For anyone who loves Canada’s national sport, it’s a dream job, and for Michael Bruni, the newly appointed chairman of Hockey Canada, it’s possibly the best sports-related job in Canada, or even the world. “It’s a privilege, and I take it as a privilege,” he says. “And it’s a real challenge, too.”
But challenge, it seems, is what drives Bruni. Having spent much of his career in the oil and gas industry, he attributes his career success to a long history of volunteering. “One thing that has contributed to my experience and abilities more than anything — even my workplace — has been my volunteer life, without question,” he says. Based in Calgary, Bruni started volunteering with minor hockey associations, working his way up through the provincial scene to head Hockey Alberta, to eventually become vice chairman at large and executive vice chairman of Hockey Canada. He was named chairman of the board in June 2011.
Hockey Canada is the national body that oversees pretty much anything hockey-related in the country. It oversees minor and Junior A hockey, and its membership includes 13 provincial sports organizations. It’s also a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation, so it’s responsible for any teams that compete in international competitions, from the Olympics to world championships. The Canadian Hockey League is a member, although Hockey Canada does not oversee it. As part of his role, Bruni works closely with Hockey Canada’s president and chief executive officer, Bob Nicholson, who is Canada’s face of hockey. Nicholson runs the not-for-profit organization, which has in excess of 100 employees and a budget in the millions of dollars.
When Bruni took on the role of chairman, he coined the phrase, “staying relevant with the courage to change,” which has become his mandate at Hockey Canada. Change is not easy for a lot of people, he says. “I’m looking at change in the game — change in head hits, in violence. It is a learning experience on change management.”
Ultimately, his vision is about doing what’s best for kids, about creating the most opportunities for them. One issue, which has been making headlines in the mainstream media for some time now, is conduct on and off the ice. In his address to board members when he took on his new role, Bruni wrote: “My constant message will be very succinct and clear. Hockey Canada stands for no fighting and zero tolerance for violence in the game.” This means no head hits, regardless of the intent, and no to any grey areas. “The tipping point has arrived and pushed us to a crisis with concussions and injuries in the game. We have the ability and, quite frankly, the obligation to engage attitudinal change.”
Bruni says he’s also working toward a much better governance structure. “I oversee a board of 37 people, which is too large and we’re working on reducing that,” he says.
What Bruni brings to Hockey Canada is not only his legal background, but also a technical background, and he believes the two combined skill sets allow him to bring something different to the table. Before he became a lawyer, Bruni was an engineer with a geological sciences degree earned at Queen’s University in 1974, and experience as a geological engineer for various companies, including Falconbridge Ltd., Getty Mining International Inc., and the Nova Scotia Department of Mines. He then studied law at Dalhousie University, where he met his wife Janice. “She’s the real lawyer in the family,” he jokes. “She got me through law school.” They got married, moved to Calgary, and had four children — two of whom are currently attending law school. When he talks about his wife, it’s clear he values her advice and “unbelievable” support throughout the years.
At the start of his law career, Bruni articled for Atkinson McMahon (now Field LLP) in Calgary, and in 1978 was called to the bar in Alberta. When a position came up with the Energy Resources Conservation Board in 1980, he saw an opportunity to use not only his legal background but also his engineering experience, and get into technical matters from a strategic, legal, and regulatory perspective.
Bruni was appointed general counsel of the ERCB in his first year. “It was an opportunity for me to head up the legal area there as general counsel at a very young age,” he says. “I basically ran a mini law firm internally.” He later became executive manager of the organization’s law branch, and served in both positions until January 2004. He acted as counsel on major hearings and inquiries, appearing before the Alberta Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada, and National Energy Board.
He also headed up a team of lawyers. “One of the things I really tried to do — and it was a challenge — was to try to get lawyers to look at things more pragmatically, to look at the bigger picture and to give advice to get to solutions. I’m not one for saying, ‘we’re here for billable hours.’ The service is to try and get it done with diligence, and that was a challenge when I took over operations.”
Bruni also helped set up the new Alberta Utilities Commission and led a realignment of the ERCB. In 2008, he was appointed an ERCB board member by the Alberta cabinet, and assumed the position of special adviser to the chairman of the ERCB in 2010.
During this time, Bruni kept up his volunteer work and stayed highly involved in the legal world. In the 1980s, he helped initiate the Association of General Counsel of Alberta, and was a member of the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation and the Canadian Petroleum Law Foundation. He’s currently a member of the Canadian Bar Association, the Calgary Bar Association, and the Law Society of Alberta. He’s also managed to find time to lecture at the University of Calgary and participate in forums on energy regulation. “I’ve been able to learn a lot about governance, about organizational capacity, organizational structure, what kind of people you want on a team to get things done,” he says.
Bruni is no stranger to change management. “I like to see the evolution of change.” At this level, he says, imparting change becomes more difficult.