Brian Burke said the decision to trade for Phil Kessel was made mostly as a business decision to give Toronto Maple Leafs fans a new star player to cheer for and buy tickets to go see.
“The Phil Kessel acquisition was in large part because I thought we had some ticket price fatigue,” Burke said in wide-ranging interview with Bob McCown on Prime Time Sports Monday. “If we’re not going to win, let’s at least have a star player with what we charge for tickets.”
The Maple Leafs, with Burke as GM, acquired Kessel from the Boston Bruins for two first-round picks and a second-round pick. But due to poor performances, those ended up being high picks which the Bruins used to draft star OHL players Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight.
As is common with the Maple Leafs, Burke was criticized heavily by fans and the media for the trade, even though Kessel scored over 30 goals in six of his eight seasons with the Leafs.
Burke was eventually let go by the Maple Leafs in January of 2013, weeks before the lockout-shortened season began. The Maple Leafs hadn’t made the playoffs in Burke’s five years with the team, but did the first season after he was fired.
“I have no bitterness about getting let go here,” Burke said. “But that team that year was the fastest team in the NHL and the toughest team in the NHL and that team made the playoffs.
“So I said to them in the meeting when they fired me, ‘why wouldn’t you give me the shortened season? If I miss the playoffs you can fire me, but this team is not going to miss the playoffs. We’ve finally got the formula.’ But they said ‘no we’re going to make the change.'”
While he has no regrets about his time with the Maple Leafs, he did say the market has “an overwhelming negativity.”
“The issue [in Toronto] for me … it’s a sheer volume thing,” Burke said. “And when you’re not successful, they all pick up a rock and they throw it.
“But I’m not making excuses, we didn’t win enough games.”
Burke touched on many of his career stops during his 45 minute discussion with McCown. Here are some of the other highlights from the interview.
On the most underrated trade he ever made
Burke is well-known for pulling off a trade and drafting both Sedin twins for the Vancouver Canucks in 1999. But he credits a different, but still major, draft-day trade for putting him on the map as a GM.
At the 1993 NHL draft, at the end of his time as GM of the Hartford Whalers, Burke traded winger Sergei Makarov, and picks No. 6, 45 and 53 in the draft for pick No. 2 which he then used to select future Hall-of-Famer Chris Pronger.
Burke then joined the NHL head office before the 1993-94 season and served as executive vice president and director of hockey operations for five years.
“So when I went back on the job market after five years with the league, I had a little bit of a track record to show because by then [Pronger] was a star,” he said.
On working with Gary Bettman in the NHL head office
Burke says Gary Bettman gave him his most important education when the two worked together in the league office.
“When you work for Gary Bettman, it’s like getting an MBA from Harvard Business School,” Burke said. “He’s brilliant.”
But Burke left the NHL after five years to become general manager of the Canucks in 1998. While he said he enjoyed his time with the league, he left because wanted to have a rooting interest again.
“I said to [Bettman] that I can’t stand going to games and not caring who wins. That was the worst part of the job,” Burke said. “I said I’ve got to get back to a team. I have to get somewhere where the losses and wins are important.”
On being coached by Lou Lamoriello at Providence College
Before going to Harvard Law School, Burke played four years at Providence College where he was coached by Lou Lamoriello.
As hockey fans would probably expect, Lamoriello was a tough customer behind the bench back then, but Burke credits that drive for Lamoriello’s success in the NHL.
“I think the one thing that was obvious, even when I met him that fall in 1973, was that this was a serious guy that spent all his time preparing for whatever was in front of him,” Burke said of Lamoriello. “He would not accept losing. He’s a guy who just knows how to get to someplace then works his tail off to get there.”
Burke told a story about missing a practice on Christmas Day because Ron Wilson, a teammate at Providence who would later coach the Maple Leafs under Burke, unplugged his alarm as a prank. Lamoriello was obviously not impressed.
“Some prank,” Burke said. “I had to skate at four in the morning for nine straight days for being late.”
You can listen to the full interview in the player below.