When some of the biggest stars in women’s hockey asked Brian Burke to lead the players’ union of their new professional league, the veteran NHL executive started to cry.
They made him the job offer on a late-summer Zoom call, and it surprised Mr. Burke, who had only been interviewed once for the role.
He wore a suit for the video call, his tie hanging around his neck, untied as usual. A five-player advisory board – including women he has known for many years, among them Olympians Sarah Nurse of Canada and Kendall Coyne Schofield of the United States – got straight to the point. The women had spoken to a few candidates and decided after their first interview with Mr. Burke that they wanted him to be the executive director of their players’ association. The long-awaited six-team Professional Women’s Hockey League launches in January.
“I was in awe,” he said in an interview last week at the small office he’s secured for the players’ association inside the former Maple Leaf Gardens, now Mattamy Athletic Centre, on the campus of Toronto Metropolitan University.
“I believe in the game and the cause and the people who play it. I worked in the NHL for 35 years. I never thought I’d get a shot to work with the women, so when I got the chance, I thought, ‘I’m taking it.’ ”
The women didn’t choose Mr. Burke out of the blue. To many, he’s known as the gruff, white-haired, frank-talking executive who famously said in 2008 when introduced as Maple Leafs general manager that “we require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.”
More quietly, though, Mr. Burke has been supporting women’s hockey behind the scenes for more than a decade – first as an avid fan, then a board member for a former league, promoting the game and helping with connections.
“He supported us when nobody else supported us, and he was a season-ticket holder when no one else was,” Ms. Coyne Schofield said. “Each of us on our executive board had stories about how Burke has influenced or helped women’s hockey.”
Mr. Burke, a Harvard Law School graduate, will advocate for the players. He’ll make sure they’re treated fairly by the PWHL in accordance with the collective agreement that the players and their pro bono lawyers negotiated before he was hired. As Ms. Coyne Schofield said, they turned to him because this is new to the players and “we don’t know what we don’t know.”
He’s worn many hats in hockey, including player, agent, league executive, scout, media analyst, NHL and Olympic general manager, as well as advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion. He’s worked for six NHL clubs over three decades, most recently as president of hockey operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who fired him in April and are paying out his contract.
“When I got fired in Pittsburgh, I thought, ‘Is that going to be it?’ I’m at an age now where you don’t know what’s next,” said Mr. Burke, 68.
He said several colleagues second-guessed his decision to accept the job in women’s hockey before waiting to see what other jobs might open up with NHL teams.
“Some people I know in hockey said, ‘Why didn’t you just wait?’ And I said, ‘Wait? But this is the job I’ve always wanted,’ ” Mr. Burke said. “I wasn’t saying no to this job. I would have been a fool.”
He says there were also plenty of people who understood his decision and called to congratulate him – such as George McPhee, Vegas Golden Knights president of hockey operations, who said, “This role is perfect for you, and you’re going to love it.”
Mr. Burke agreed to be executive director in a two-year deal. Then he hopes a woman takes the job.
The six teams – Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, New York, Boston and Minnesota – began training camps last week. For now, Burke is the sole union staffer. He’s doing things big and small, such as moving things into the PWHLPA’s office on a rolling cart or enquiring about some branding for the windows. He began working on regulations for agents to ensure the players are represented fairly. All six teams will choose their union reps when games start in January. Eventually, there will be issues to discuss and corporate partners to meet.
“Burkie is like, ‘I work for you guys. What do you guys want? What do you envision, and I will help to the best of my ability to enforce it,’ ” Ms. Nurse said. “The women’s game is different than the men’s, and our [labour agreement] has different things, like maternity benefits, family child care and spousal support. He seems enthralled in this new world and really dedicated. And his connections are unmatched. I feel like he could pick up the phone and call anyone.”
Mr. Burke’s connections in the sport will be helpful, especially as the women take part in some of the NHL’s special events, such as all-star weekend or the Heritage Classic.
Mr. Burke says he’s been a fan of women’s hockey since watching its debut as an Olympic sport in Nagano in 1998. Later, while he worked for the NHL’s Calgary Flames, he was a season-ticket holder for the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which shuttered in 2019 because of a lack of revenue.
He’d been a CWHL board member, too, and even after the league folded, continued to support the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association’s showcase event – the Dream Gap Tour – at big rinks across North America.
“I remember when we went to Pittsburgh, when he was working with the Penguins, he was at every single game we played there,” Ms. Coyne Schofield recalled of the Dream Gap Tour. “He didn’t need to be there. He had to go to the Penguins game later at night, but he still sat there, taking notes on our games, getting to know all the players.”
Liz Knox, a retired CWHL goalie who is part of the PWHL’s executive committee, has admired Mr. Burke’s advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community from the first time she saw him attend Toronto’s Pride Parade.
“That, at the time, was a very bold thing for an older white guy to do in the NHL,” Ms. Knox said. “I thought, this is somebody who walks the walk.”
He’s a man of his word, she says. Ms. Knox, who is also a firefighter in Oakville, said Mr. Burke recently made the time to stop into her station and meet her fellow first responders – many of them huge sports fans.
Mr. Burke has long pressed people who call themselves supporters of women’s hockey but don’t spend money on it or follow it regularly.
“He’s never been shy about holding the people around him accountable, like, ‘You say you support women’s hockey, but how many games have you been to?’ ” Ms. Knox said. “He was really the one prominent figure, especially from the NHL side, to say, ‘That’s great to latch on every four years during the Olympics, but have you ever been to a CWHL game? Why don’t take your family or friends?’ ”
Ms. Nurse says Mr. Burke wasn’t the only one tearing up on that Zoom call when they offered him the job. “I think that was a special moment for all of us,” she said.
He has witnessed everything the women have gone through to get to this point. Two groups were pulling in different directions the past few years – the PWHPA’s Dream Gap Tour, and a league called the Premier Hockey Federation. Those both stopped operating this summer. Now, the PWHL is home to all the best players, with all six teams centrally owned by a league led by key figures in pro sports. It’s financially supported by philanthropic leaders Mark and Kimbra Walter and led by a board featuring tennis icon Billie Jean King, sports executive Ilana Kloss, plus Stan Kasten and Royce Cohen of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“No. 1, the unified effort. No. 2 is solid ownership with deep pockets. And third is the staffing and funding,” Mr. Burke said. “This is the best chance the women have ever had to be successful. And we will be.”