Brian Burke on Kessel trade, trying to get Tavares, and more

Brian Burke. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

Long-time NHL general manager and executive Brian Burke has joined Sportsnet’s crew of on-air analysts for at least the next two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

His broadcasting career likely won’t end there, either. Burke says it’s time for him to make a career change so he can be closer to his family.

“I’m trying to make a career switch here,” Burke told Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman on the 31 Thoughts Podcast. “I’m sick of the commute. My daughters are going to be here no matter what — they’re 14 and 12 so it’s not like they’re one year away from graduation. I want to spend more time with them so yes my plan is to make a career shift to go to the dark side.”

But while it’s most likely this is a role he’ll stay in for the foreseeable future, he didn’t completely close the door on the NHL.

“There are a couple owners I really like in this league. Most of them not. Most of them I’m indifferent about or don’t like. There are a couple situations I would have to think hard about given the people involved. But they’d involve commuting too much and so I’d think the answer is no.

“I wouldn’t rule out anything. I taught law school for 10 years, a lot of people don’t know that. When I worked for the Canucks I taught at UBC law school and I really enjoyed that. I might do some of that.”

Burke adds another set of experienced eyes to the Sportsnet team as someone who served as GM for four different teams and worked in the league head offices, including the most thankless job as the league’s chief disciplinarian. The 62-year-old started as a player agent in the 1980s before joining the Canucks front office and then getting his first GM job with the Hartford Whalers in 1992. He most recently stepped away from his role as president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames. Burke played in the NCAA and in the AHL and can speak as a veteran on a wide array of topics.

Here are some highlights from his interview on the 31 Thoughts Podcast this week, which touched on topics from how a supplemental discipline hearing unfolds, to his biggest regret, first big trade, and more. You can listen to the full audio here:

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

“There will be people who watched last night’s game (Tom Wilson hit) and say it should be 10 games. I saw a commentator on TV say ‘well if they gave 10 for all of these they’d stop.’ We don’t want to do that. We want these things to stop, but if you’re too hard then the hitting disappears. If you said anything like we’re going to give 10 games for this, well then you’re going to stop having bodychecking. None of us want that.

“The hitting will disappear where a player is not sure and he says ‘well maybe I’ll do this or whatever. When you take out even 10 per cent of the hitting you might as well have taken out 30 per cent of the hitting.

“My point is someone will say it’s worth 10, someone will say it’s worth two, Capitals fans will say it’s worth nothing.”

“There is a weighing system on playoff games. So the notion that one regular season game is the same as a playoff game: no it’s not, never has been. I won’t tell you what the weighing system is because I don’t know what it is, but certainly two for one in the first round. So if it’s a four-gamer in the first round it’s not going to be more than two, it’s a minimum of two and it went up.”

Burke was in charge of supplemental discipline for the league in the mid-1990s. In 1996, he suspended Colorado’s Claude Lemieux for two Stanley Cup final games after he brutally checked Detroit’s Kris Draper into the boards from behind during Game 6 of the conference final.

“I think in the final our unofficial rule might have been four or five to one. So Lemieux might have got 20 games for that; he got four instead and missed games in the final.”

In July of 2007 Burke was GM of the Anaheim Ducks and Dustin Penner was an RFA. Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe swooped in and signed Penner to an offer sheet worth $21.25 million over five years, which infuriated Burke. The Ducks didn’t match the contract, which resulted in Penner heading to Edmonton and Anaheim receiving the Oilers’ first-, second- and third-round picks in 2008. The episode led to threats of a barn fight between the two GMs. Burke explained he regretted going after Lowe the way he did, though the two have patched things up since.

“I like Kevin Lowe and I respect Kevin Lowe. But what he did was just so stupid to me and I fried him and then he challenged me to a fight on the air. He said ‘Brian Burke, anytime anywhere’ and I’m like OK. First off, Kevin Lowe’s not afraid of me, Kevin Lowe’s not afraid of anyone…that’s the type of people we are. And I’m not afraid of Kevin Lowe. But I thought it was a cowardly way to ask for a fight.

“So we went through the whole barn thing. People get confused by this: I never called Kevin Lowe and said ‘I’ll rent a barn let’s fight.’ I called Slats (Glen Sather) and I said ‘Slats your former protege challenged me to a fight last night on the radio, that’s not how you challenge someone to a fight, here’s how you challenge someone to a fight: I want you to call him and tell him August 2-3 I’ll be at Lake Placid at the under-18 tournament that USA Hockey runs. I’m staying at the Holiday Inn, I’ll rent a barn, I’ll kick his ass, I’ll drive him to the hospital and we’ll both go home.’

“So I never made the challenge to Kevin, but someone called the league and Bettman called me and said ‘I hear rumours you’re trying to stage this fight, I’ll suspend you both for longer than your contracts.’ So that was the end of the fight.

“(Brian’s son) Brendan heard me ripping Kevin to someone on the phone and he said ‘who are you talking about?’ and I said ‘Kevin Lowe.’ He said: ‘Didn’t he used to be your friend?’ and I said yes. And he said ‘Well I don’t approve, why do you carry on these grudges?’ I said ‘Brendan we’re Irish I expect you to carry on these grudges, not just me.’ So after Brendan’s accident I called Steve Tambellini and I said ‘You tell Kevin we’ve got a fence to mend’ and we’ve done that.”

Burke served as GM of the Hartford Whalers for one season in 1992-93 and the first player he acquired was Nick Kypreos. Burke said the team’s coach at the time, Paul Holmgren, singled out Kypreos as someone the GM needed to acquire if the team was to play the way he wanted, so it wasn’t an especially difficult move to make.

