Sports + Entertainment Senior Agent, Thomas Houlton, Helps Make History with Sarah Nurse on the cover of NHL 23
August 24, 2022
For the first time ever, a woman will grace the cover of EA Sports NHL video game. And that woman is our Sports + Entertainment talent, Sarah Nurse. Coming off a record breaking performance and gold medal at the Olympics, Sarah was tapped to be on the cover along with Anaheim Ducks player Trevor Zegras.
How this vision came to life is solely at the hands of one man: Dulcedo Sports & Entertainment senior agent Thomas Houlton. We spoke to Thomas about this historic moment and all the behind the scenes action that took place to make this dream a reality. And the old adage, don't judge a book (or video game in this case) by its cover rings true... the story is a lot more nitty gritty than the easy Cali vibe we see on the EA NHL 23 cover.
As a seasoned sports agent, what was your career trajectory?
I have been in the industry for the better part of the last five years. I began my career at Quartexx Management, an elite Montreal hockey agency. This is where I got my first taste of working with professional athletes as I observed and aided in the daily routines of certified NHLPA agents. I then made the move over to Dulcedo Management where I was the second hire in the Sports & Entertainment division. I have since played a large role in leading the development of the division to where it is today. When I first started, we had four professional athletes and one agent. We have now grown to six agents and represent 60+ athletes.
My interest has historically been hockey but since starting with Dulcedo I have found a passion in the Olympic space, through having helped notable athletes develop their personal brands and sponsorship portfolios. My commitment to providing exceptional service and strong understanding of the digital landscape has helped me establish a strong reputation in the industry. When working with Olympic level athletes you feel that you are truly making a difference in their careers and everyday lives.
How did you come to represent Sarah Nurse?
I reached out to Sarah just before Christmas in 2018. She was in the middle of her rookie season with the Toronto Furies and was coming off an Olympic Silver medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics the same year. We had numerous conversations before she eventually signed with Dulcedo in September of 2019— a whole 10 months later! But the best talents always take the longest to sign. Next month, we will now have been working together for four years.
How did this historic deal with EA and Sarah come about?
This historic deal with EA began fruition in October of 2021. Myself along with three of my peer agents in the industry helped negotiate a licensing agreement between EA and Hockey Canada to include women in the NHL 22 video game for the first time ever!
Sarah and three of her teammates became the face of this partnership. It was here that Sarah and I began to develop a strong relationship with Matt Sacks, the head of athlete and partnership marketing at EA for the NHL franchise.
Once the deal was finalized, Matt and I chatted regularly as we coordinated the different elements on that initial partnership.
I remember jokingly telling Matt that, “next we’re going to have to talk about the cover”. Lo and behold, an Olympic Gold medal, and a tournament points record later, Matt calls me to tell me they were going to do it! Sarah was going to be the first ever woman to grace the cover of the NHL video game.
In this line of work, strong relationships are the foundation of any successful partnership. It goes without saying that the athlete in question must be the perfect fit for the partnership, and Sarah was just that. But the work that goes on behind the scenes between brands and agents is the foundation that secures and strengthens a partnership, especially one of this magnitude. There’s many long hours that play a role in the shadows that can make or break the success of a partnership, and I’m grateful that my relationship with EA helped get us to the finish line.
Why do you feel this was a natural partnership?
This was a natural partnership due to the success we saw when Sarah and the rest of her teammates were integrated into the game for the first time in January of 2022. The overall sentiment was extremely positive from the hockey community. Women’s hockey had a tremendous amount of momentum behind them at this time as they are on the cusp of developing a viable professional women’s ice hockey league in North America. The Canada-United States Women's Hockey Gold Medal game drew a record TV audience of 2.7 million, making it the most-watched event of the Beijing Olympics. People are finally taking notice of the incredible talent these women have.
For Sarah personally, she paired an Olympic Gold medal with the Olympic record for most points and assists in a single tournament. Off the ice, her work speaks for itself as she has been at the forefront of the conversation around diversity and inclusion in hockey. This seemed like an inevitable next step and Sarah was the natural first choice.
Why does Sarah have such “star” power?
Sarah is a marketer’s dream. She has all the qualities brands look for in working with professional athletes; tangibly, she is dominant in her sport and off the ice carries herself with a laid-back swagger. Intangibly, she is extremely charismatic and humble in her approach to everything she does. The camera absolutely loves her, often only needing one take when taking part in large productions.
Everything Sarah does stands for a greater good as she inspires the next generation of female hockey players which makes all of her partnerships so impactful. In this digital world, she has a tremendous understanding of the social media landscape and is an exceptional content creator. Her larger than life personality shines through everything she does— you’ll always catch her laughing or with a smile on her face.
What is your favorite thing about working with Sarah?
Sarah and I have not only developed a strong working relationship but a friendship as well. One of my favorite things about working with her is how incredibly appreciative she is of all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Every new project we work on together she seems to understand the assignment and executes it to perfection.
As an agent, I truly believe that you are only as strong as your talent. Sarah is on a path towards creating a long lasting legacy and I’m very fortunate to be by her side through all of it. The trust she has put in me to help build her career certainly means a great deal to me.
What were the biggest challenges during this entire journey to launch?
Like every partnership, this one came with its own set of challenges such as scheduling and the pandemic, and having to keep this historic moment a secret for the past seven months.
But I think one of the biggest challenges was navigating how the cover would be received once announced. Having a woman on the cover of video game in a male-dominated sport will have unfair backlash. Although misguided and a dated way of thinking, this is something Sarah is used to.
The greater challenge comes when you pair that with the ongoing Hockey Canada controversy. On the cover Sarah will be seen wearing her Hockey Canada jersey. Questions will certainly arise as to why Hockey Canada should be granted the privilege of having this honor. While it’s justified to acknowledge the negative emotions the jersey might bring forth for some, above all we want this historic cover to celebrate how far women’s hockey has come. This cover goes beyond the jersey and is representative of the incredible hard work and resilience Sarah and her peers have put into making the game more inclusive. These women truly deserve their spotlight. This is another step in the right direction for giving young girls the opportunity to play professional hockey for a living.
What are you most proud of with this campaign?
The thing I am most proud about with this campaign is the long lasting impact it will have on the next generation of female hockey players. Every partnership with Sarah serves a greater purpose, whether it’s with Tim Horton’s, having a Matel Barbie doll, being on the cover of a Cheerios box, or this video game cover, visibility is the ultimate goal.
If young girls can see it, they can dream it, and ultimately be there one day. I told Sarah when I signed her that if we can have success marketing her, we will also bring more exposure to the women’s game.
In the past four years, we haven’t wavered from that goal. I’m also proud that this is such a momentous partnership that for the first time in history a woman appears on the cover of an NHL video game. This is a game that I personally grew up playing with all my friends and bringing this partnership to life has arguably been my greatest and most meaningful career accomplishment to date.