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Trading goalie pads for legal pads

|Written By Kelly Harris

Edmonton Oilers general counsel Keely Brown is also one of the world’s best ringette goalies.

Goalies tend to do things a bit differently. Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche great Patrick Roy used to talk to his goal posts, while 1970s netminder Gilles Gratton would tell people he was the reincarnation of a soldier from the Spanish Inquisition and refused to play if the moon was in the wrong place in the sky. Osgoode Hall Law School graduate Keely Brown finished articling and her quest for hockey and ringette teams in need of a goalie ended up in the perfect job.

Brown, called to the bar in Ontario in 2003 and Alberta in 2004, heard there was an opening with the Edmonton Chimos Women’s Hockey Club and made the move west. “The Chimos needed a goalie for hockey, I finished articling in Toronto, and I knew Edmonton had a good ringette club too, so I just came out here to check it out. . . . It worked out pretty well.”

It was ringette that brought Brown to Edmonton for the first time in 2002, as a member of Canada’s team at the World Ringette Championship. She recalls it was standing-room only for the games and a feeling that the whole city was behind the Canadian athletes. So Brown strapped on the pads for the Chimos and the ringette equivalent WHAM. She also managed to get an associate position with Davis LLP in Edmonton.

It was almost as if the Kitchener, Ont., native was living a charmed life when she moved to yet another team — the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers — as in-house counsel. It was February 2006, and the “Mighty Oil” were on the verge of missing the playoffs. Some solid late-season play helped propel them to a Stanley Cup run only to lose in game seven of the finals against the Carolina Hurricanes, “one win away from getting my very own Stanley Cup ring,” says Brown.

The first days with the Oilers were a sort of trial by fire. The team had always gone the outside-counsel route for sponsorship, advertising, and non-player-related contract work. While there were systems in place and outside counsel to help guide Brown, she was still a three-year call put into “the show.” If anyone expected the pressure to get to Brown, they likely don’t know much about her athletic career.

In 1992, at her first Canadian Ringette Championships, she faced 49 shots in one game, her team responded with only eight. They won the game three to two, going on to win the tournament. It was the first of seven CRC championships for Brown, and a major reason she is considered one of the world’s best ringette goalies.

One thing that Brown was spot on about was the sports culture that exists in Edmonton. The fans are at times rabid. There are one million residents of Edmonton and their love of sports is apparent. In 2002, an under-20 Women’s World Cup of Soccer match in Edmonton drew 47,000 spectators to watch Canada play the U.S. West Edmonton Mall during hockey season is like a fan’s paradise, nary a store doesn’t have some sort of Oilers paraphernalia for sale. And if it has the team’s logo, chances are Brown knows about it.

Edmonton is a small market that relies on sponsorship, marketing, and logos to help keep the Oilers afloat financially. “We love the city’s support, the whole community’s support really, because we have all of oil country, which is all of Northern Alberta, our broadcast territory is pretty large too, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the territories and Nunavut. We’ve got a lot of reach out there and we definitely want the support, but we also realize that it’s property and we have to manage it.”

Brown’s job also extends to drafting advertising agreements and working out the sponsorship deals on the luxury suites at Rexall Place — the Oilers’ home. She also plays a role at maintaining the trademark and enforcement of the rules that come with its use. She is responsible for making sure the wording on the backs of tickets or for contest waivers is accurate.

What many fans outside Alberta may not realize is the teams in Edmonton and Calgary play in arenas they do not own. It was a case for almost constant conjecture in the 1990s when the teams were struggling both on and off the ice. Concession and parking agreements with the Stampede board in Calgary and the Northlands board in Edmonton were important if either team was to survive.

“We have a licence agreement with Northlands and the city,” says Brown. “I manage that agreement, the day-to-day working of [the agreement] so if people have questions of what we can or can’t do, and when we need to ask for things and who pays for what and different things.”

The provincial government also stepped in with a lottery scheme and eventually the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement ushered in a salary cap so teams like Calgary and Edmonton could compete on pay with the likes of Toronto, New York, and Detroit.

Brown is also involved with negotiating broadcast rights. Long gone are the days of local television broadcasters, today’s agreements are with national sports franchises like TSN, Sportsnet, and the Score. Added to those broadcasters is Breakaway Pay-Per-View. Pay-per-view broadcasts have been able to unite both Calgary and Edmonton fans, an almost blasphemous statement for anyone who grew up in the heated 1980’s Battle of Alberta days when the Oilers and Flames were the class of the NHL.

“I don’t know any other two teams in the NHL that have such a solid a rivalry as Edmonton and Calgary,” she says. Brown says it’s a reality of today’s NHL, the Oilers working in partnership with the Calgary Flames and the west-coast rival Vancouver Canucks. “We compete on the ice with players, but off the ice you’ve got the three western teams working together to make a pay-per-view channel work.

“We are always looking for new opportunities . . . growth is high on our priority list, but smart growth, not just growing for the sake of getting bigger, but growing to serve people’s needs and seeing what niches we can fill and ideas we can bring.” One such opportunity for Brown was recently being named general counsel and director of administration for the Oilers.

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