Ask Brian Burke to describe the secret of his success as a general manager in the National Hockey League and he’ll say it’s a strict adherence to Rule 20 in the GM Handbook.
“If everything is going south with your team, open the cargo hatch on the plane and violently shove the coach out,” Burke said. “Don’t push because he may grab you and take you with him. Remember, you control the coach’s fate.”
For those sitting in the audience at the National Hockey Coaches Symposium in St. Paul, Minn., last summer, it was hard to gauge the truth of those words behind Burke’s smiling Irish eyes. Was one of the game’s most dominating figures offering a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the NHL, or simply pulling the legs of the 600 volunteer coaches sitting in the audience?
In the back of the room, Ron Wilson fought to suppress his laughter. He had been hired by Burke, his Providence College teammate and long-time friend, to try to revive one of the most storied franchises in all of hockey, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Even as things were heading south last season with the Leafs, Burke stood by his coach, saying his job is “as safe as the gold in the treasury at Fort Knox.”
And when Burke is in your corner, you can take it to the bank.
“For me, if I was fighting in a war and was in a foxhole, I would want Brian Burke in there with me,” said Wilson, who was a co-captain with Burke at Providence under the direction of then coach Lou Lamoriello.
Loyal is one word his friends and colleagues use to describe the 55-year old Edina, Minn., native. Others would be “passionate,” “proud,” “direct” and “honest.” Turn it around and ask Burke if there’s one word that best describes him and he’ll say “patriotic.”
“I am a very proud American,” Burke said when asked to lead the underdog Americans into Vancouver for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. “I never had the opportunity to represent my country as a player because I wasn’t good enough, so this is my chance to give back.”
Leading the charge of the light brigade against insurmountable odds is not a role Burke shies away from. Especially when the battlefield is center ice in the town where he spent six years as the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks.
From Day one at the helm of the U.S. Olympic Team, Burke set out to orchestrate what he hoped would be the 30-year sequel to the Miracle on Ice. He started by assembling some of the brightest minds in the game, creating a consortium of American general managers to scout the growing ranks of American players in the NHL. He made it clear from the outset that he was not interested in assembling the 20 best American players but rather the 20 players who would make up a team that would give them the best chance to win.
And when the squad was announced on New Year’s Day 2010, it was Burke who stood front and center to take the heat.
“I remember when we announced the team on New Years Day and we got absolutely hammered in a lot of NHL cities,” Burke recalled. “One imbecile even wrote that only one guy on Team USA could even make Team Canada.”
Never being one to back down from a fight, whether along the boards or in the boardroom, Burke reveled in the underdog role. He immediately turned up the heat on the competition, claiming that not a dime would be bet on the underdog Americans while heaping praise and pressure on the Canadians and Russians.
And when the dust settled and the Olympic flame was doused, Burke’s charges waged a brilliant and hard-fought campaign before losing to Sidney Crosby and the Canadians, 3-2, in overtime in what many call one of the greatest games in history.
“To me the best part of that tournament for me was the expectations for that team were so low,” Burke said.
“For a team to go in and excel like we did and not lose a game until the last game of the tournament, in overtime, and to come that close was an indication and a validation of the young men we took.”
And while he probably would never admit it, the silver medal is further validation of his own place in hockey history. In the weeks and months following the Olympics, Burke has heard from countless Canadians who offer their congratulations while expelling a huge sigh of relief.
“The overwhelming sentiment going into Vancouver was ‘good luck, but not too much.’ And the overwhelming sentiment after it was over was ‘you had a great tournament but thank God you won the silver,’ ” Burke said.
A self-described “proud American,” Burke makes no secret of his love of working north of the border. He revels in the pressure that comes with leading a Canadian team, where the critical eyes of the country are upon every move you make.
“The American label doesn’t come up that often,” Burke said. “The game is global, it’s open to everybody. So it’s very seldom that someone refers to me as the ‘American GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.’ I’m the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
One thing that does come up, Burke said, is the concern that Canadians have for the rise of American hockey.
