TORONTO — It was a busy past week in the NHL. Not only did the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway, but there was the 2018 NHL Draft Lottery Saturday night and there was also some unexpected news involving one of the most well-known executives in hockey.
The Calgary Flames announced Friday that Brian Burke would be stepping back from his role of president of hockey operations with the team, but the Flames’ loss was television’s gain as Burke has joined Sportsnet’s coverage for the remainder of the post-season.
Saturday afternoon marked his first day on the job and we sat down with Burke to talk about his newest endeavour among other things.
Spoiler alert: He doesn’t use the word “truculence” but he does slip in a nicely placed “belligerence.”
Sportsnet: So, how did Day 1 go?
Burke: I thought it went well. I was a little rusty. I haven’t done TV in 14 years. Last time was 2004 so I tried like hell but it wasn’t my best I don’t think.
SN: Are you going to reach out to anybody for pointers on what you can do to improve?
Burke: I just asked the guys here if you see anything tell me right away, but I’ve done this before, I’m comfortable on camera and I know how I want to deliver my message and everything else.
SN: What’s the reaction been like the past few days? The news of you leaving the Flames kind of came out of nowhere for a lot of people.
Burke: The reaction’s been good. When I started talking to these guys about doing this, it was in conjunction with the team and [the Flames] wanted to make a change and as I told them, I’m about ready to make a change too if that’s what you want to do. So, it worked out fine and Sportsnet had asked for permission to use me in the second and third round, so it’s worked out perfectly.
But, a lot of people were surprised by the first announcement that I was leaving the Flames and then roughly 2 1/2 hours later the announcement from Sportsnet, so a lot of people were trying to reach me by phone Friday like, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’
SN: What’s the most appealing aspect about going into something like this?
Burke: Well, I always thought I’d end up doing this at the end and if I didn’t have a Stanley Cup ring I’d still be trying to win one. And the commute’s been really brutal. I do 10,000km a month just to see my daughters. Every other Wednesday to Sunday I’m commuting from Calgary back to Toronto. I come on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. My daughters come and stay with me when I’m home here then I go back Sunday night or Monday morning. I’ve done that five years. It’s over 10,000km a month and that’s [excluding] hockey travel. That’s no travelling with the team, that’s no scouting, that’s just commuting, so I’ve had enough.
I loved Calgary. It’s the best place I’ve lived in five different NHL cities, plus New York when I worked for the league. It’s the best place I’ve lived and I’m going to keep a home there. I have two homes there. I built a hunting property about an hour north of Calgary, which I’m going to keep and I’ll sell the house and get going.
SN: It seems like this was a no-bridges-burned situation, a mutual parting.
Burke: No, I loved working there. I told my owner the other day, he called me, I said, ‘I want to thank you for five great years.’ The owners are great guys, Ken King is a great guy, the work environment was terrific. It’s just our GM doesn’t need my help as much and I’d like to do something else.
SN: Is there anything about that job, or being an NHL exec, you think you’re going to miss?
Burke: I thought when I took the job as president of hockey operations, I really believed that I would be a nervous wreck at the draft because I’ve pulled off a couple of huge draft day deals. I thought that would be the test that I would go into withdrawal and it wasn’t like that. I was still at the table, still knew what was going on, and I enjoyed it even though I wasn’t pulling the trigger on anything, I wasn’t in charge, so I don’t think so.
Being around your players — I’ve always been close with my players — I’m going to miss that part but I think I can see all the guys when they come to Toronto so I think I can maintain those relationships.
SN: Are you open to getting back into a front office role one day?
Burke: I would never say never. I’m open to virtually anything. I’ve always wanted to work abroad. I’ve always wanted to do a year working with a Swiss or Swedish or German team because I’ve never lived outside of North America but I wouldn’t do that until my daughters go to university. I don’t know what the future will hold. I wouldn’t rule out anything.
SN: In terms of broadcasting, who are some of your influences? Who are you a fan of watching, regardless whether it’s hockey or another sport?
