Patrick Burke on bringing NHL, women's pro leagues together at Winter Classic

Puck Daddy

We published an interview on Monday with Susan Cohig, the senior vice president of business affairs with the NHL, on the women’s outdoor game coming up on Thursday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, home of the Winter Classic.

She spoke from a macro level as she oversees multiple aspects of putting on the game; hence, some details were glossed over. and a lot of that is due to not having someone in the trenches who can speak to grind of putting the event together.

Where Susan Cohig is Jan Levinson-Gould, we need a Michael Scott.

Patrick Burke is known for being the one of the founders of You Can Play and as the Director of the Department of Player Safety, whose dulcet Bostonian tones voice over suspension videos. He’s also part of the core group who worked under Cohig's leadership to put the women’s game together.

I spoke with the always candid Burke on Tuesday to clear up some of the lingering rumors and misconceptions that came in the wake of the official announcement.

Q. What role did you play in setting up the women’s game?

PATRICK BURKE: There are five or six of us really in the NHL who formed an unofficial group to do things involving women’s hockey. Susan Cohig has been doing this for a long time and is the expert in the field, but there are a couple of us who are passionate about women’s hockey who volunteered our time and energy however we could to try and find new ways for the NHL to work with and support the growth of women’s hockey.

Where I kind of came in is that I have relationships with both leagues ... You Can Play has been a partner of the CWHL for a long time, so I’ve known [CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress] for a long time. I have both personal and professional relationships with both Brenda and [NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan], along with many of the staff and the players.

My role was to kind of rely on those and help move the process forward.

Q. Did you act as a negotiator between the two leagues?

BURKE: There were definitely times when I was, to some extent, serving as a negotiator between the [NWHL and CWHL].

One of the biggest things the NHL wanted to get out of putting this game on was increased communication directly between the two leagues - without using myself, Susan or whoever else it might be - as an intermediary. Certainly early on, I was talking with both commissioners frequently and as the process moved along, Susan was doing a lot more of that.

The end goal was that on a lot of these issues we’d be able to just step out and let the two leagues talk.

Q. And did that happen?

BURKE: I would say that this game is nice starting point for what will hopefully be increased communication. I think anybody who is familiar with women’s hockey and the behind the scenes stuff that’s gone on here with Dani and the CWHL, with the founding of the NWHL, with things that have been said publicly, privately whether they’re accurate or not, there certainly exists some animosity at times between the two leagues.

Everyone acknowledges, including both women’s leagues, that it’s unproductive. Long-term, it’s not good for the game, but I understand it to a point. These are, to an extent, competing leagues. There is only so much talent in the world; there are only so many resources, so many sponsorships dollars, so many eyeballs in the world.

At the end of the day, for those of us in the National Hockey League, our goal is growing women’s hockey – not growing the CWHL OR the NWHL. Not picking one league and supporting it, but finding ways to leverage our resources, our expertise, our connections, our knowledge, our eyeballs, whatever it might be, to grow women’s hockey.

Q. In Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts this week, he wrote at one point the NHL looked at pulling out from this game because of these kinds of issues. Is that true?

There were certainly days where everyone who was involved in the project thought it might be worth it just to drop it and bring it up for another year. It came about on short notice.

Not to derail your question with a longer answer on something else:  One of the things I learned is that until you’ve been inside, and seen it up close, people have no idea how hard it is to plan one of these.

I was in a meeting where I said my idea for this year was to have women in the NHL Skills Competition [at the All-Star Game]. I pitched that idea thinking, “This is easy. We just add four [women's hockey] players to the Skills Competition. How hard is that?”

And then I got asked about a 100 questions: Have you cleared this with sponsorships? Have you cleared this with Hockey Ops? Have you cleared this with the rest of Player Safety? Have you cleared this with the NHLPA? Who is paying for their transportation? Who is paying for their insurance? Have both leagues signed off? Have the other league’s sponsorships signed off? What type of contract do we have to sign with the leagues to have their players in our game? Have we talked to TV/broadcast about this? Where are they going to dress in the arena?

Just logistically, it really is, and I don’t say this to be insulting because I had no idea, I walked in like ‘this is great, just plug the [women's hockey players] into stuff and it’ll be fun!’ and no, that is not how the real world works.

There were thousands of issues that came up during this [women's game planning] process that people who haven’t planned an event wouldn’t think of, that I had never thought of ... I’m in these meetings and my eyes are glossing over.

I would say until six days ago, we weren’t 100-percent sure which two teams were playing in this game. 

Q. REALLY?

BURKE: There were major HR-related red tape involved in getting teams insurance coverage, getting teams contracts signed, everything like that. So when people say this was clearly planned months ago, I think it was Christmas Day, it might have been, when two teams were finalized. Contracts signed. Deals done. Fully cleared that they could play.

