I’d like to go back in time to have a chat with 17-year-old Franklin Steele.
I’d like to tell him not to worry about his future, because within the next 10 years, people are going to be playing video games professionally and Brian Burke is going to start an MBA program for wanna’ be NHL executives.
I’m not obsessive enough to make it as a pro gamer, and I don’t have the motivation to start my college education over on the “The Business of Hockey” track, but it’s pretty amazing to consider how far the game has come—from a front office standpoint—over the last few years.
The NHL is commonly referred to as an “old boy’s club.” You saw the line repeatedly when the Pittsburgh Penguins hired Jim Rutherford, and you’ll continue to see it whenever teams go back to the well to recycle the game’s known commodities.
It’s why Craig MacTavish is still with the Edmonton Oilers; because he’s known within the franchise and played there during his career. It’s how Stan Bowman ended up running the Chicago Blackhawks; his dad Scott Bowman is revered as one of the best head coaches of all time. It’s why the Minnesota Wild hired Andrew Brunette to be their power-play coach and why Ron Hextall is the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Photo: Ron Hextall’s reaction to facing 110 shots in a major junior game. http://t.co/za7Rf3VXoC
— Jen (@NHLhistorygirl) December 29, 2014
These men are a part of the game, and have been since they were relatively young. The NHL is a business (contrary to what folks in the I HATE GARY BETTMAN corner will yell whenever given the chance), and in business, networking is arguably more important than money or notoriety. People go to college to learn, sure. But a massive secondary effect is the ability to create a network of future professionals. Who you know if more important than who you know, after all.
That’s what makes Brian Burke and Ritch Winter trail blazers, in a sense. With their new Business of Hockey MBA, suddenly the NHL isn’t a giant, locked iron door that only former players are handed a key to. It’s a sort of admission from the old guard that there are other ways of thinking out there, and that the ability to think outside the box is important to the game of hockey.
Winter spoke to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet.ca about the program, and virtually admitted that the goal was to find the guys that could potentially set off a revolution in the NHL:
We are looking for a new pool of candidates. People who can bring a different perspective. (Blackhawks president) John McDonough came over from baseball and brought a new perspective. Is there someone in Silicon Valley who created a successful (mobile) app or a production technique? We want them to apply. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Dominik Hasek didn’t play their positions like anyone else ever did, but they changed their positions forever.
How do we find that guy for management?
Is it a coincidence that this program got rolling just a few months after the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Kyle Dubas?
Just a few years ago, pundits were wondering who would break up the old boy’s club of the NHL. As Derek Zona wrote for CopperNBlue.com back in 2011, there are typically only five ways to land a front office job: NHL stardom, an NHL career, background as a professional player, major-junior stardom or legacy (like the Bowmans).
Now there’s a sixth option, and one that doesn’t require everyone in the NHL to have “former player” or “famous dad” as a line on their resume. That’s the real draw of Athabasca University’s groundbreaking new program. It’s OK If you weren’t born with the genes of an Alex Ovechkin. If you think the game at a high level, Winter and Burke want to hear from you. Let’s be honest, these are two guys that have been involved with the game for a long time and their names carry a ton of weight. If anyone can find the next Dubas, it’s Burke or Winter.
Moreover, this new opportunity shows that the views of the hockey community are starting to shift. There’s still an obvious preference throughout the NHL to hire former players for positions, whether it be as a coach, GM or scout. That won’t ever change. Yet the more curious executives have to be wondering if there are any untapped hockey minds just sitting there, commenting away on SBNation or Yahoo!.
Commentating on the Internet isn’t a (common) career track obviously, and Winter noted that the MBA program will be “rigorous,” but it seems to be an admission that people that aren’t ex-players or born into a hockey family can have good ideas too. That won’t abolish the “have you played-no?-then shut up” line of thinking championed by some of the game’s more closed minds, but it will be interesting to see what kinds of opportunities Athabasca graduated are afforded.
If all forward motion is progress, then this could be a big step for the NHL as a league.