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Sporting the right goods

Alumni who make the teams successful or the events run.
February 9, 2017

The sports heroes on the ice or field get the medals, the glory, the fame. Yet behind the scenes, under the press radar, is where you can find the folks who make the teams successful or the events run — and where you can find a good number of Concordia alumni.

Here are six such figures who have made an impact on the Canadian and international sports scene.

Pride of green and gold

Edmonton Eskimos president and CEO Len Rhodes cherishes his team’s role in the community.
Len Rhodes Edmonton Eskimos president and CEO Len Rhodes is well aware of his team’s place in the city — and in CFL history.

Len Rhodes, BComm 87, was appointed president and chief executive officer of the Edmonton Eskimos Football Club in December 2011 — and remembers the day he interviewed for the job like it was yesterday. After a sterling career at Molson Coors and Reebok-CCM, Rhodes was applying to run the community-owned Canadian Football League (CFL) team.

“When I walked into my interview process and met the hiring committee, I said, ‘Is this for real? This is just so unique,’” he recalls. “I have worked with many large corporations and everything goes back to the bottom line and delivering profit. Not with the Edmonton Eskimos. It’s about doing the right thing.”

The Eskimos are the most successful CFL franchise of the modern era. “We have such a rich history that dates back to 1949. We have won 14 Grey Cup championships. We’re very important to the civic pride of Edmonton,” says Rhodes. That’s not just because the team has a great track record on the field and is financially sustainable. “It’s because we’re active within the community,” he says.

“For example, our players, coaches, cheerleading team and staff made 850 public appearances in 2015. We’re in schools, in the children’s hospital, we’re at food banks. We’re really a major contributor to the growth of football across northern Alberta. It makes me very proud. It’s one of the reasons why I moved here from Montreal — we are community owned. We walk the walk.”

Results on the field

In addition to community involvement, Rhodes suggests the most important ingredients for a top stadium fan experience boils down to on-field performance — “people buy tickets to watch a contender,” he says — and game-day experience, which means investing in the city-owned Commonwealth Stadium.

“We installed Wi-Fi last year, this year we’ve installed a new LED power ring,” Rhodes reports on the digital light band that rounds the stadium. “We’ve put millions of dollars into the stadium, created premium seating sections and social experiences for our fans, because we believe attending a game is much more than just the game on the field. It’s about interacting with family and friends, which is as important as watching the actual game itself.”

A bonus is the emotional provincial rivalry between the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders. “That rivalry is intense,” Rhodes says. “Citizens share many common values as Albertans, but when it comes to game time, all bets are off. It’s the battle of Alberta!”

At the end of the day, he says, “Winning the 2015 Grey Cup championship is as good as it gets. The exhilaration of winning the ultimate prize is the greatest payoff ever.”

Rhodes — who also serves on the board of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and was named to Alberta Venture magazine’s 2016 list of Alberta’s 50 Most Influential People — points to his time at Concordia as launching him well on his way to the top. “I love Concordia, I am a very proud graduate,” he says. “It was a perfect fit with my values and style. I consider Concordia to be the people’s university. It is inclusive and celebrates diversity and I believe it has a pragmatic approach to learning.”

He adds, “I grew up in a low-income neighbourhood. I didn’t come from a family where many people had the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education — and Concordia made me realize that I too could fulfill my dreams and have a great career.”

—Richard Burnett, BA 88

Career Olympian

Carla Anderson has spent nearly three decades behind the scenes in high-level amateur sport
Carla Anderson Carla Anderson, pictured at the 2016 Rio Olympics, rates the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics her favourite games. “Being home, walking into the stadium with the roar of the crowd, hearing the Canadian anthem being played — it’s hard to describe the feeling.”

When Carla Anderson, BA 87, was studying at Concordia, she heard more than her share of jokes about her major, leisure and recreation studies — now known as leisure sciences. It turns out that she would actually have the last laugh.

Anderson was barely out of university when a winter-semester internship gave her the opportunity for a career with the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC). That career would go on for the next 29 years and allow her to travel the world and experience an impressive number of summer and winter Olympics, Youth Olympics and Pan American Games. “Growing up, I was a figure skater and part of Quebec’s first synchronized swimming team,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do something that involved sports in some capacity, and a major in leisure and recreation studies just seemed like the right fit.”

While at Concordia, Anderson called the Montreal professional hockey, baseball and football clubs looking for internship possibilities. When no doors opened, a professor gave her a list of companies to contact. The Royal Bank of Canada — the Canadian Olympic Committee’s long-time sponsor — took her on, and that internship led to a full-time job.

