A book about his dead son rests atop a wood coffee table. On a shelf nearby, there are pieces of artwork crafted long ago by his children’s hands. There are hundreds of family photos arranged in neat piles in the dining room. And there are binoculars for watching birds, and a book to help identify the cardinals and chickadees and juncos and woodpeckers that visit the feeders in Brian Burke’s backyard.
He was the architect of five hard-nosed teams as a general manager in the National Hockey League and still enjoys it when players drop their gloves. He studied history at Providence College, earned a law degree from Harvard, drives a Harley for relaxation, owns a collection of 140 carved wooden ducks, and couldn’t give a whit if he offends viewers as a hockey analyst for Rogers Sportsnet.
“I’m not running for office,” Burke says as he settles in for an interview at his home in Toronto. He has a book, Burke’s Law, A Life in Hockey, that was released this week. “I am not kissing babies. I don’t have to be politically correct. If people don’t like me they can turn the TV off. But what they are going to get, if they leave the TV on, is an unvarnished opinion of what just happened, and I think people appreciate that.”
He is 65 and played as a winger in college for Lou Lamoriello but never made it to the NHL. Nevertheless, he likens himself to hockey’s Forrest Gump. He’s done nearly every job there is to do in hockey and been in the middle of every situation the game could throw at him.
He worked as a deputy general manager under Pat Quinn and for Gary Bettman for five years as the league’s senior vice-president and director of hockey operations. In that position, he also handed out discipline. As for coaches, he hired Joel Quenneville, Randy Carlyle, and fired Mike Keenan. In Hartford, he drafted Chris Pronger, and in Vancouver he snatched up the Sedin twins. In Toronto, he triggered the blockbuster deal that brought Phil Kessel to the Maple Leafs. He was in the room during negotiations that led to two lockouts, and he won a Stanley Cup.
“My legacy would be that I was progressive in how the game was played,” Burke says. "I like old-time hockey but I supported rule changes to make the game faster, and supported all of the concussion protocols. I made my players do more in the community than any other GM, and I did more in the community than any other GM.
“I think I made a difference in every city I worked in, and I think I made my players make a difference. I’m really proud of the way my players behaved off the ice, [and on it] we played hard, but whistle to whistle. I never had a rash of suspensions. We fought a lot but that is fine. And I sold tickets, and in our business there are a lot of teams that don’t sell them."
He has six children between two marriages, and for 11 years, he flew between Vancouver and Anaheim to Boston every weekend to visit them. It was a promise made, and a promise kept. Aside from travelling to see them, he has taken them on vacations to Africa, Italy, Paris and London.
“I’ve been an attentive dad, not perfect but attentive," Burke says.
After his son, Brendan, came out in 2009, his father became a gay-rights activist.
“Most of the homophobic language athletes use is reflexive,” Burke says. "It is not making any judgment at all about a guy’s sexuality. A guy hits you from the behind and you pick up the biggest rock you can find. You call him a three-syllable word. I did it. Everyone did. I am embarrassed by it, and I don’t do it any more.
“It has to stop.”
After a speaking engagement, someone in the audience invariably comes up afterward and announces they disliked him previously, but have now changed their mind.
In response, he is stone-faced. Few people are as comfortable in their own skin.
“My ex-wife once said, ‘You had a chance to make a friend there. Just say thanks,’” he says. “I said, ‘I didn’t give a shit what he thought yesterday and I still don’t today.’”
Brian Burke sits on the couch and talks about his life. As always, his tie is undone, and his silver hair is brushed back. He chuckles when asked if that is part of his TV brand.
“I am not sophisticated enough to have devised a brand,” he says.
The loose and dangling tie dates to when he worked under Quinn. Burke would arrive at the office every morning at 6, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. After an early meeting with his boss, he would work out in a gym in the arena, and then quickly dress in work clothes.
“I was always in a hurry, and never tied my tie,” he says. “I wouldn’t tie it until I had to, sometimes not until just before the national anthem at night. Then finally out of laziness I decided to not to tie it at all.”
He changed his hair style in 2013 after he was fired by the Maple Leafs.
“The lady who cut my hair told me I had looked like a cop my whole life, and suggested I try it slicked back,” he says. “It took a few iterations to figure out, but this is what we ended up with.”
A cheerful painting of a young boy skating on a pond hangs on the living room wall. There are a handful of duck decoys on top of a bookcase. There is a piece of concrete from a memorial to soldiers killed in Kandahar. He once visited troops in Afghanistan. There is a collection of miniature hockey players received as a gift from the Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak.
Over the years, Burke has occasionally battled with broadcasters and journalists. He mostly doesn’t care what anyone says or writes about him, but he drops the mitts when they say something he sees as untrue about one of his coaches or players.
He was thin-skinned early on, and then received some advice from Pat Quinn.
“He told me to stop listening to those people,” he says. “He said the people that matter to me I should be able to count on two hands, my family and my closest friends. That has been my philosophy ever since.”
He began writing the book, which is co-authored by the Canadian sports journalist Stephen Brunt, more than two years ago. It took him back through achievements, failure and heartbreak.
“It made me reflect on who I was and how I behaved,” he says. “Hopefully I am more mature and smarter now. I think people will read it and see there is another side to me and maybe think I am a nicer person than they perceived. But that’s not why I wrote it.”
Burke’s Law will open and change minds. It is packed with warmth and grudges – he names names – and little known stories from his past, including the fact that, as Quinn’s assistant, he nixed a potential trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Oilers to the Canucks. Along with that, the book is also a study in human frailty.
One of Burke’s biggest regrets is that he has had two failed marriages.
“I never struck the right balance,” he says. “I put parenting and work ahead of being a husband and that cost me.”
Brian Burke began watching birds as a kid when his family lived on a pond in Boston. He has carried a love for them his entire life. He gives bird feeders as gifts, spends a fortune on birdseed and other gear, and has donated more than $150,000 to Ducks Unlimited.
He had a welder build a platform in the backyard upon which he hangs four bird feeders, one containing suet, two with mixed seeds and another with peanuts.
“Let’s watch,” he says. “We should get something good.”
A red-breasted nuthatch lands and grabs a peanut, flies away to a tree to eat it, and then returns again and again. A chickadee visits, and then an English sparrow.
“I feed them all year,” Burke says. “It’s especially important in winter. They can eat more food here in five minutes than they can find on the ground all day. It helps keep them alive.”
In the book, he writes about Brendan’s death. He was 21 when he died in a car accident during a blizzard in February of 2010. When his father heard, he collapsed. As Brendan’s casket was lowered into the ground on a crisp winter day, Brian thought, “He is going to be so cold in there.”
A few months ago, Burke went into the basement to tidy up a bit and found a box full of family photos he had forgotten about. He brought them upstairs and sorted them into piles for each of his kids. Then he found a second box and added those pictures, too.
There are two piles for Brendan. They sit on the table, mostly untouched.
“When I started looking at them, it put me in the sewer,” Burke says. “I still haven’t been able to bring myself to look at them."