Brian Burke, centre, was introduced as the new President of Hockey Operations for the Calgary Flames on September 6, 2013. Flames President Ken King and General Manager Jay Feaster, were on hand for the announcement.
Photograph by: Colleen De Neve Colleen De Neve, Calgary Herald
At first, Brian Burke declined the job offer.
The 58-year-old had been a general manager many times before. In fact, his entire National Hockey League employment since 1992 (apart from five years as a league executive) has been spent as one.
But this position offered to him — president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames — was not a general manager’s role.
“This is a different job and I talked to my guys in the other sports that have pondered this scenario and watched it work,” Burke was saying on Thursday to a gathering of local media at the Scotiabank Saddledome, flanked by Flames president and CEO Ken King on one side and general manager Jay Feaster on the other. “It is a chance where ...”
He stopped himself, providing an example from earlier this winter before he was let go as the Toronto Maple Leafs GM in January.
“I was in Ufa (Russia) for the World Juniors,” Burke said. “I didn’t enjoy that. I got sick as a dog. The food was awful. I said to myself, ‘This is not a good use of my time.’ This job (with Calgary) allows a guy of my seniority to do less of the grunt work, the day-to-day stuff but still be involved.
“I had to get my head around that and Ken did a good job of selling that.”
So, familiar with the ownership group (he was in lockout negotiations with the NHLPA and Flames’ co-owner Murray Edwards last summer), a history with King and Feaster, and a grip on the actual position, Burke — the subject of rampant speculation on Wednesday night — finally accepted and signed a contract Thursday morning.
He’ll attend an Alberta Junior Hockey League function in Lloydminster, Alta., before returning to Toronto for the weekend to watch his daughters play soccer.
His first official day on the job is Monday.
“The rebuild we’ve talked about, there’s an opportunity to get there even faster,” said Feaster of Burke’s hiring. “I really do (believe that). We’ve said all long that we don’t want this to be a long rebuild.”
“Brian has been there and done that and has experienced that in Toronto.
“I think it’s an opportunity to get there even quicker.”
As of now, the chain of command in the Flames’ front office now looks like this:
Feaster, remaining as the team’s general manager, reports to Burke and consults him on any hockey-related matters.
Burke, as the team’s president of hockey operations, reports to King and consults with him and Feaster on any hockey-related matters and decisions. He is not the general manager nor is he the spokesperson of the team (really).
King remains as the president of the newly branded Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, overseeing the Flames and their American Hockey League affiliate Abbotsford Heat, the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen, the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, and the National Lacrosse League’s Calgary Roughnecks.
It’s an idea and role the Flames have had mulled over all summer which, at one point, included the courtship of NHL chief of player safety Brendan Shanahan (who politely declined).
“I love the concept, that’s what I’ve said to Ken from the very beginning,” Feaster said. “I think the devil is in the detail and getting the right person.
“I think, in Brian Burke, we are getting the right person ... I know our hockey guys are excited. John Weisbrod and Craig Conroy, the opportunity to sit down in a room and get his thoughts and have that lively debate.
“That’s the great thing about Brian — he’s not a shrinking violet. He’s going to tell us what he thinks.”
Optically, it’s a three-headed monster; the similar, relatively new organizational structure that is present with the Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers. It’s a relationship that is going to be a work in progress.
But known for being a straight shooter, Burke stressed the team aspect of the position and the behind-the-scenes role he accepted despite his reputation as being a bus-driver.
“If you look at the model where this has worked for other teams, the day-to-day guy, the guy you talk to every day should be the coach ... the transactional guy, if you make a trade whether it’s a big trade or a little trade, the guy that explains it should be the guy that pulls the trigger on the trade — that’s Jay.
“I don’t think there’s any way this works unless the guy in my position takes a lesser role. To me, it’s not protecting Jay. Jay’s a big boy. He’s got as many rings as I do (one apiece). It’s more this is how it has to work. It has to be the person in my role has to say it’s a more senior role, it’s not a day-to-day transactional operational role as much it’s a guiding, advising role.”
Burke, whose daughter Molly already lives and works in Calgary, becomes part of a team that needs help fixing and one that has already endured an interesting off-season with the flooded rink and historic draft.
Although he was the first to admit that he has a lot of learning to do about the Flames roster, he said an organizational overview — not overhaul — is needed. Personnel, scouting structure, everything will be evaluated.
“We think we know players,” Burke said. “So, you think ‘OK, I know the Calgary Flames’ and then you watch practice every day and you realize you don’t. Even when I took the job with Anaheim partway through last season and you watch the team. Holy cow, I was off on this guy, I was wrong on this guy’s foot speed, this guy’s a way more important player when you watch the players interact.
“So, unless you’re in the room, unless you’re part of the staff, you don’t really know a team.”
The plan is for Burke and Feaster to collaborate daily, pooling their expertise.
And goodness knows, Burke has a lot of it.
A law graduate of Harvard, the Edina, Minn., native has served as the general manager of four NHL clubs — the Hartford Whalers (1992-93), the Vancouver Canucks (1998-2004), the Anaheim Ducks (2005-08), a term that included a Stanley Cup championship, and the Toronto Maple Leafs (2008-13).
“Brian has had a storied and considerable and venerable hockey career, I think we all know that,” King said. “He’s had success, he’s won and he has had a huge impact on our sport not only on the ice but in many, many other ways.
“He had a big decision to make in terms of whether not for the next phase of his career he could move into a different role. He did make that decision and we couldn’t be more pleased that he decided to join us.”
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