That’s where, for anyone who isn’t behind the scenes to go, ‘this is easy, just give them an hours worth of ice and let them play hockey,’ I thought that, too, and holy 💩 is that not the case. 

Courtesy of the NHL
Courtesy of the NHL

Q. The big question is then: How long ago did this planning start?

BURKE: Susan called a meeting with Dani and Brenda, myself, Erika Lawler and Pat Lafontaine was in there. I remember it being reported on at the time, but I’m blanking on the exact date. I want to say it was in September.

We called in both leagues and had a sit down meeting with both of them and told them, ‘The NHL is ready to do more for women’s hockey, but we’re not picking a league. Either you two find ways to work together or we can sit this out while you guys fight it out, or however it’s going to be. But we’re not picking one. We are ready to do more and make it somewhat significant.’ The two ideas we put forward in that meeting were skills competition and outdoor game.

By the time both commissioners took it back to their boards, got it approved, talked to the players, got transportation and everything like that, again, just from a strictly red-tape, HR/legal, whatever the correct term is here – the teams weren’t approved to play until six days ago. 

Q. How much of this is the NHL financing? Are the leagues having to take care of their own costs?

BURKE: The NHL has put forward a significant budget that is paying for, I think, almost everything here. When we say this game is presented by Scotiabank, we mean that Scotiabank was generous enough to cut the women’s hockey game a significant check that allows this game to exist.

Either Dani or Brenda could answer that better in terms there might be some ancillary costs that I am not aware of. 

Q. But a majority of the costs are covered by the NHL?

A vast, vast, vast, vast majority of the financing for this game, including compensation for the players themselves, is coming from the National Hockey League.

Q. Players from both leagues are being paid?

Yes, from both leagues. It’s coming from the National Hockey League.

Q. If there was so much money dedicated towards the game, why isn’t it on TV or streamed online? 

Those were other meetings I kind of blackout in. They talk about logistics and I’m like, “Let’s just talk about hockey! It’ll be fun!”

It comes down to the issues that go along with this. Who owns the rights to this game? The NHL is retaining video rights, so we can show highlights, and anything like that.

Again, until six days ago, we didn’t know which two teams were in. We didn’t know how that would affect sponsorships, how that affects streaming, how it affects international TV rights, how that affects whether its Sportsnet who wants to broadcast it or NHL Network or NBC Sports or NESN, if it’s national or international, if it’s local or if its regional, all that type of stuff.

People are asking why we don’t use one of the [NHL’s] streaming services. Okay, now were bringing in the league’s TV people, their media people, and now we’ve got more independent contractors.

Why don’t you use [the CWHL or NWHL’s] streaming services. How do we pick which league? If we say we’re going with one league, the other league is going to call us and say, “You’re driving traffic to that league’s website. You’re making all NHL fans aware of their streaming services, now we’re getting screwed in this.” It’s a whole other headache and negotiation to get this done.

I wish there was streaming. [The NHL] wishes this was on every TV channel on the planet. We wish EVERYTHING we did was on every screen ever, all the time. There’s no malicious or lazy reason that this isn’t happening. There are legitimate reasons why, when a game gets announced four days before it’s going to happen, why not everything can be done the way we would like it to be done.

Q. There is a rumor floating around the NHL is revisiting the streaming option. Is that true?

I assume that the league will keep revisiting every option possible. I know 100-percent if there is a way to pull off streaming in a way that makes sense for all the parties involved ... I know the NHL wants to do it. I know that for sure. I know that for a fact.

I think the idea that the NHL is not broadcasting this game because either we don’t feel like it or because we don’t want to show women’s hockey [is incorrect]. The commitment, in terms of hours, in terms of energy, in terms of logistics, in terms of money, that the NHL put into this event, for anyone to say we’re not showing it for anything other than the fact that it’s really, really, really difficult to get it shown is asinine. 

Q. Since the official announcement on Monday, you’ve taken a lot of heat on social media. What have you taken away from this whole ordeal?

BURKE: I think I’m the only person in the NHL who actually tweets. 

I happen to Tweet about the things I am passionate about and they happen to be something like this. If you’re a fan of women’s hockey, and you have gripes about how this game is going on, I think I’m the only person that you know how to get directly in touch with. 

I’m excited about this game. A little bit of complaining on Twitter isn’t enough to dampen my excitement. 

This was a really valuable teaching tool for both [women's] leagues and for us. Something that will hopefully establish a better relationship between the National Hockey League between the CWHL between the NWHL, not one or the other but all three leagues working more closely together.

There are things we wish we could do differently. Yeah we wish we had more ice time. We wish we could fly all the women down first-class and put the game on our partner networks and show it to everybody and really blow things up when it comes to women’s hockey.

But the honest to God truth is that the National Hockey League is doing the best that we can, with the time that we were given, in order to put this game on. The choice was between doing it in an imperfect fashion or not doing it at all. In my mind, there really is no argument for not doing it in that scenario. You see how it goes, and if there are mistakes, you learn from it and do it better next year.

