by extension its benefits for the hockey business, originated with his own family culture. He was one of 10 kids in an Edina, Minnesota, family headed by two parents who stressed post-secondary education. All but one of his siblings attended university, with Brian earning a BA in history from Providence College in Rhode Island. He made Providence’s NCAA Division I hockey team as a walk-on, coached by future NHL management guru Lou Lamoriello.
After graduation Burke spent a year as a Philadelphia Flyers prospect in the American Hockey League, and then attended Harvard Law School, obtaining his Juris Doctor (law) degree in 1981. He passed the bar while working for a Boston firm and not long after began representing former teammates in pro contract negotiations. Thus began his hockey-specific education, where, as an agent, he could observe the operations of every team in the league; he saw the winners and the losers and the management practices that separated them.
Now, as President of Hockey Operations for the Calgary Flames, Brian Burke looks back on a league that burst from “a cottage industry” to a “massive, intercontinental, multi-national, multi-billion dollar business” since he crossed the business boundary from agent to team operations in 1987. As evidence, he hearkens back 30 years to his first stint with the Vancouver Canucks, as director of hockey operations, when “we might have had 35 front office staff…now most teams have 135 to 165.” And he points to the many ancillary off-ice jobs pro hockey has spawned: banking and financial support services; the players union and all the agents who serve its members; the many forms of media that cover the game.
Burke has dubbed the NHL’s current brilliant crop of young stars (Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews et al) a “golden generation.” So he sees the game, and its professional pinnacle, the NHL, as being in good shape, led by front office people that he characterizes by and large as “pretty sharp.” For Burke, the role of the BHI, AU and the hockey-specific MBA is to nurture this golden generation, and the massive industry they sustain, by preparing business leaders who are “ready to go.”
As 2017 progresses, the students of the first cohort will be closing in on graduation and will soon brandish their exclusive, hockey-specific graduate education and forge their way into the hockey world. Burke speaks bluntly (true to form) about the job market they are entering. “These are challenging economic conditions, and it’s especially not a good time for the Canadian [NHL] teams; the exchange rate is crippling.” But he points out astutely that the AU MBA is “…hockey-specific, not hockey-exclusive. These people will have the same opportunities as anyone with an MBA.” And of course, they’ll also have a crack at the hockey jobs.
He expects “some placement success” for the first cohort, especially with some already working in management roles with the NHL and WHL. This will build the reputation of the program both with employers and applicants. Burke is an outspoken champion of diversity in sport – he supports the You Can Play Project (co-founded by his son Patrick) which works for inclusion in sport, especially for LGBTQ people – and applies this value to the hockey-specific MBA. “We want this program to promote best practices, and that means including women and other minorities in hockey.” In addition, he says, “…financial aid will come, and with that, more women and minorities.”
He’s pleased about the quality and quantity of applicants as the first cohort prepares to graduate in about one year, the second passes the half way mark and a third cohort readies to enter the program. “We have rigorous standards, and we’re getting way more applications than we’ve accepted. We’re selective about who gets admitted.”
Brian Burke has envisioned that AU’s hockey-specific MBA will be a “badge of honour” for people working in the industry. The timing is right – a golden generation emerging on the ice, while for hockey’s boardrooms perhaps, an equally golden, “badge-wearing” flow of talent, educated to take care of the game and its business for the future.