BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a laugh, Kim Pegula’s competitive nature kicked in when the subject of the Toronto Maple Leafs hiring Hayley Wickenheiser was broached.
Impressed as the Sabres president was by the gender-breaking move in August, Pegula’s first reaction was wondering how Buffalo’s cross-border rival beat her to the punch in making Wickenheiser the NHL’s first woman to hold a hockey operations role as assistant director of player development.
“Darn it,” Pegula said, smiling. “I wish I would’ve done it first.”
The NHL’s first female team president then turned serious.
“No, I was very glad to see that. I think it’s a long time coming,” Pegula said. “That’s going to have staying power.”
Wickenheiser was amused when informed of Pegula’s initial reaction, hoping other teams such as the Sabres will follow the Maple Leafs in breaking hockey’s glass ceiling.
“Well, that’s a good thing,” said Wickenheiser, a five-time Olympian and one of the most accomplished women in hockey. “I don’t see why we won’t see women in other positions like this in the near future.”
The Maple Leafs also added Noelle Needham as an amateur scout — only the third woman to hold such a job in league history — in another move buttressing the idea the NHL is making progress in welcoming women to key roles.
“I think respect, courage, getting over tradition, being brave enough to think outside the box is what took so long,” Wickenheiser said.
“Hockey’s a very traditional game, very old-school in a lot of ways. And the new generation of leadership coming in doesn’t think the same way as the old school did,” she added. “It’s just an evolution of where we’re at as a society. And I think hockey’s following along with it.”
Pegula, who with her husband, Terry, also owns the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, took over the president’s title of both teams in May after Russ Brandon resigned over an alleged inappropriate relationship with a female employee. Rather than hire a new president with both teams breaking in new coaches and general managers, Pegula took over to provide stability.
Inroads are being made at the league office, too. In the past two years, the NHL has hired Heidi Browning as chief marketing officer and Kim Davis as executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stressed the importance of encouraging diversity in a league he says has a fan base almost evenly split between men and women.
“We want our clubs and our league to hire the most qualified people. But we want to consider applicants with every sort of background,” Bettman said. “Diversity is a strength in all forms. So as we’re continuing to evolve and grow, having the resource of lots of different people with lots of different backgrounds and experience is only going to make the game stronger.”
Wickenheiser has long criticized the NHL’s lack of diversity, especially when it comes to hiring women as compared with North America’s other major professional sports.
Dawn Braid became pro hockey’s first full-time female assistant when she was hired as the Arizona Coyotes skating coach in 2016; she is no longer with the team after a two-year stint.
The NBA now features two female assistant coaches, including Becky Hammon, who interviewed for the Milwaukee Bucks head-coaching vacancy this past spring. In the NFL, Pegula’s Bills were the first to hire a full-time female assistant, Kathryn Smith, in 2016, and in August the team appointed Phoebe Schecter to a seasonlong coaching internship.
Finally, the NHL is catching up, with Wickenheiser saying: “If you’re only hiring white men, you’re probably missing out on a lot of talent that’s out there.”
Wickenheiser’s qualifications are hard to match, male or female. The 40-year-old won four gold medals and a silver, and she is the Winter Games career leader with 18 goals and 51 points upon retiring in January 2017.
Even though she is pursuing a degree in medicine at the University of Calgary, Wickenheiser jumped at general manager Kyle Dubas’ offer to mentor Leafs’ prospects in western Canada and during monthly trips to Toronto.
Wickenheiser acknowledged there is added pressure on her to succeed.
“I think it would be silly to ignore that fact. So yeah, I feel that expectation,” she said.
And yet, it is no different from the challenges she faced playing on the international stage and in various men’s leagues during her 23-year career.
“To me, it feels pretty natural,” she said. “There’s something a little bit disarming about it that makes it in some ways easier to have that conversation. They know I’m not a threat to them, because I’m on their side.”
Pegula’s rise to becoming one of the most influential women in sports grew from modest beginnings. She was an orphan in South Korea before being adopted in 1974, and she eventually grew up outside of Rochester, New York.
“I really don’t take that for granted, and I realize the situation I’m in,” she said. “There’s nothing I can complain about. And I hope I never lose that excitement and energy of what I do, good or bad, wins and losses.”
The Pegulas are newcomers to sports.
They purchased the Sabres in February 2011, a year after Terry Pegula sold his Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling rights for $4.7 billion to Royal Dutch Shell. Some 3 1/2 years later, they secured the Bills’ long-term future in western New York by buying the franchise after the death of owner Ralph Wilson.
Kim Pegula acknowledged there has been a steep learning curve in going from being a season-ticket holder to the owner’s box of a sports empire that also includes the National Women’s Hockey League’s Buffalo Beauts.
Pegula regards her role as an equal partnership with her husband, though their interests in approaching their teams differ, which is a reflection of their 25 years in marriage. Terry Pegula enjoys studying film, player development and paying careful attention during games, while Kim veers more toward game presentation, fan amenities and player needs.
“For Terry, I call him ‘a wildcatter’ in the oil and gas business. What he loves is finding and developing natural gas fields,” she said. “I’m more, and I think it comes from being a mom, whether it’s problem solving, figuring things out, getting things done. Execution.”
It was Kim who played a big role in designing the Sabres’ and Bills’ new locker rooms and player lounges.
Pegula will not, as she put it, tell coach Phil Housley how to run his power play, but she did have a say in hiring him, and she takes a personal approach in getting to know each player.
Upon signing with the Sabres in July, goalie Carter Hutton recalled how Pegula texted his wife asking if she needed help getting settled. Pegula then sent gift baskets to Hutton’s wife and children.
“For someone in a position like that to reach out and take the time to really make sure my wife felt comfortable was really important,” Hutton said, noting that did not happen in his previous four stops. “It makes the transition easier for me to focus on playing hockey when everything else is taken care of at home.”
Pegula is pleased with NHL’s emphasis on diversity.
“What we have now and women being seen in these roles, that trickles down,” Pegula said. “So in 10 years, you’re going to have qualified coaches available, not just one, much more of a handful.”
Wickenheiser foresees opportunities opening on numerous fronts for women, from officiating to coaching to management.
“Yeah, anything’s possible,” she said, before breaking into a laugh when asked about her next step.
“Honestly, I have given that zero thought,” she said. “I’m just trying to get through today.”