But on August 28, 1992 Burke made his first big splash in the trade market. He sent Bobby Holik and a second-round pick to New Jersey for Sean Burke and Eric Weinrich and discussed the thoughts that went through his head as the deal unfolded.

“Sean was our MVP that year and Eric Weinrich was our second-best defenceman, so it was a really good trade for us. You gotta remember I went into Hartford on the heels of the worst trade maybe in the history of the NHL, certainly in the history of the Hartford Whalers, which was John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski for Ulf Samuelsson and Ronny Francis (in March 1991).

“Lou Lamoriello was the general manager in New Jersey who made the deal. I was late for my first GM meeting because I had to talk to Sean Burke first…he didn’t finish the playoffs as the starter in the IHL that year in San Diego. Rick Knickle was the starter, Sean backed up.

“So I was late for my first GM meeting and I remember Phil Esposito just gave it to me: ‘Way to pay attention to the job rookie.’ And I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing. It was really embarrassing.

“I went to call Lou and started to dial the phone and put it down. And I picked it up and started to dial again and put it down. And finally, I said the third time, you gotta have some jam here, make the deal. Three tries.”

“I was saying the rosary that I hadn’t screwed up because that was my first big deal.”

“When I became a GM it was Lou Nanne, Bill Torrey, Cliff Fletcher and it was a pirate mentality. The ideal trade was one where you skinned the other guy. But I think my generation and the guys after me it’s more let’s try to make this work both ways. If it doesn’t, too bad.

“There’s still guys — Bob Murray’s like that in Anaheim, he’s a pirate. He revels in being a pirate.”

“I don’t want to go back to three-hour games and multiple fights every night, I just think the amount of fighting we have right now to keep players accountable is maybe a little bit lower than it should be. But certainly the trend to take it out or get to the point where now you go to four games and see one fight, I’m not in favour of that.”

In 2009, Burke said publicly that he was going to do whatever it took to get Tavares to the Maple Leafs ahead of the draft. Tavares ended up going No. 1 overall to the Islanders, but Burke explained how he tried to negotiate a trade for the pick.

“The Islanders had the first pick and I called (GM Garth Snow) and I asked what he was going to do. Everyone thinks John Tavares was the consensus No. 1 pick, when in fact his skating was very average in junior. There were a lot of teams that had him two or three. I just felt the vision and the compete and everything, I felt he was going to be the best player from that draft and I was right. Just like I told Morgan Rielly we had him rated No. 1 (in 2012) and he’s so far been the best player, in the group of five anyway — you could argue guys behind him.”

Burke said in his initial call to Snow the Isles GM shot down a trade outright. Burke suggested that if he offered 10 first-round picks that Snow would have to take it — but didn’t make that offer. He said the same thing about offering five and three first-round picks for Tavares to make the point that there were deals Snow would accept for the pick.

“When I said publicly we are going to try to move up and get the first pick and someone asked who you’d take and I said John Tavares, Snowy said ‘well now you’ve boxed me in, don’t call me again.’ So he wouldn’t take may call right up to the draft.

The Leafs ended up with Nazem Kadri seventh overall.

Burke’s most famous and controversial trade as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs was acquiring Phil Kessel from Boston for two first-round picks and second-rounder.

“If you want to talk about mistakes, we should have lottery protected the pick on Phil. We actually talked about it and we thought there was no way we’d pick top five. We felt he’d add to our team, we’re improving. We actually talked about it. We were terrified more of it being for Taylor Hall than Tyler Seguin… Taylor Hall petrified us. We were comfortable enough our team wouldn’t finish bottom five we’re going to do this deal.”

“Back then lottery protection wasn’t really in vogue. I think we talked about it briefly and they said ‘no you make the deal or walk.’ Now lottery protection is standard.”

Largely because of the Kessel trade, Burke is often criticized for rushing what should have been a long-term rebuild through the draft, along the lines of what the current management group has done.

“The problem was when I went through the interview process here in Toronto I told Larry Tanenbaum and the Teachers’ Pension Board you’re looking at a five-year rebuild. I’m not going to say that publicly because I hate guys that do that. I hate guys that stand up on the first day and say it’s going to take five years — well you’re just buying five years of failure.

“Problem was the number of no-trade and no-move clauses and the one-way contracts with big money and term. So to just shovel out the stable and get rid of all those guys it took more than two years. And we made the Kessel deal that backfired us a bit with the pick, but I’d do that deal again. Phil was excellent here and I’m so glad he’s vindicated his time here with two rings in Pittsburgh.”

Burke and his son Patrick have been heavily involved in the You Can Play project and are outspoken supporters of the LGBTQ community. Burke was asked why an NHL player hasn’t yet come out, and he believes it goes deeper than the culture of the game.

“I think the real reason is, I get this all the time because I do a lot of speaking on behalf of the LGBTQ community. They say it’s too bad no one’s been comfortable enough to come out and I don’t think it’s a comfort zone based on the fans or our players. I think our players would readily accept a gay athlete.

“The issue is the reason gay men don’t come out, it’s most often there’s one close family member that they’re terrified of the reaction, whether it’s a mom, dad, or close uncle or aunt and they’re worried they’ll be excluded. Like Covenant House, which houses homeless youth, is 40 per cent LGBTQ. These are kids who their parents threw out when they said they were gay.

“Imagine in 2018 we still deal with ignorance and bias like that. So that’s what stops most people. I’ve had guys come out to me that I barely knew and they said they had to tell someone. That just won’t help you, I’m not part of your life. You’ve gotta come out to someone who you can confide in and grow that circle. So you come out to one person, then it’s two then you gradually grow that circle, then you’re openly gay.”

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