Burke: This is going to sound self-serving but it’s not, I’ve said it publicly many times, I think we’re blessed in our sport. We’ve got an abundance of talented people. ‘Doc’ Emrick and Eddie Olczyk are fantastic on NBC. Mike Milbury, Jeremy Roenick, and then the Hockey Night guys Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson. I could listen to them call a game all day. And in the studio I think there’s some really strong talent, especially here, and these are guys I’ve been friends with for years. Nick Kypreos played for me (with the Hartford Whalers) and Kelly Hrudey did our broadcast stuff.
I think my style is going to be what people are used to over the years. I’m going to say what I think and if you like it, great, and if you don’t, too bad.
SN: Your first assignment fell on the 2018 NHL Draft Lottery day and you’ve been a part of many draft lotteries in the past. What’s the best and worst part about that day for a GM or exec?
Burke: I found this entire process really humiliating. The notion that the only teams that are here are non-playoff teams. For a while it was just a few teams but now it’s all the non-playoff teams, which I don’t agree with by the way.
I found it very humiliating. I remember sitting up there, it was the Morgan Rielly draft (in 2012 when Burke was GM of the Maple Leafs), with Steve Tambellini and Scott Howson (both formerly of the Oilers) and I said ‘Are you guys as embarrassed as I am to be sitting here because we suck?’ I found the whole thing embarrassing.
I’ve never won or moved up in them at all so as far as enjoying them or not enjoying them, I found them humiliating and I never got any good results out of them so I hate the whole thing.
SN: Of all the teams still in the playoffs, which one is your favourite to watch play?
Burke: Winnipeg. I love the skill level and they’ve got some real belligerence to the group. They’re just hostile, angry people, I love it.
Vegas is fun to watch for a totally different reason. They’ve got the puck all night. You almost want to ask the linesman to put another puck on the ice so your guys can touch it.
In the East, Pittsburgh’s fun to watch. I think Sidney Crosby’s always worth the price of a ticket anyway. If I went to a hockey game and Sid was the only guy that played for Pittsburgh I would consider it good value.
SN: You mention Winnipeg, second best record in the league and they don’t have home ice in the second round. A lot of fans seem to be getting tired of the current playoff format. Where do you stand on that?
Burke: The playoff format, to me, was done for two reasons. One was to simplify it for the American markets because they’re used to brackets like NFL, NCAA, but the old system where one played 16, that was the most equitable system because the team that did best got the worst opponent. And you re-seeded so it wasn’t brackets. The fact that Winnipeg is playing Nashville now and it could’ve been Vegas and that where two of the top teams get knocked out in the first round, I think we have to look at that. And I don’t think the simplicity [of the bracket format] is worth having a playoff system that’s not a hundred per cent equitable. The fairest way is the best team plays the worst team, so I’d be in favour of looking at that but I think the league’s pretty happy with it.
SN: Everyone wants to know about your ties and how you wear them. As a fan of not tying up ties whenever I can avoid it, I like your style, but was tying your tie ever a topic that came up when discussing getting this TV gig?
Burke: No one asked me and if they asked me to I would. I mean I know how to tie it. I tie it for funerals. That’s about it.
SN: You a single windsor guy? Double?
Burke: Single. I tie it for the team picture, tie it for the draft and tie it for funerals. Other than that, no.
What happened was when I worked for Pat Quinn when I was an assistant GM, so back in ’87, I used to go to work at six in the morning. When the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers (and other east coast teams) were open for business, I’m on the phone at 6 a.m. but I went into the office in jeans and a T-shirt. Get up at 5:30, roll out of bed, stop at the same place and get a coffee and go to work. Pat would come in around 7:00, 7:15 and we’d spend a half hour to an hour together where he’d give me my marching orders and then I would go downstairs and workout. I would keep all my work clothes at work, so I’d come up like this *Burke grabs the blue tie draped over his shoulders* and just start working. I’d tie it when I needed to, if I had a business lunch or whatever. And then it got to be I wouldn’t tie it until the game started and then I figured well screw it, no one can see me up here, so it’s just sheer laziness.
SN: You own it though. It’s like become your thing.
Burke: I’m not smart enough to have consciously said, ‘I’m going to make a fashion statement. I’m going to do something unique for Brian Burke.’ I’m not smart enough to do that. I haven’t branded it. It’s not worth any money or anything.
But then I realize it annoys people, so then I’m like ‘OK if I can annoy people without saying anything, count me in.’ Usually you have to say something to annoy people.