He knows you won’t believe it. Brian Burke, shadow man? Mr. Go-quietly? The guy who agreeably slips into the background and stays there of his own volition?
That’s not the unknotted, there-he-blows Burke we’ve seen or heard from in the past, from Vancouver to Anaheim to Toronto. And yet, there he was Thursday morning, inside a conference room at the Scotiabank Saddledome, being introduced as the Calgary Flames new president of hockey operations, promising to be not so much a “tamer” Burke, but a different type of administrator. An adviser. A sounding board.
It’s how it has to be, he said, if the Flames are to make good on their altered management arrangement, in which chief executive officer Ken King and general manager Jay Feaster retain their positions, with the venerable Burke added to the mix in a freshly created position. (King will work with the Calgary Sports & Entertainment Group, which runs the CFL’s Stampeders, WHL’s Hitmen and National Lacrosse League’s Roughnecks. John Bean was appointed the CSEG’s chief operating officer.)
“In this new role, I don’t intend to be the spokesperson for this team,” Burke told reporters. “Hopefully, you’ll get what you need today then the day-to-day guy will be the [head] coach, Bob Hartley. The transactional guy when we talk about a trade, Jay will talk to the media. I intend to have a background role and I think people will believe that when they see it. But, trust me, they’ll see it.”
Wearing a corporate red tie that was neatly done up, Burke was front, centre and frank about joining the Flames and how, at first, he wasn’t interested in overseeing the hockey department. Having always been a GM, the 58-year-old needed time to contemplate not being responsible for all the daily operations.
He ended up chatting with officials in other sports and asking how a more team-oriented management style worked, as opposed to the traditional one-man approach. Ned Colletti, GM of baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers, was especially encouraging.
“This job allows a guy of my seniority to do less grunt work but still be involved. When I went back and talked to Ned Colletti, he said, ‘What? Are you crazy? That’s a great job,’” Burke said. “And I loved Calgary. I was familiar with the ownership group. So I got my head around the job and this has great appeal for me.
“I know people think I need to be driving the bus all the time. I’m actually a pretty good teammate.”
Feaster offered the same opinion when retelling his relationship with Burke. Feaster insisted he had always turned to Burke for advice in the past, even when the two were rivals. Now, as teammates, Feaster believes Burke’s success in a myriad of roles only benefits the franchise and its stated goal to win championships.
“Ken first talked to me about it in late May,” Feaster said of a hockey president being hired. “You can’t have enough good people to draw on. I’ve always believed in participatory management. Brian and I do have a relationship and that’s why it’s going to be good.”
As for what he wants to see from the Flames, Burke was as direct as ever. His fundamental pillars remain: Icing an entertaining, physical team; running the hockey club as a business, which means spending wisely on players (the Flames have $13-million U.S. in salary cap space to work with); and giving back to the community through charitable efforts.
Asked if the Flames’ rebuilding is going to be a bigger task than the one he inherited when he took over the Maple Leafs in 2008, Burke replied: “In Toronto, there was a lot of work that needed to be done that took longer than I thought, in terms of getting some assets out of there. Obviously, we made a major acquisition in acquiring Phil Kessel. The compensation that was paid turned out to be higher than expected. But I’d do the trade again tomorrow.
“I think Jay has already taken some of the major steps to rebuild [trading former captain Jarome Iginla, for example]. I think Calgary had the best draft of anybody.”
The question now is: How smoothly will the expanded front office function?
According to Burke, it’s a certainty the new hockey president will stick to the background and be happy about it. “Actually, it’ll be a nice break from being front and centre and getting into a lot of little scraps.”