Brian Burke worked as GM of the Maple Leafs for a little more than four years and has also been GM in Hartford, Anaheim and Vancouver. (Getty Images)
Let’s face it – the NHL can sometimes feel more like a mausoleum than a major sports league. By and large, hockey players, coaches and GMs bend over backward to crank out the most milquetoast, insight-free sound bytes this side of a beauty pageant.
Except, that is, for a silver-haired, acid-tongued, tobacco-chewing, walking thesaurus named Brian Burke. The passionate, often-combative longtime hockey executive has been on the periphery of the game since his most recent stint as a GM in Toronto ended abruptly prior to the start of last season, but the rumor mill exploded Wednesday night with whispers Burke would be joining the Calgary Flames and the team confirmed them at a Thursday morning press conference announcing he would be their new president of hockey operations.
You may not be a fan of Burke’s sharp-elbows way of doing business, but you’d have to agree an NHL with him – especially in a Canadian market – is a far more exciting place. Think of all the storylines and drama that instantly come into effect with Burke’s arrival in Calgary: he’s suddenly in the same province as
his good buddy and barn-dancing partner Oilers president Kevin Lowe, a fact that should stoke the legendary intra-provincial rivalry fires between the two teams to their highest temperatures ever. As well, he’ll have to co-exist with fellow alpha dog and longtime Flames management cornerstone Ken King and current GM Jay Feaster; and he joins an organization he helped ransack when he first arrived in Toronto in 2008.
And that’s to say nothing on the impact Burke will have on Calgary away from the game. Everybody knows the wonderful work he’s done in the fight against homophobia in honor of his late son Brendan – and now that he’s back in a position of prominence, Burke undoubtedly will look to establish a beachhead for that cause in Alberta.
However, Burke’s main order of business will be revitalizing a moribund Flames franchise that has frustrated fans over the past decade thanks to an inability to deal with reality. For too long (and as recently as the start of last season) King and his management team stubbornly held to the notion Calgary was a playoff-worthy squad. That mentality resulted in them holding on to Flames legend Jarome Iginla much longer than they should have and eventually getting only pennies on the dollar for him at last year’s trade deadline.
There will be no such dithering with Burke. He’s not going to make deals simply for their own sake, but don’t kid yourself into thinking he’ll patiently sit back for much of the season before leaving his mark. Burke told me in a conversation years ago he’s a gambler and nothing he did in Toronto – including trades for Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf and a slew of risky free-agent signings – would cause you to think he’ll be any different this time around. That may trouble people who wish for a longer, more patient rebuild, but as long as Flames majority owner Murray Edwards is in charge, the team will likely follow Burke’s rebuild-on-the-fly mentality and attempt to contend sooner than later.
Finally – and this is strictly from a media slug’s perspective – Burke’s presence in Calgary will serve as a defibrillator-shock to a town whose heart pumps hockey through its civic veins. Yes, he’s media-friendly in many ways, but he’s also not above engaging in intense, protracted battles with reporters. That’s not always fun for those with whom he spars, but there’s never a dull moment, either.
Calgary may not have absolutely needed Brian Burke, but the NHL certainly does. For better or worse, he has been and is a force unto himself – and Flames fans who’ve grown weary of the same familiar dog-and-pony show should at least take comfort in knowing a pulse-pounding roller-coaster ride is coming their way.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.