The player I was thinking about was Julie Chu. She’s around my age, I think. I don’t know how much longer Julie wants to keep playing professional hockey. This could be the only chance Julie gets to play pro hockey outdoors. 

If there’s a women’s outdoor game next year, we don’t know where the Winter Classic is going to be, and we don’t know which women’s teams would be involved. We don’t know which players want to keep playing. If you look at Twitter and the reactions of the women who get to play in this game, they are just thrilled. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for them to be a part of something that is unique.  

I skated at Yankee Stadium two years ago when we had the Stadium Series game there. It was just me and a couple of guys from Player Safety. It wasn’t a game. There was no crowd. No one cared. It was 10 out of shape people playing shinny hockey. It’s one of my favorite hockey memories of all time. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a lot of women in that group.  

I get that there is frustration with some of the logistics around the game. If you don’t think there were internal frustrations around the logistics of the game, you can go ask my bartender because he’s heard all about it and everything that’s gone on to get this game done.

I think both Dani and Brenda would agree that they’ve learned a ton about how the events for the NHL are done, the information that they need to have ready, which resources they need to bring to the table to be a part of something like this. Going forward, assuming that we have these games again in the future, this year will be remembered by a lot of people for what it taught us ... If you would have asked a lot of women’s hockey fans six, eight, ten months ago if that was ever possible, they would say ‘no.’ The relationship is strained.

While there were certainly moments where that strain showed through, I think at the end of the day, all three leagues have come together to put on an exciting event. 

Q. I am giving you a magic wand that allows you to do this all over again. What are three things you would change in this process?

BURKE: We’d start planning it earlier. We didn’t get the women’s leagues to the table until September. By the time everyone agreed to even rough outlines of what it might be, we had probably two months, at most, to put this together. Again, with everything that was raised during the process, it wasn’t until last week that the teams were finalized. Normally, the NHL starts planning out events 12 to 18 months in advance when it comes to logistics.

So, the first would be the timeline. Hopefully, assuming all three leagues are excited to try something like this again, we can start planning on next year’s earlier.

No. 2, with my magic wand, is I wouldn’t let USA Hockey take any of the criticism they took for what was a decision that was clearly communicated to us.

I was the one who spoke to USA Hockey about this event, spoke to them personally, asking them how important is the last day of camp, is there anything we can do, and from day one, USA Hockey said, “No. This is our camp. We scheduled this over a year ago. We’re not letting the players out for what is tantamount to an exhibition game.”

That was clearly communicated to us from the start. That was never an issue for us. We dropped it and left it alone because USA Hockey is a proud partner of ours and we support them. I’m American. I’d rather win the gold next year than ensure, as much as I love [Hilary Knight] and those girls, I’d rather have gold medal than have them in an exhibition game at Gillette.

I think the third thing that I’d probably change is the leaks that came out at various times. We had three or four major NHL media members running stories that weren’t necessarily inaccurate but in some cases fairly biased or they expressed views of certain people that did not speak for the entire group.

I should never be able to sit down and read an article and know which league leaked what, and that happened three or four times. When I read an article from a Bob McKenzie or Ken Campbell, those guys, and I know who leaked it, that’s a problem. That is something that caused a lot of headaches on this game. A lot of people had to answer a lot of difficult questions because inaccurate things were leaked in attempts to make their own personal league look better. It happened by all sides. It happened by everybody.

When we have two months to put an event together, this is the type of stuff that does happen. I think if you negate those leaks, if you have this announced without people wondering if USA Hockey screwed up. Without people wondering, “Oh, did they only want two CWHL teams in this?” Without people wondering if there were concerns about the Boston Pride’s roster not being full. All things that had been handled internally; those leaks really made this look like something that was way more disorganized than it really was. 

So the things that became issues that weren’t issues, that would be the third thing that I would fix. 

Really, if you solve the first issue, everything else falls into place. I think an event like this really required eight to 12 months of planning. The fact that Susan and her team and the other people at the National Hockey League who really rallied to make this happen, the fact that they were able to pull off anything – anything – at all in two months or in some cases in six days, is astounding.

It’s not as simple as people want it to be. It’s not as simple as I want it to be to put on an event of this magnitude. It is arguably the NHL’s biggest stage. It’s got a thousand different moving parts right down to the weather. Which is not something hockey events usually have to deal with. So I think what Susan pulled off here, is miraculous. The fact that there is any game whatsoever is genuinely impressive on her part and the rest of the people at the NHL who worked on it.

Hopefully the excitement around the game, the excitement around women’s hockey right now, and the valuable experience we’ve all gained going through this process, will make this something. I want this to be a first annual women’s outdoor classic. I don’t want this to be a one off. I think most people at the NHL feel the same way 

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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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