Toronto Maple Leafs President and General Manager Brian P. Burke hosted a conversation at Harvard Law School on Friday, telling a crowd of students and hockey fans that concussions were an inevitable “occupational risk” in hockey but that the National Hockey League was “ahead of the curve” in dealing with them.
The first issue discussed by Burke—a 1981 graduate of the Law School—was that of concussions, which have emerged as a topic of hot debate in the sport. Acknowledging that hockey is a full contact sport played in a small area with no out of bounds, he said that players need to be accountable for protecting themselves when they are on the ice.
Burke dismissed the idea of adding more protective gear to players’ uniforms, saying that more protection could be counterproductive by increasing the level of violence in the game.
“Every piece of equipment is a weapon. A helmet is a weapon,” he said.
But Burke added that he believed the NHL was doing a more comprehensive job of diagnosing and treating concussions, particularly compared to other sports leagues like the NFL.
After graduating from Providence College as captain of the hockey team, Burke played one full year in the minor-league American Hockey League. His season was “unspectacular,” Burke said, and he entered Harvard Law School in 1978,
During his time at Harvard, Burke enjoyed playing on the Business School rugby team, he said. However, he said he was apathetic towards his time at Harvard, calling it “way more intimidating than it needed to be.”
Since graduation, Burke has held many positions in the NHL, serving as the general manager for four teams, as well as for the silver medal U.S. men’s team in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
On Friday, Burke discussed the pros and cons of being a GM, talking about both the joy of landing a great trade and the lack of job security, saying “you’re as good as your last season, and sometimes as your last game.”
Several in attendance said they found Burke’s words and charismatic persona inspiring.
“He showed how important personality is,” said second-year law student Robin A. Kelley.
Third-year student Benjamin J. Glicksman added that he appreciated Burke’s unique perspective.
“It was a great opportunity for people in the Law School to see someone who’s using their degree in a different way from going to a law firm,” said Glickman, president of the Committee on Sports and Entertainment Law.
But despite all his successes, Burke cautioned students against taking the same route as him, citing the difficulty and competition of his profession.
“Make goddamned sure you have a legal skill that will feed your family besides sports law,” he said.