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Leafs strike task force to study women's hockey

Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin celebrates the second of her two first-period goals with teammates Meghan Agosta and Meaghan Mikkelson during the gold medal game played at Canada Hockey Place in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympic Games.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke says the club is committed to promoting women's hockey and has struck a task force to study it.

Burke was in Zurich on Monday for the gold-medal game of the women's world hockey championship.

"There's no sport on the planet that has improved as much as women's hockey," Burke said. "To use an analogy, if track and field improved at the same rate, Usain Bolt would run a seven-second 100 metres.

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"They really have done a remarkable job. We've got to get more people watching. They're playing to empty buildings. They can thank the crowd by name a lot of nights and we've got to change that."

The Leafs' task force is headed by Dave Poulin, vice-president of hockey operations.

The NHL hired former WNBA executive Val Ackerman as a consultant to come up with ideas on how it can help women's hockey. Ackerman was the first president of the 12-team women's pro basketball league in its formative years. She also attended the world championship in Switzerland.

"She brings a lot of energy and experience," Burke said. "I've done a couple of seminars with her and she's very bright."

But Burke threw cold water on the idea that the NHL might operate a women's pro league like the NBA-WNBA relationship.

"I think the WNBA has been an unqualified disaster financially," he said. "I don't think anyone at our level has any appetite for that."

"If we're going to lose that kind of money, I'm going to raise my hand and say, 'Let's put it into development and rather than supporting 80 or 100 pro players, let's develop 1,000."'

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Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment doesn't see money to be made in the women's game, said Burke, but they have a compelling reason to take an interest.

"Half our fanbase is female," the Leafs GM said. "We owe them that. I don't see any financial payoff in it for us, but it doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do."

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