“I had an amazing career with the COC,” says Anderson, whose most recent posting was games director at the 2016 Rio Olympics. As part of her role, she served as principal liaison with the Rio Organizing Committee and the International Olympic Committee, while working with her team coordinating the arrival and stay of hundreds of Canada’s top athletes and their entourage. “Managing all the logistics that come with the task of arranging for Canada’s elite athletes to travel to major competitions around the world, as well as making sure all equipment, medical supplies and uniforms get shipped over, can be quite a feat.”

A lifetime of Olympic memories

While Anderson rates the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games at the top of her favourite Games list, followed closely by Barcelona in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994, she concedes the Rio Games were a bit of a challenge. “They were not ready to receive the teams,” she says. “But our Canadian teams are real troopers. They never once complained. I’ve always been impressed with how well they conduct themselves, and we’ve always tried to give them a sense of swagger and do the best we could for them.”

She adds that elite athletes are just ordinary young adults. “They couldn’t get to the pizza and McDonald’s quickly enough after the Games were finished.”

Anderson is taking a well-deserved break and contemplating her next move. “I’ll definitely be back in the sports world, but perhaps I’ll focus on a single sport this time around,” she says. “No matter what, I know I’ll still be working for a not-for-profit association. I need to have a purpose and a higher cause at work.”

The Châteauguay, Que., native still has fond memories of her time at Concordia and strongly believes that the university’s internship program gave her a strong advantage and the opportunity to have a career in her chosen field. “Thirty years later, I still remember the professors who had an impact on me. And those internships are vital because they allow young students to try out different aspects of a program and find what’s best suited for them,” she says.

“I definitely look at Concordia as my starting block for everything that came later.”

—Toula Drimonis, BA 93

Lightning in a bottle

Julien BriseBois reflects on scoring big in the national hockey league
Julien BriseBois From the time Julien BriseBois was hired by the Montreal Canadiens in 2001 to work in hockey operations, he never looked back.

Julien BriseBois, EMBA 07, always knew that if he didn’t make it as an athlete he would become a lawyer. In the end, through a chance combination of circumstance and competence, he managed to combine both his passions and end up as a rising star in sports management, as the assistant general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the National Hockey League.

“I knew from a young age, at least as far back as 10 years old, that if I didn’t make it as a Major League Baseball player, I would become a lawyer,” BriseBois reveals.

“Once in law school at Université de Montréal, I decided I wanted to focus on taxation law and eventually get my MBA, which I did at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business. My first job out of law school was at the Heenan Blaikie law firm that wanted to develop a sports law practice,” he explains.

When the NHL comes calling…

While there, the Montreal native was tapped to be part of the sports law group because he had a strong interest in sports and was bilingual. The group represented a number of National Hockey League (NHL) teams in salary arbitration cases, as well as grievances and contract negotiations. In 2001 he was hired by one of their clients, the Montreal Canadiens, to work in the hockey operations department. “I never looked back,” says BriseBois.

“The best part of working in the NHL is all the great people you get to meet and work with. Smart, competitive and accomplished people that you get to exchange thoughts and ideas with. Ultimately, what gets you going is the competition. It’s being able to measure yourself against 29 other NHL organizations and trying to meet the challenge of building a Stanley Cup-winning hockey team.”

BriseBois spent nine seasons with the Canadiens before joining the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010 as assistant general manager and general manager Steve Yzerman’s right-hand man.

From Montreal to Tampa Bay

When Yzerman brought him in, he referred to BriseBois as “one of the best young minds in the game” and “a strong asset” to the club, as he was attempting to build a first-class, professionally run franchise. Six years later, the Lightning are one of the NHL’s top organizations.

At 40, BriseBois already has quite the pedigree and professional accomplishments and shows no signs of slowing down. With his extensive background in business, law and pro hockey, he’s involved in all aspects of player personnel decisions, analytics, contract preparation and negotiation, as well as salary arbitration for the Lightning, and believes many of those vital management skills were acquired at Concordia.

“I was already working in hockey management as vice-president of hockey operations for the Montreal Canadiens when I was doing my EMBA at John Molson,” says BriseBois. “But I acquired a great number of management tools during the program that I use in my job to this day.”

In 2013, he was named the Concordia University Alumni Association’s MBA Alumnus of the Year, and so the love appears to be reciprocal. “I truly enjoyed my time there,” BriseBois says. “I met lifelong friends and I try to get back there every time I am given the chance to speak to students.”

