Johnson: Will the frank, fiery Brian Burke really be able to stay in the background?
Flames’ new president of hockey operations has never been one to stand idly by when the media needs a good thrashing
Fear not. The raging typhoon hasn’t dissipated into a tepid trickle. Rest assured. The gurgling volcano has not unleashed its last civilization-burying torrent of molten lava.
Just because Brian Burke says he has at long last chosen life behind the curtain doesn’t mean he is any less the great and powerful Oz, pulling all the levers, sending up the stage smoke.
“If I was worried about my image,” wise-cracked the Calgary Flames’ new President of Hockey Operations, “I would’ve done a much better job about it before I got here.”
Old habits dying hard, he peered out on the sea of gathered media like a veteran fighter wearing the scar-tissue of a dozen title bouts sizing up 50 or so new, so-obviously-overmatched sparring partners.
“I mean,” he went on, “I’m not going to change.
“If you ask me a question I’m going to answer it. If you ask me if I like this tie, I’m gonna tell you I don’t like it.”
Haberdashery aside, news of the hiring of Burke — the big-name summer “signing” the Flames, in their current rebuilding state, could never hope to land in free-agency — promised to spice up what is sure to be a long, lean, repetitive winter of on-the-job training for a lot of kids who may or may not prove to be the answer to what ails this franchise.
From an organizational standpoint, a well-timed explosion or two could actually be a pressure-lifting distraction.
Burke’s truculence, his withering defence of those in his employ, those snappy one-liners, are of course the stuff of legend. This is a man, after all, who once quipped: “There is no way Alex Auld was going to be on this team this year, unless he flew to France during the summer and bathed in the holy waters at Lourdes.”
Priceless. Utterly priceless.
So it came as a bit of a shock Thursday that someone so renowned for stepping in would actually be open to the idea of stepping back.
But will he? CAN he? For even an extended period of time? Really?
You don’t hire Brian Burke to be contrite, silent, obscured by shadow.
“I know people think I need to be driving the bus all the time,” protested Burke. “Well, I’m actually a pretty good teammate, too.
“The day-to-day guy, the guy that you talk to every day, is the coach. Played last, day off today, what about line combinations, what about injuries. That 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 is the guy that pulls the trigger. That’s Jay (Feaster). So 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. It’s more: This is how it has to work.
“So, no, I don’t intend to be front and centre. Actually, it’ll be a nice break after being front and centre, getting in a lot of little scraps with the media.
“This is a different job. I like that. For example, just this year, right before I got let go by Toronto, I was in Ufa for the World Juniors. I didn’t enjoy that. I got sick as a dog. The food was awful. And I said to myself ‘This is not a good use of my time.’
“This job 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.
“I don’t expect to be the spokesman for this team. I intend to have a background role. I think people will believe that when they see it, but trust me, they’ll see it.”
The newly-created position within a growing Flames’ management model is one that initially didn’t appeal to the man who eventually filled it.
“My first reaction,” admitted Burke, “is that I was not interested in the job. I thought I was going to get back as a GM and I wanted to wait for that. But once Ken (King) started to explain what the job involved and, as I just said to, the starting point here was Calgary was always an attractive city and I’m comfortable with the ownership group.
“So it’s not like ‘OK, pick a name out of a hat, would you work there?’ This is a place you kinda want to work. I like working in Canada. I like how important hockey is here. And I think you’ve got as knowledgeable and passionate a hockey fan as anywhere on the globe.
“This has great appeal to me. And I like working in Canada. I’ve worked in Canada. I’m a Canadian citizen. Everyone says I’m an American, which I was born and raised. But I am a Canadian citizen. Have been since 1993. I like working in Canada.”
And he’s always savoured the fight, both on the ice and off it. A contrite, silent, obscured-by-shadow Brian Burke?
Yeah. Right. As if.
“You’ve gotta understand, guys that works in pro sports never get up in the morning and say ‘Geez, I hope I have a fight with the media today.’ You get up and you read the paper and read something that’s not right and you snap. Or you’re asked a question in a press conference and you push back. Management almost never starts those fights.
“I felt my whole career that I had to protect my players. Ninety-nine out of 100 times when I get in a scrap someone went after one of my players or my coach. Not something they write about me because frankly I (couldn’t) care less.”
“So I haven’t changed at all. It’s just a different role.”
The hiring of Brian Burke isn’t going to tack 10-12 points on the Flames’ tote board this season. To believe that would be daft. This is still going to be as appetizing as a teaspoon of cod liver oil.
But it does promise to add some splashy colour tones to what shapes up as a flat, bleak, black-and-white winter landscape. He may not, as he claims, have to be driving the bus. But you can bet the first overall pick in 2014 that he’ll be up at the front, telling the driver what route to take.
“The reality,” says Jay Feaster, relenting on the hard-to-swallow Brian-in-the-background scenario for a revealing moment, “is that at some point somebody’s going to write something that’s going to get Brian upset and he’s going to let loose.”
Well, that, at least, is something to look forward to.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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