By Hillel Kuttler
(JTA) – Several years ago, Jessica Berman and her husband, Brad, bumped into her high school boyfriend.
“If you aren’t working as a lawyer in hockey, I’d be amazed,” Berman recalled him saying.
The ex had her pegged. Berman, 37, has been employed by the National Hockey League for nearly a decade and currently is a vice president and deputy general counsel. She fell for the sport as a teenager.
Some foresee Berman as the first female commissioner of a men’s professional sports league. She helped negotiate key labor agreements with the players’ union, including the deal ending the 2004-05 lockout and the 10-year pact signed two years ago.
But perhaps she’s made an even greater impact since a 2013 stroke left Brad, then 37, in a monthlong coma.
Besides tending to him and caring for their two sons, Berman has spearheaded efforts to benefit the Burke Rehabilitation Center, the suburban New York City institution that’s been instrumental in Brad’s continued recovery. Charity races – Brad is an avid runner who aspires to compete again in marathons – and retail promotions have raised $650,000, most going to build a lower-limb robotics clinic.
“You always hear about sports heroes, but there are everyday heroes who do extraordinary things,” said Pat LaFontaine, the NHL’s vice president of development and community affairs and a Hockey Hall of Fame member.
Count Brad on his wife’s bandwagon, too.
“What she’s done is unbelievable,” he said. “She’s handled it like she’s handled everything: 100 percent head-on.”
On rehabilitation visits to Burke, not far from the Bermans’ home, “I’ve had people come up to me in tears and say, ‘My [loved one] is doing so much better because of their access to these devices she helped get,’ ” Brad said.
In March, Brad returned to his job as a lawyer with General Electric. He’s in the office three days a week and rehabilitates two days.
“Brad is still working on his recovery,” Berman said. “It will likely continue for the rest of our lives, but we have accepted and embraced that.”
In August, the Bermans and their children – Noah, 7, and Andrew, 4 – along with both sets of in-laws and Brad’s grandmother, gathered to celebrate his survival of the stroke precisely two years ago. A “gratitude party” hosted by the Bermans on the same date, Aug. 4, the previous year was hardly low-key: 200 friends and relatives came.
At last summer’s party, Berman took in the faces of friends, relatives, colleagues and medical professionals who’ve helped nurse her husband back to health and enabled her to hold things together.
“As I looked around the room, that really struck me: Everybody had a hand in getting us to where we were,” she said.
Earlier on, Noah directed his mother to a higher source.
When people asked how they could help, Berman passed along a religiously observant relative’s suggestion to undertake one “spiritual resolution,” as she defines it. Berman committed to light Shabbat candles on Friday evenings, reverting to a practice she had grown up with as a child in Brooklyn.
“Maybe if we do it, people will follow us and God will help us,” Noah told her. Even when Brad’s condition improved, the family’s candle lighting continued at the urging of Noah.
“We can’t just stop when Daddy gets better,” Berman recalled him saying. “We can’t just ask for things. We have to also say thank you.”
Noah plays in a hockey league, and he and Andrew are passionate fans of the sport — and like their parents, of the Islanders, too. As a high schooler, Berman attended her first NHL game at the Islanders’ arena, Nassau Coliseum, and immediately reveled in the pace of play, along with the unifying effects of sports.
She remembers in particular a hard check by Islanders’ defenseman Darius Kasparaitis spurring a high five from two nearby spectators, clearly strangers.
“I thought that was so cool, and I always wanted to be around it,” Berman said, because sports “broke down boundaries in a way nothing else could.”
Early on, Berman didn’t play sports, but undertook unconventional roles on the periphery. At James Madison High School, she served as manager of the boys’ baseball team. At Brandeis University, she hosted a sports radio show. At the University of Michigan, she was manager of the men’s hockey team.
Berman says she has a “dream job” now. The prominent broadcaster Stan Fischler pictures the pioneering role for his former intern as the first woman to guide a men’s league.
Compared to a decade ago, many more women are occupying leadership roles on the business and marketing sides in men’s leagues. But “the numbers are not impressive, by any stretch, in terms of the baseball operations side,” said Kim Ng, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president for baseball operations.
One of three women to work as a team’s assistant general manager, Ng interviewed for several GM posts but did not land the jobs.
Still, Ng said of a female becoming commissioner of a male sport, “Yeah, I can envision it.”
Bob Batterman, a sports labor lawyer at Proskauer, for whom Berman worked on the post-lockout deal before the NHL hired her away, said she possesses “not only the intellect, but the practical knowledge and a way with people. She’s a great talent.”
Noting how Berman has succeeded amid the crisis in her personal life, Batterman also said, “She’s got more potential than anyone I know working in professional sports.”
Her hockey family was there for Berman during the tough times with scores of supportive messages and gifts. The Montreal Canadiens sent her two children replica jerseys. The Islanders invited the family to attend a recent game, where Noah and Andrew visited their hero, center John Tavares, in the locker room. The NHL Foundation made what Berman termed a “very, very generous donation” to the Burke clinic; individual teams contributed funds, too.
Berman said the league, the commissioner and the deputy commissioner were “so unbelievably supportive.”
“There’s no way I could have done this without them,” she said.