—Toula Drimonis

The sports dealmaker

Donald E. Meehan loves the challenge of being a sports agent
Donald E. Meehan The success of Donald E. Meehan, president of Newport Sports Management, has been recognized by a number of publications, including The Sporting News as one of the 100 most influential people in sport, the hockey news as one of the 100 people of power and influence in hockey and The Globe And Mail as one of the 25 most influential people in Canadian sport.

Donald E. Meehan, BA 72, turned down an offer to become a partner from his law firm in 1981 and instead founded Newport Sports Management Inc. At the time, he probably didn’t expect that 35 years later Newport would be one of the most respected and successful sports agencies in the world and the most successful player agency in professional hockey.

Or maybe he did.

Meehan speaks with the kind of assurance and joviality of someone who knows he’s at the top of his game — and is having a lot of fun while playing it. “I’ve never really felt like I go to work,” he says. “I love the challenge of every day being different and of being such an integral part of so many players’ sports careers.”

Back in his university days, sports weren’t even his main focus. Meehan graduated with a major in political science and honours in history from Sir George Williams University, one of Concordia’s founding institutions. “I really had a great experience at Concordia and really wonderful teachers,” says Meehan. “I still remember a history professor, Charles Bertrand. I would love to see him again.” (Bertrand was named Professor Emeritus by Concordia’s Department of History in 2001.)

Political science and history are two subjects that allowed for a greater understanding of the world, according to Meehan. “They informed me and made me a well-rounded individual, and that’s important no matter what your profession is.”

The Montreal native played sports growing up and varsity football at McGill University, where he earned a law degree after completing his studies at Concordia.

“After graduating, I did some legal work for friends in the hockey industry, and sports management just seemed like a natural next step,” says Meehan. “It’s perfect because I was able to combine both of my worlds — law and sports — in my work.”

Represents more than 130 NHL players

Meehan co-founded and launched Newport Sports Management with Pat Morris. Today they represent more than 100 NHL players. Unlike other sports management agencies, Meehan’s style was to hire potential clients before they were even drafted in the NHL — a tactic that seems to have served him well over the years.

The long, impressive list of high-profile names he’s managed to ink deals for over the course of his career include Hockey Hall of Famers Pat LaFontaine, Nicklas Lidström and Al MacInnis, as well as Curtis Joseph and Trevor Linden, now president of the Vancouver Canucks, and current players Henrik Lundqvist, P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson, Steven Stamkos, Zach Parise and many others.

Asked if P.K. Subban, recently traded to the Nashville Predators from the Montreal Canadiens, is adjusting to his new team and his new city, Meehan responds affirmatively. “He’s really enjoying Nashville,” says Meehan. “He seems to really have been accepted into his new community, and his family has visited him and they’re happy. But, of course, he still misses Montreal.”

That’s a sentiment that P.K.’s agent seems to share. “I’ve been living in Toronto for a very long time now. I left in 1975, but I was born and raised in Verdun’s Crawford Park and have fond memories of the area,” he says. “I still remember taking the 58 bus all the way to McGill, and I still love visiting the city. Luckily, there’s always a reason to do so.”

— Toula Drimonis

She got game

Susan Hylland is “feeling blessed” with her career path
Susan Hylland Susan Hylland started in August 2016 as director of sports services at the University of Ottawa. In January 2016 she was included on the Canadian association for the advancement of women and sport and physical activity’s most influential women list.

When Susan Hylland, GrDip 86, was offered an internship at the Canadian Olympic Committee while still a Concordia student, she didn’t know that it would turn out to be the most critical move of her career.

“Concordia’s Graduate Diploma in Sports Administration is the program that really set me on my career path,” says Hylland, who recently began as director of Sports Services at the University of Ottawa. “That internship clinched it, and the networking opportunities it afforded me were important, too. I’ve had a career in sports because of it.”

The native Montrealer and former star varsity basketball player says she loved her Concordia experience — both academically and athletically. “I’m generally a positive person and I like to embrace whatever I’m doing, and as a result I got a lot of out of it,” she says.

Hylland’s extraordinary three-decade-plus career has included various roles with the Canadian Olympic Committee and terms as executive director of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS) and president and CEO of the Canada Games Council. “I’ve been part of 10 Olympic and Pan Am Games throughout my career,” she says proudly.

“There is nothing more moving than actually being at the Olympic Games and seeing the world together, to walk into a room where 200-plus countries are being represented in peace, to hear the thunderous applause of the crowds, to experience the opening ceremonies and to watch our Canadian athletes stand on the podium — it’s amazing.” She adds, “My Canada Games experience was very much the same.

The Canada Games are our Olympics in Canada for our youth, and to see communities and volunteers proudly unite around this uniquely Canadian nation-building event every two years and become better for it — it’s a powerful thing.”

