Brian Burke’s reputation as a straight shooter was reinforced Tuesday when he flew out to Calgary to host his fifth annual Targets for Kids trap shooting event.
After demonstrating his marksmanship at the sold-out charity event full of local celebrities, the 66-year-old Penguins executive shared his thoughts on everything from offer sheets, Sidney Crosby and the Olympics, to his hatred for golf and his love for Calgary and hunting.
Despite moving from Sportsnet broadcaster to Pittsburgh’s president of hockey operations in February, he also wasn’t shy about predicting who would win a barn fight between Marc Bergevin and Tom Dundon.
(Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
SPORTSNET: What did you learn about Sid you didn’t know?
BRIAN BURKE: We have the best practice habits of any team in the NHL, and he drives all that.
Our practices are high-tempo, difficult practices with thoughtful drills and the guys really work hard. Mike Sullivan does a great job, but Sid drives it.
Can we assume your early assessment of the Penguins is that the team isn’t ready to rebuild just yet?
Correct. This group is under contract for another year and we’re going to keep seeing what we can do. We believe in the group.
We’ve made the playoffs 15 straight years. We won two Cups - five and four years ago - and then we were eliminated in the first round the last three years. We’ve got to reverse that trend.
What was the biggest adjustment to getting back into management?
The part that was different was we got right back into it – I signed my deal on a Thursday and went to Pittsburgh on a Sunday or Monday and we were right in the bubble.
No bars, no restaurants or going out. We’d play the games, fly home and it was regimented and no social life at all.
I actually had a hard time spending time with my players, which I love to do.
It’s going to be a lot more fun now that things are opening up.
Do you miss anything about being in the media?
I liked the people at Sportsnet and Hockey Night that I worked for, and I liked the people I worked with. That’s a great combination. I really enjoyed it. I thought, ‘that was it – I was going to stay with this for a long time.’ I enjoyed it immensely.
But a chance to go back and work for the Pittsburgh Penguins was too good to say no to.
What did you learn about being in the media you didn’t know before?
I had all the answers before I got to the media and have still got them all.
Has your opinion on offer sheets changed following Carolina’s acquisition of Jesperi Kotkaniemi?
I don’t understand the fuss over offer sheets.
Offer sheets are part of collective bargaining. If it’s appropriate to use one, use one.
I was prepared to offer sheet Phil Kessel when I signed him in Toronto, and I told the Boston Bruins that. They were trying to make a deal with the LA Kings and trying to talk to Nashville, and I said, ‘either you guys make a deal with me or I’m going to offer sheet him.’ So they made a deal with me.
My anger about it, going back (to Edmonton’s signing of Dustin Penner) was I didn’t like the player they signed and I didn’t like the way they did it.
The fact that the player took advantage of our cap situation and signed an offer sheet we couldn’t match made sense.
I thought it was a smart move by Carolina to handcuff Montreal, and I think it was a smart move to take the picks, which they managed to flip for a player I think will be useful.
Do you think we will see more offer sheets moving forward?
I think some people think there’s bad intent involved, or that it’s a bad thing to do them.
The missing component is you’ve got to think you’re going to get the player or there is no point doing it.
If you get teams that are exposed cap-wise you’re at risk for an offer sheet.
Who would win a barn fight between Marc Bergevin and Tom Dundon?
Marc Bergevin is pretty well put together. He played for me – he’s a big man. I think I’d take him.
Why was it important to keep your name on this event and make your way back to Calgary for it?
I’ve worked in six NHL cities, and in some great markets like Anaheim, Vancouver and Toronto, but my favourite market to work in was Calgary.
It’s such a beautiful city with so much open space and the mountains, but the people of Calgary from Day 1 were special. People in Calgary give back, more than any place I ever worked, and that was special to me.
That’s part of the origin of this event. With the guns, the celebrities here, dogs running around, this event has Calgary all over it.
We’ll do it again next June for year six.
Burkie’s Targets for Kids started as a trap shooting event and it has grown. We’ve had the same participants and sponsors the last five years and people have said right from the start this is a great event.
We put in a team from the Calgary Police Service that has an LGBTQ component, and we have a military team.
People have fun, we feed em’ and we make some money for KidSport, which is a wonderful organization.
Where did your love for guns and hunting come from?
Well, my mom was a nurse, so we weren’t allowed to hunt.
So, I took up hunting when I was GM of the Hartford Whalers. I heard Harry Sinden and Glen Sather talking about going hunting so I asked them, ‘if I got my licence could I tag along?’
I called my buddy at the Connecticut State police and got my licence and went pheasant hunting with them. I love to hunt birds and have been doing it ever since.
Why don’t you golf?
I lack the fine motor skills and I lack patience. I already know how to swear and I know how to fight. There’s no fighting. I don’t get it.
I know why people like it, but I’ve never had any interest in golf, it’s a waste of an afternoon for me.
Who is the early favourite to win the Olympics?
I haven’t spent that much time looking at the teams, but obviously Canada has been the class of this event for many years, in many capacities, but if you look at the teams these countries are putting together it’s going to be a toss-up.
Canada has a great team – they always do - but you look at the U.S. and they’ve got a great team too. So do the Swedes and the Finns and the Russians.
If these lineups go in as scheduled, and everything goes as planned, you’re talking about one of the most special tournaments that’s ever played, if not THE best tournament ever played.