Brian Burke knew that if he did his job well in Calgary he’d essentially work himself out of a gig.
Mission accomplished, said the 62-year-old Friday after it was announced he and the Flames were parting ways after five years.
“It’s time – it’s a sensible time to part ways as friends,” said Burke in a phone call shortly after the Flames sent out a media release saying he was “stepping back” as the team’s president of hockey operations effective May 1.
“When we extended Tree’s (GM Brad Treliving) contract last summer I said ‘at some point I’m going to be redundant now.’ And here we are. I’m absolutely comfortable with this. I think people often try to colour things and say, ‘it’s a mutual agreement,’ when it’s not. But it is in this case.”
Burke was hired in September 2013 to stabilize a franchise that had lacked direction for years by sacrificing the future in an attempt to eke into the playoffs.
It was a brilliant move on several fronts as it gave the team a credible figurehead who was not only savvy as a hockey mind but a resource on the business and community side few other team executives in pro sports are capable of providing.
Burke relieved GM Jay Feaster of his duties after one season and was the acting GM until he made his most important move with the Flames – hiring Treliving to oversee the team.
Despite being a longtime assistant GM in Phoenix, Treliving leaned heavily on Burke as a rookie GM in the early years while rebuilding an organization that had long gone year to year without a long-term vision needed to stock the cupboards with young talent.
This team is there now, which is why Burke was essentially reduced to luxury status.
“A few factors have changed since I got here,” said Burke, whose focus the last several years has been community and business relations. “Number one, Tree has been on the job for four years now. I’m not sure if he needs Brian Burke anymore and I told (Flames president and CEO) Ken (King) that.
“Number two is, Tree brought in Don Maloney and he provides some of the grey hair and the wisdom that would help a young guy. He’s a wonderful guy. So there’s more support here than when I got here.
“Three is, I’m sick of the commute. I want to spend more times with my (12 and 14-year-old) daughters. For five years now I’ve been doing 10,000 km a month to see my kids (in Toronto) – I don’t think most people realize that.”
So he’ll move back there, where he ran the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It’s there he’ll spend the rest of the playoffs as an analyst on Sportsnet’s TV coverage – joining the ranks of the great unwashed he’s so long had a love-hate relationship with.
“I’m going to the dark side,” he joked. “The IQ of the group will go up by 60 points.”
Burke said he might also teach law school again, as he did in Vancouver for ten years (He graduated from Harvard law school).
Is he done as a hockey executive after 31 years in the business?
“I want to do something else,” said Burke, who has worked every angle of the business from league executive and agent to GM and hockey president. “I think I want to stay in Toronto so no, I probably won’t (join another team).”
Larger than life in every way, Burke was perhaps the last of any rock star executives in hockey. Any room he walked into had people turning heads and whispering.
Wearing his tie over his shoulders and slicking his hair back, Burke was fawned over around town wherever he went, posing for endless photos and signing autographs.
Nobody is better at shaking hands and kissing babies, which served the organization well in its endless community endeavours and business relationships.
“The number one role here was to have input on the hockey side – every trade, coaching decisions… Tree and I would talk four to six times a day and meet for two hours in his office at a time,” said Burke of the early years. “Number two is the corporate support – speaking to business groups and season ticket holder groups.
“Three was community outreach, which is part of the Flames’ DNA. I’m proud of what we did with all three.”
He insists he has no regrets.
“None,” said Burke, who was true to his word upon arrival when he said he’d stay in the background and let the GM be the star. “I think the team is in great shape. There are a couple patches we need to put together this summer but I like the new coach.
“I think we’ve plugged a lot of holes and put a lot of key pieces in place. We brought in a top GM. And Jay Feaster deserves some credit here, even though I terminated him – he put some key pieces in place. I think the draft has been solid in my time – and Tree deserves the credit for that, not me.
“I’m grateful to have spent five years here.”