Full circle

Hylland started her position as the University of Ottawa’s director of Sports Services in late August 2016. “It’s been a busy few months,” she admits. “In a way, though, it feels like I’m coming full circle in my multisport career. While the Canada Games were national in scope, my University of Ottawa position is much more focused. I feel like I’m back to my roots.”

As a former CAAWS leader, Hylland delights in seeing more opportunities for women to excel in sports. “We still have some work to do in terms of media coverage for female athletes, and we certainly want more female leaders and coaches, but we’ve moved forward by leaps and bounds,” she says. “I used to watch my brother play hockey at 6 a.m. with my dad because there were no teams for young girls. My daughter got to play hockey at 6 a.m.!”

She still visits Montreal often. “I’m in close contact with many Concordia alumni, and over the years I’ve watched the university grow as an institution,” says Hylland, whose husband Larry Ring is also an alumnus. “I see some really good things happening there.”

For her new role at the University of Ottawa, she relishes the thought of working at a campus, around the energy of young, vibrant people. “I feel blessed,” Hylland says. “I really lucked out in the career path that I’ve had and each position I’ve held has amplified for me the power of sport to unite people and help them lead healthy, active lives.”

She adds, “And to think that it was this Concordia program that set it all in motion!”

— Toula Drimonis

How a Montrealer learned to say “Go Rangers!”

Greg Kwizak describes his experience as the New York Rangers’ vice-president of event presentation
Greg Kwizak Greg Kwizak is pictured in the game director’s booth in Madison Square Garden’s “eyebrow,” which includes the control room, game director’s booth, music director’s booth and general manager’s box.

The journey from playing hockey on rinks in his hometown Montreal to rallying Rangers fans at “the world’s most famous arena” has been nothing short of meteoric for Greg Kwizak, BA (comm. studies) 06, vice-president of Event Presentation for the New York Rangers at the Madison Square Garden Company. “I joined the Rangers in September 2007 and it’s been quite an adventure,” he says.

“Madison Square Garden is very special,” Kwizak says of his atypical place of work. “It’s the most iconic venue in sports and entertainment, and you get that nostalgic yesteryear feel when you come into the Garden. The banners that hang from the rafters, the artists who have performed there, the teams — the Rangers, the Knicks [of the NBA], the Liberty [of the WNBA] — it’s unlike anywhere else in the world.”

He reports that the Garden hosts more shows and games than there are days in the calendar year. “This is possible because on some days the Knicks will play at 1 p.m. followed by a Rangers game at 7 p.m.,” he says. “When the Knicks game is done and fans leave the arena, a two-hour changeover occurs that requires a building-labour crew to quickly disassemble the basketball court and rebuild the hockey rink. That process still mesmerizes me.”

Kwizak’s event presentation team prepares scripts for every Rangers game. “It tells those who execute the show what videos and on-ice projection elements are coming up, the audio levels, the lighting situation, what P.A. announcements have been scripted — anything ranging from marketing to community relations to ticket sales to food and beverage,” he explains.

Each script is different, such as when the Rangers face off against the rival New York Islanders. “I grew up in Montreal, so I remember the Habs-Leafs, Habs-Bruins and Habs-Nordiques rivalries,” Kwizak says. “The Rangers and Islanders rivalry is just as intense: it’s been around for decades, the fans highly dislike each other and there is always a loud, rambunctious crowd in attendance, so when we script for those games we like to tell the story of these two teams.”

Meeting a Canadian hero

While Kwizak especially enjoys the energy of Game 7 playoff games, he has a special fond memory. “One particular moment that meant a great deal to me was having former Canadian diplomat Ken Taylor and his wife Pat attend a game versus Calgary in February 2015,” he recalls.

“As a Canadian, I know the history behind the ‘Canadian Caper’ and what Mr. Taylor meant to our country and the world. It was a great honour to write and direct our acknowledgment of Ken and Pat to the Rangers’ fans. Rightfully so, they received a standing ovation.”

Kwizak’s route to the NHL was nontraditional. “I did a year at Concordia, then decided to pursue an opportunity working on the entertainment staff at Walt Disney World in Florida,” he says. “After several years, I returned to Concordia to complete my communication studies degree.”

The two diverse educational experiences paid off. “Disney taught me the entertainment side of things, while Concordia provided a solid foundation in production, especially as it relates to video and film, sound editing and storytelling,” he says. “I took a lot of journalism classes and did a minor in philosophy. I wrote and produced my own short films. Concordia really gave me the tools and awareness.”

— Richard Burnett

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