Being one of the world’s top ringette goalies didn’t stop Keely Brown from pursuing a career in law. Fortunately, her career and love of sports aren’t mutually exclusive.
Brown has always been an athlete; she’s played ringette for 30 years and hockey since she was a teenager. But in her third year at the University of Toronto, she ran into injury troubles and decided it might be a good idea to look at alternate careers.
“I appreciated law for what it could do for giving me a definite path,” says Brown. “Sports was my passion, so linking the two together was always the end goal but I didn’t think it would happen so fast.”
Now, as general counsel for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club, she uses her spare time to teach ringette as co-owner of 5-Count Ringette Goalie Instruction.
When Brown came on board with the Oilers, the company was using outside counsel for sponsorship and advertising work with no in-house presence. So, in 2006, she started working four days a week, where she was challenged to carve out a niche for herself.
Now, as general counsel, she deals with the business of running a major hockey club, from drafting advertising agreements and sponsorship deals, to the licensing of trademarks and dealing with infringements, as well as negotiating broadcast rights. More these days, she has to deal with social media and she’s the organization’s privacy officer.
“Getting to watch the games in the news is actually part of my job,” says Brown. Of course, she’s watching the games from a different perspective — looking at what’s going on with sponsors and partners, promotions on ice, and fans in the stands.
But it’s also important for networking with colleagues and corporations. “Being a lawyer inside a company, I want to be approachable,” she says. “It helps if they see me as someone they can ask questions of — it doesn’t have to be a formal eight-page memo. I deal with people all the way up to the president, but I also need to be adaptable so I can adjust my style to work with young, entry-level 20-year-olds just learning their roles.”
While she wasn’t personally involved in the legal aspects of the NHL lockout earlier this season, it did affect everything she did. “Everyone assumed we had four months off,” she laughs. Instead, she was busy preparing contingency plans for various outcomes and dealing with stakeholders — from sponsors to ticket holders.
And when the lockout ended, the season kick-started into gear with a condensed schedule.
But the NHL isn’t her only responsibility — the company has branched out over the years, and now owns the Edmonton Oil Kings, the Edmonton Capitals, and Aquila Productions (a documentary film company). “Oil Change is a reality show with our players, so that’s a whole different area of entertainment law and government funding,” says Brown.
A big part of her role is protecting the brand — and she has access to the NHL’s trademark lawyers for consultation. “Our brands are recognizable and we need to manage how companies associate with our brand, such as managing people who don’t quite know the legal aspects of using a trademark,” says Brown.
This means educating everyone from mom-and-pop shops to large corporations on what they can do with the Oilers trademark and when they need permissions.
“Companies might use our logo with their logo, or try to sell tickets for contests or promotions,” she said. Social media adds to the challenge — she has to constantly monitor Facebook and Twitter.
“We need to protect our brand, but we’re also a company that a lot of people feel a personal connection with,” she says. So she has to find that balance between protection of the brand and showing appreciation for fans and the community’s ongoing support.
The company is also working with the city to build a new arena for the Oilers in Edmonton’s downtown core; it currently leases space from Northlands. If the company were to operate an arena of its own, this would add to Brown’s job description since it would involve operating and managing a facility from food services to security to parking.
Currently, Brown is a department of one; with a new arena, that could change. Regardless, the role gives her a degree of ownership over her schedule — and that allows her to participate in her love of sports. “If I manage my workload, it gives me a degree of freedom,” she says.
While Brown stopped playing hockey last year, she’s started coaching ringette and offering a ringette goalie instruction program. “That’s my side passion,” she says. Learning the business side of sports through the NHL has helped evolve that side passion; conversely, working directly with athletes helps her in her role as general counsel. “My personal life and professional life work well together.”
After graduating from Osgoode Hall Law School and articling at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP in Toronto, she headed west to play goalie with the Edmonton Chimos Women’s Hockey Club and WHAM (the ringette equivalent). She not only participated in the World Ringette Championships, but also helped her team win seven Canadian Ringette Championships. Today, she’s considered one of the world’s top ringette goalies.
During that time, she landed a job at Davis LLP in Edmonton (she was called to the Ontario bar in 2003 and the Alberta bar in 2004). It was while helping a friend look for a job that she came across a posting for an in-house position with the Oilers. In February 2006, she was hired on four days a week.
“I was three years out of school coming into a startup department by myself,” says Brown. Fortunately, she had gone broad with her studies: from IP trademark, copyright, and broadcasting courses, to contract and international tax law. “I knew corporate was more my style as opposed to litigation, and I could get my work done and still play (sports).”
While she acknowledges that she landed this job fairly early in her career, she points out that things weren’t handed to her — she took a risk by leaving a full-time job at an established firm to start four days a week at a company just coming out of a lockout.
It’s perhaps this experience that makes mentoring so important to her. “I try not to turn down anyone who wants to meet and find out what I do,” she says. “When I got involved in this industry I didn’t know anybody — people let me come and talk to them.”
She’s been involved in sports her whole life and says she didn’t encounter any issues as a woman in the NHL. “I really appreciate that my organization values what each of us brings to the plate,” says Brown. “Being a leader in the community, we want to show people out there we’re a diverse company. I’m not seen as the ‘female’ or the ‘lawyer.’”
Even if she had, it’s unlikely that would have stopped her. Perhaps it comes from her experience as a goalie, but she’s learned how to take calculated risks and put herself out there. “Find your passion,” she says. “Get out there and do as much as you can instead of expecting things to come to you.”