Having grown up in Nigeria, Shalewa Iaboni can’t exactly say an interest in ice hockey came naturally to her. But after taking a crash course this week on hockey appreciation, Ms. Iaboni is hoping she’ll soon be able to participate in the office chatter the morning after the game – and reap the benefits of better business relationships.

“I know nothing about hockey and I didn’t grow up around hockey,” said Ms. Iaboni, an audit partner at Toronto-based accounting firm Crowe Soberman LLP, who moved to Canada in her late teens.

Ms. Iaboni and nearly 50 other female professionals gathered Wednesday to watch the Maple Leafs morning practice and listen to hockey stories from retired Leafs captain Wendel Clark as part of a networking event organized by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE) and the Gal’s Got Game, a Toronto-based company that helps women, particularly those in business, learn about sports.

Participants were also given access to an online crash course in the rules of hockey and later watched the Leafs battle the Ottawa Senators, losing 4-3 in a shootout at a preseason game at the Air Canada Centre.

“I think knowing about sports is important,” Ms. Iaboni said. “Every time you walk into a [business] setting … it’s an icebreaker. People talk about last night’s game or some sports person doing whatever it is, and you bond that way before you get into a business meeting.”

Sports is “always” the first topic mentioned, she added.

But without knowing more about the game, it’s easy to feel lost, Ms. Iaboni said. “Most of the time it’s over the top of my head – I’m not into sports, so most of whatever they’re talking about, I can’t necessarily participate,” she said, adding she has to find other ways to break the ice, by talking about the latest TV shows or the weather or her kids.

By taking the course, she hopes to learn more about the game’s rules and pick up the names of a few key players. That might just encourage her to pay more attention to the games on TV at home “as opposed to pretending I’m watching it,” she said. Then she’ll be able to add her two cents worth to the premeeting small talk the next day.

Mr. Clark, who retired from the National Hockey League in 2000 and now works with MLSE, recalled times when his involvement in hockey was one of the best ways to get a conversation going. “With sports and business, you find something in common and then you go from there; it can help in your business,” he said. “It breaks the ice and makes everybody feel more comfortable and then you can get into something more serious.”

This event was a year in the making, said Lally Rementilla, one of the co-founders of the Gal’s Got Game, which hosted the event along with MLSE.

The goal is to “ease women into the sport of hockey, where they may never have had an entry point before,” said Gal’s Got Game co-founder Rekha Shah.

Many women who aren’t into sports will avoid corporate and networking events that are tied to sports – such as attending a game, said Ms. Rementilla, thereby losing out on an opportunity to get ahead.

Sports can act as a common language that will get you past “the first hurdle,” with your CEO, boss or a client, Ms. Shah said. “And hockey is that sport, especially in Canada.”

Sports can also be a great “equalizer,” in the business world, Ms. Shah said. “In a corporate setting, both the CEO of a company and the mailroom clerk can bond over sports,” Ms. Rementilla added.

Being able to talk shop about sports is “a tool,” she said. “It’s a tool that, for the most part, has been dominated by men and we want to try to put women on equal footing.”

Catharine Ackerson, a Toronto-based vice-president of commercial banking with Buffalo-headquartered M&T Bank, said she took the course because hockey is not as prevalent in the United States, where she is from, and it’s one of the best ways to connect with her customers and new prospective clients.

“Knowing about the sport and being able to talk about it, especially since it’s such a big cultural part of Canada, it’s a great way to find commonality” and improve your customer relationships, she said.

“I know the basics of hockey but when you’re watching the game, nobody wants to take the time to explain the finer points of the game – because it’s so fast-paced – and you don’t want to bother them,” she said. And it’s good to have “an outlet like this where you can ask a question at a slower pace where you’re not interrupting.”

While it may not be fair that sports are often the icebreaker at business meetings, it’s something more women should be encouraged to learn about, Ms. Ackerson said. Team sports can teach participants – and enthusiasts – how to take and apply critical feedback, and how to work toward a common goal.

“These are things that directly translate into the business world, about networks, about working with a team, about strategically leveraging opportunities,” she said. “So I think that if you play in a team sport, or understand it, that brings huge skills that translate into real life.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Sep. 26 2014, 7:00 PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Sep. 26 2014, 4:40 PM EDT