TORONTO — With his necktie unknotted and dangling off his shoulders, Brian Burke was his usual, opinionated self Monday at the 10th annual PrimeTime Sports Management Conference in downtown Toronto.
While speaking to TSN radio, addressing a large room of sports business professionals (and hopefuls), and talking one-on-one with Sportsnet, the Calgary Flames president of hockey operations shed light on a number of personalities and subjects including Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr, Sam Bennett, James van Reimsdyk, Nazem Kadri, and how he treats “red-flag” prospects.
On the Flames considering bringing back Iginla
Burke said his Calgary Flames took a long, hard look at not only Jaromir Jagr but also 40-year-old Flames icon Jarome Iginla—a potential signing of “a very serious veteran player” that would have rocked Alberta.
“We never made an offer to Jarome Iginla, but I think a player of that stature who had accomplished so much as a Calgary Flame, we spent a lot of time on him,” Burke told Sportsnet Monday.
“Is there a way that Jarome can contribute to our hockey club? Would it knock a kid out of a box? That’s the problem when you sign a 40-plus-year-old player. You’re taking a job from a younger player. Is that a sensible thing to do?”
Iginla, who is recovering from minor surgery, remains an unrestricted free agent. His preference is to land an NHL gig this winter. Would the Flames, whose offence ranks 25th overall, still consider adding Iginla?
“No,” Burke said. “We’re not looking at changes in that way.”
On why a teenaged Jagr arrived with a big, red flag
Burke told the conference room the Flames were impressed with the 46 points Jagr produced as a 45-year-old in Florida, but their decision to sign the mulleted legend went beyond simply production.
“He’s got great charisma. He brought some stature to the room. We have a great captain [in Mark Giordano], but we thought he would augment that because we have a very young team,” Burke said. “He’s 6-4, 240. He’s a great, big bastard.”
Burke remembers interviewing Number 68 (through a translator) during Jagr’s 1990 draft year in a hotel room in Prague. The executive was with the Vancouver Canucks at the time.
Jagr had never been a captain of a hockey team.
Burke says that’s “a huge red flag” for a star prospect. When Burke asked him why he’d never been a captain, Jagr said it’s because he’d always played with guys three years older than him.
“That’s the only good answer to that question in the history of pro sports,” Burke said. “We agonize over a guy playing up [an age group] one year in Canada. He played up three years.”
Burke’s Canucks opted to take Petr Nedved second overall. Jagr went fifth to Pittsburgh. Burke said Jagr would’ve gone first overall, but the Czech government maintained the young player still owed two years of military service.
“Pittsburgh is rumoured to have made some financial arrangement with the Czech government,” Burke said, “and Jaromir never served in the military.”
On why Sam Bennett would be “crucified” in Toronto
It took 16 games for highly touted Flames forward Sam Bennett to register a point this season.
“He got an assist [Thursday] night. My view is, once he gets one, he’ll get 10,” Burke told Sportsnet.
“Hopefully he snaps right out of it. We love him as a kid. His work ethic is great. And he has been a contributor even though he hasn’t scored. He’s tough, he hits, he fights. He makes a contribution even on the nights he doesn’t score.”
Burke said that scoring slumps of this magnitude “absolutely” get in the head of a 21-year-old.
“Tonight he’ll get another one, I bet.”
Burke told TSN radio that the Calgary media has been easier on Bennett than the Toronto media would be had Bennett been struggling to score for the Leafs.
“If he were in Toronto, they would’ve traded him 70 times, shot him six times, condemned his parents four times,” Burke said. “If he was going through that here, he’d be getting crucified.”
On why Burke was too ‘cowardly’ to trade for James van Riemsdyk on the draft floor
I like to describe James van Riemsdyk as Burke’s parting gift to the Maple Leafs.
The power forward, who is on pace for a second 30-goal season, was acquired by Toronto shortly after the 2012 draft for right-shot defenceman Luke Schenn. The defenceman has just two points and is a minus-5 this season for the last-place Arizona Coyotes, his third club since leaving the Leafs.
“We actually made that trade driving back from the draft because I was afraid to make it on the floor,” Burke told me.
“Because Luke Schenn was so popular, I thought I’d get fried for that one by the fans in Toronto. [Then Flyers GM] Paul Holmgren wanted to make the deal at the draft in Pittsburgh. I said, ‘No, we’ll do it on the way home.’ I was a coward. I did it in my truck driving home. Our fans loved Luke Schenn. I did not know it would work out as well as it has. JVR has been great.”
Despite his Calgary focus, Burke still keeps tabs on the players he acquired during his tenures in Vancouver, Anaheim and Toronto.
“When I see the Leafs play, I’ll stop and talk to the guys [I brought there]. You still take pride in the guys you leave,” Burke said. “I’m down to two in Vancouver—just the twins.”
On his strong opinions about the Maple Leafs…
Burke isn’t surprised to see the Toronto Maple Leafs off to a fast start, pointing out in a radio interview that the organization has a quality head coach, a quality GM, and quality players.
Of all the Burke-acquired members of the Leafs, he was most impressed watching 2009 first-rounder Nazem Kadri explode for 61 points in 2016-17 season.
Burke describes the shutdown centre with adjectives such as “belligerent,” “obnoxious” and “truculent.” From Burke, these are of course compliments of high order.
“He was a bit of a project,” Burke said on-air. “Kinda cocky. [Former Marlies coach] Dallas Eakins had to hit him upside the head with a two-by-four a couple times.”
… and the Maple Leafs media
During his radio appearance, Burke voiced strong comments on the Toronto hockey media.
“When things are going well, they’re picking out a parade route, right? Should we go down Bay Street or Yonge? When things are bad, it’s like, ‘We gotta get rid of these guys. We’ve got to change 10 players, get rid of the coach, get rid of the GM.’ That’s the nightmare of working in Toronto. But it’s one of the attractions of working in Toronto, too. It is the Vatican,” Burke said.
“There’s a significant chunk of the [Toronto] media that wants you to fail. We don’t have that in Calgary. We don’t have that in Edmonton. It’s a different vibe.”
Burke said that the beauty of his current role as president is that GM Brad Treliving bears the brunt of the media responsibility. So what if Burke is the better quote?
“I don’t mind being in the backseat,” he said.
On a sure way to get fired by Brian Burke
Before the Flames hit the draft floor, team executives and scouts get in a room so they can argue, curse, yell and eventually settle on a draft list. That list is always arranged according to who is the best player, regardless of position. That list is final.
“I tell our scouts this: ‘If you want to get fired, argue on the floor. Argue on the floor that day,’” Burke told the audience. “Goddamnit, you argue about that list on the floor, you’re getting canned.
“If the top name on that list is a defenceman, we’re taking a goddamn defenceman. Doesn’t matter if we’ve got positional depth there. You adjust your depth chart by trades.”
On why his “Do Not Draft” List is a real thing
Burke can not overestimate the importance of scouting and developing in hard-cap system.
Thus the Flames have a “Do Not Draft” list that does away with the theory of dropping talented first-round-projected athletes to Round 2 or Round 3 due to behavioural issues.
“My view is, he’s still going to be a problem for my coach in the second round. He’s still going to be a problem for my coach in the third round. We just don’t draft him,” Burke said.
“If you bring in a guy who is a big enough headcase, it’s probably gonna cost you a coach. And we don’t want to do that.
“They don’t exist for us.”
Burke said he was picking the collective brain of the Indianapolis Colts, watching their draft prep 15 years ago, when Bill Polian as the helm, and was relieved to see that NFL team also had five names specified as “Do Not Draft.”