“I think people in Canada are acutely aware of the increasing power of the American eagle,” he said.
It all starts at the grass roots, which is why Burke is always willing to do whatever he can for USA Hockey. He is a product of the development system and has the utmost respect for volunteer coaches, just like the ones who taught him the game as a teenager in Edina, Minn.
Coming from Providence, R.I., Burke had never skated or played hockey, but after watching the kids playing on the frozen ponds and outdoor community rinks he decided that he wanted to play, too. The only problem was at 13 years old, he was way behind the curve.
It was then that Burke first experienced what USA Hockey is all about. Local coaches like Bob O’Connor, Bart Larson and John Brower quickly took a liking to the hulking Irish kid with the flaming red hair, providing him with a road map to his dreams.
“Every time I asked how do I get better, someone was there to say ‘you provide the sweat and we’ll show you what to do,’ ” recalled Burke.
Burke proved to be more than a willing student on and off the ice, gaining admission to Providence
College, where he first met up with Wilson, who was fast tracked for a bright future in the game.
Four years with the Friars and parts of two seasons in the American Hockey League, Burke realized that his future in the game would not be as a player. He earned a law degree at Harvard University in 1981 and became a player agent.
In 1987, he was hired by Pat Quinn, his former coach with the Maine Mariners, as the director of Hockey Operations for the Canucks. It would prove to be the first step in what has been a long career in the game.
After a brief stint as the GM of the Hartford Whalers, Burke went to work in the NHL front office as senior vice president and director of hockey operations where he served as the chief disciplinarian, and worked closely with Commissioner Gary Bettman on league direction, including collective bargaining matters.
Burke returned to Vancouver in 1998 where he turned around the struggling franchise by staging a draft-day coup by orchestrating a trade that would allow him to select the Sedin twins with consecutive picks.
After six years north of the border, Burke worked his magic in Anaheim where he brought California its first Stanley Cup championship in 2007 as the GM of the Ducks.
Along the way Burke’s passion for the game has never been questioned, and his no-bull style has earned him his share of friends and enemies along the way. But no matter whether you agree with him or not, there’s no denying that Burke is a man of tremendous integrity.
“He’s very dedicated and loyal to the people he’s working with and those who are working for him,” said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of Hockey Operations who also served as Team Leader for the U.S. Olympic Team.
He expects the same qualities from those around him. He places a premium on character, whether from his players, coaches or the most junior person working in the mailroom.
And as those around him will attest, there is no job too small or insignificant that Burke won’t take on if it means helping the team.
“He’s a guy who likes to be in the trenches. He likes to be around the locker room, be around the players and staff as they prepare for the game,” Johannson said.
“He’s said several times that he’ll fold towels if need be, meaning that he’ll do whatever he needs to help the team win. He’s there to support the players, he’s there to support the coaches and training staff and to stand up for his players.”
He’s also not afraid to lay into his players when the need arises, as he did when he ripped into his team hours after his squad shocked the Canadians with a 5-3 victory to round out the preliminary round as the No. 1 seed.
“They don’t hand out any medals for finishing first in the preliminary round,” Burke pointed out.
It’s that brutal honesty that has earned Burke the respect of his peers as he continues to be at the top of his profession. He has earned more than his share of accolades from the 2008 Lester Patrick Award to being named top executive of the year by several sports publications. But it was an award he recently received at USA Hockey’s Annual Congress in Colorado Springs that may eclipse them all.
For all he’s done to support and promote Americans in the game, USA Hockey presented Burke with the Distinguished Achievement Award. And standing there, in front of a packed room of volunteers from around the country, the Irishman with the gift of gab was suddenly at a loss for words.
“To be acknowledged by this group, which means so much to me, I’m touched by it, I’m grateful for it and I’m flattered by it,” Burke said.
“I just think it’s an unequal bargain. I should be giving USA Hockey an award. I feel that I’m the person who’s in debt here.”