His best shot

 

Harley Hotchkiss has a message he wants to pass along to Brian Burke: The rent is being increased to a $1,000 a day.

 
 
 
 
 

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Harley Hotchkiss has a message he wants to pass along to Brian Burke: The rent is being increased to a $1,000 a day.

"Tell Brian, with that big job of his in Toronto, that it is $1,000," says Hotchkiss, the part owner of the Calgary Flames and former chairman of the NHL board of governors.

The rent used to be $50 a day. Then it was $500. But now, with Burke joining the Toronto Maple Leafs as president and general manager -- the team will introduce him at a 2 p. m. ET news conference today -- Hotchkiss is doubling the per diem on the shotgun he loaned to his hunting buddy a few weeks back. Burke, after all, is expected to earn about $18-million over the next six years.

A generous man with a jesting, gentle soul, Hotchkiss would never actually charge Burke for borrowing the gun. He just could not resist firing a playful bullet at the Leafs' new top executive. Telling jokes, swapping stories, having drinks and talking hockey are what Hotchkiss, Burke, Glen Sather and Harry Sinden like to do when they get together to go pheasant and partridge hunting at Griffith Island, a privately owned hunting preserve northwest of Owen Sound, Ont.

Burke is the youngest in the group by more than a decade. But he is still a big man with a big presence, a big heart, a big mouth and big ambitions.

"I like Brian, we have a long-term friendship developed out of a respect for one another," Hotchkiss says. "He is funny. He is, at times, profane. I enjoy his company. When we get together -- Harry, Glen, Brian and I -- we have a good time.

We talk about some of the rivalries we have, and some of the challenges the game is facing.

"But a lot of it is just fun."

The annual trip to Griffith Island occurred right before Burke announced his resignation from the general manager's post in Anaheim. He did not mention his plans to Hotchkiss, and his longrumoured association with the Leafs was never raised for group discussion.

"Nobody asked him about it," Hotchkiss says. "If Brian wants to tell you something or talk about something, he will."

Instead, the four buddies blasted away with their shotguns, and enjoyed the company. Each man has an assigned role on these excursions. Hotchkiss is the gentleman-host. Sather, the president and general manager of the New York Rangers, is the sarcastic joker. Sinden, the longtime Boston Bruins chief, is the storyteller. And Burke is the young pup.

The new Leafs president has always listened and learned at the elbow of his hockey elders. Burke's coach at Providence College was Lou Lamoriello. His American Hockey League coach was Pat Quinn, who later hired Burke to work for him in the Vancouver Canucks' front office, his first job in management. Attentive though he may be, Burke also possesses a temper and never shies away from a confrontation, be it with an enemy, an elder or an old friend.

"Brian is honest," Hotchkiss says. "Sometimes, he can be brutally honest. He comes at you. You know, if I said or did something Brian did not like, I'd hear about it, straight on. Brian can be a lot of fun to be with, and I enjoy that side of Brian. I have seen it hunting and elsewhere. But he is combative and competitive."

Burke can't help it. He was the fourth of 10 children to come along in a big, rollicking Irish-American clan. Playing to win and chasing down the American Dream were simply part of being a Burke. His two older brothers went to Ivy League schools. One was a wrestler, the other a football player. Little brother Brian chose hockey, or it chose him, when the family moved to Minnesota when he was 12.

The matriarch minding things was his grandmother, a sage giver of advice that has helped shape the man Burke is today.

"She said don't ever start a fight, but for God's sake don't ever walk away from one because that's the worst cowardly sin you could ever commit," Burke once told the National Post. "I'd come home to Grandma with a bloody lip and she'd say, 'You been in a fight?' And I'd say 'Yes.' And she'd say 'Did you start it?' And I'd say 'No.' Then she'd say, 'Well, did you finish it?' And that was the big deal: Burkes do not walk away from fights."

They do not forget their friends either. Hotchkiss knows to expect a letter from Burke every St. Patrick's Day. The letter will include a picture of Burke's six kids, from his two marriages, and a description of what each child is up to.

Family is one of the primary reasons Burke wanted to move east, and why the Leafs top job represents both a practical fit and the perfect challenge for an ambitious Irishman. But even if the 53-year-old is contractually outfitted to operate freely by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the personnel issues he is facing in Toronto could prove difficult to resolve. Beyond Luke Schenn, the can't-miss-rookie, and Mikhail Grabovski, the pleasant surprise, the Leafs are desperately thin on top-flight talent and bright young prospects.

Burke is not afraid of making big changes. In Anaheim, he bundled two prospects with three draft picks and shipped them to Edmonton for Chris Pronger. He also signed free agent Scott Niedermayer and gambled that an ageing Teemu Selanne still had something left to give. All the bets paid off, as Burke's Ducks won the 2007 Stanley Cup.

In Vancouver, he dealt Pavel Bure to Florida for Ed Jovanovski and a young Bryan Mc-Cabe to Chicago for a first round pick in 1999, a selection that netted the Canucks the Sedin twins.

Of course, in every instance, Burke had the advantage of pre-existing assets to bargain with.

But what exactly does he have in Toronto? And what will Burke do to remodel the Maple Leafs?

Hotchkiss can't say, although he is rooting for his old hunting buddy. Hotchkiss is originally from Tillsonburg, Ont. The Leafs were his team. Syl Apps was his first hero. There are even black-and-white Hotchkiss family photographs, hanging around somewhere, showing the Flames part owner in a Maple Leafs sweater, playing shinny on the family pond.

"I've got a warm spot in my heart for the Maple Leafs and that city, and I'd like to see Toronto do well," Hotchkiss says.

"They are a premium franchise in the league -- if not the premium franchise in the league. So I'd like to see Toronto do well from a league perspective and I think Brian, if he is given the latitude to operate effectively, will do well. That is a big organization, of course, but I think if you give Brian some freedom and room to operate it, he'll build it.

"He did it in Anaheim. And he did a pretty good job in Vancouver. Brian is great in a community, because he is so outspoken, sometimes almost brutally so.

"And I think the fans down there are going to appreciate that."

 
 
 
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