As a youngster, Robin Brudner lived, breathed, and dreamed hockey. It was the Toronto Maple Leafs that entertained her and cemented her in front of the TV on game nights.
She cheered the likes of Lanny McDonald and record goal-scorer Darryl Sittler. But nowhere in her wildest dreams did she ever entertain the idea that one day she might see her own children on ice with her fabled team.
Nowadays, the connection to her favourite team is stronger than ever for the lawyer who is executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. “Now, I work with Darryl,” she says. “Lanny’s my favourite player.”
However, to get to the executive suite, Brudner trod a circuitous path between almost leaving the law and working in other entertainment law fields.
The mother of two children, aged 13 and 10, received an undergraduate degree in psychology at York University, before studying law at Osgoode Hall Law School in 1987, and articled at Toronto’s Epstein Cole LLP boutique firm before casting her eye onto the job market. “It was sports No. 1, entertainment No. 2,” she says of practice areas that piqued her interest. But that wasn’t the case when she entered law school. “When I was in law school I thought I wanted the degree more for a business career,” she says. “People thought, ‘What are you doing, what did you go to law school for?’ I went for the education and to learn how to think better.”
She then gave herself a year to get a job in entertainment. “At the time, sports just wasn’t a likely thing,” she says.
Brudner has been with the sports company since 1995 when she signed on with the fledgling Toronto Raptors. She had just finished working on a heritage production called The Paris Crew and had a brief stint at the CBC from 1989 to 1992. Prior to that she handled business affairs and contracts and later negotiations work.?“I came in and there was one draft of the script and nothing more. I got to participate in discussions regarding the script, editing, financing, distribution. It was really a great education for me and exactly what I left CBC to do,” she says of The Paris Crew work.? But, she adds, it wasn’t steady, and for lawyers without constant work in the pipeline, such a lifestyle can be challenging if there’s nothing in development or production.
“I started thinking about what I wanted to do after that and whether or not I wanted to continue in the entertainment business,” she says. “I decided I would rather prefer at that stage in my life to go back to something a little bit more routine, Monday to Friday, every-two-week paycheque. Sport was certainly top of the list,” she said. “At the time, they had this new franchise that was just beginning and hadn’t played its first game. I thought that would be ideal. I actually thought about working for the Leafs but they didn’t have in-house counsel at the time.”
So, she sent the then-vice president of legal affairs Glen Grunwald a cold resumé. She then followed up, twice.
And, in May 1995, he offered her a six-month contract — at the same time as another company offered a full-time job. “You can guess which one I took,” she says. Two years later, the other company closed down.
It has been 15 years, and Maple Leaf Sports has grown substantially. In that time, it purchased the Raptors basketball team, which was a huge benefit to both the company and the city, says Brudner. “The growth has led to diverse work. I’ve never been bored for one day. If you don’t feel like doing a broadcast contract, you do a sponsorship. If you don’t want to do a sponsorship, you do a ticketing issue.”
And at the time she was doing the work alone, which she says gave her a chance to get to know the workings of the company intimately as she worked with all departments. “It is a different skill set doing different kinds of contracts,” says the fan of TV’s Criminal Minds.
“Over time, because we’ve been able to grow the department . . . it’s given me an opportunity to grow and have a staff and add another layer of opportunity for my personal development as well as growth for the company.”
Now the legal department is responsible for all of the legal work of Maple Leaf Sports. In the big leagues, it now encompasses the Raptors, the Maple Leafs, and Toronto FC — a franchise in Major League Soccer. The company also owns American Hockey League team Toronto Marlies, the farm team for the Maple Leafs, as well as three TV networks, the Maple Leaf Square mixed-use development due to open this fall, and the Air Canada Centre.
“It’s quite a vast array of businesses,” she says. “We’re really becoming a media-content business as well.”
Until 2005 Brudner worked on Raptors’ player contracts. “I’ve never done the player contracts on the Leafs’ side,” she says, adding those contracts are done within the team’s department and are fairly standard. “If there’s an issue on the player matters, then I am involved. We’ve had a couple of arbitrations in my time with some of the basketball players and hockey on both sides of the house. That would be my area of responsibility if it becomes more of a legal matter than a team matter.”
She also handles management contracts. “I would do Brian Burke’s contract,” she explains. But, she says, with a staff of three lawyers and two clerks, she now does the least day-to-day contract work in her department.
“You start delegating as the team is built, as the legal department is built,” she says. “The diversity makes it worthwhile. I get to do something different every day.”
However, in holding a demanding job, Brudner says at times she has struggled to find a work-life balance. “I think it was much harder when I was younger,” she says. “Family always comes first. I’ve never missed a doctor’s appointment, a dentist’s appointment or a school play.”
Taking time for herself has been more difficult. “I think that’s the thing that’s been sacrificed,” she says. “I’ve always been totally honest with myself and recognized when I’m in trouble and taken time off.”
One of many things Brudner finds to chuckle about in her job is the fact many see her name and assume it belongs to a man. After all, it’s assumed to be a man’s game. “I get mail more often here as Mr. Robin Brudner than here as Ms.,” she chuckles. And, she says, when she first had her daughter, she was an anomaly in a world where the others at management level were married to stay-at-home housewives or had no children.
“I was in a unique position,” she says. “Things have changed. Sometimes it’s dicey but you have to manage it. In the board meeting, I’m the only woman there,” she says. “It’s still sports — lots of testosterone.”
But, she adds, “everyone always says find a job that you’re interested in. . . . I was very fortunate. It’s worked out very well. I wouldn’t change one career decision I’ve made. I’ve taken a road that many people have scratched their heads on but I have been very fortunate.”
But after all the close-up involvement, is Brudner still a rabid fan? “Very much so,” she says. “I probably still have over 1,000 hockey cards.”