Brian Burke is now an analyst for Sportsnet, but most people know him as the former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks, Hartford Whalers, and 2010 U.S. men's Olympic hockey team -- and also as a man with unvarnished opinions on just about everything.
Burke joined Greg Wyshynski and me on the ESPN on Ice podcast this week to discuss his view on the NHL's potential return this summer, how the suspension of games could affect the league financially, why he got rid of "Brass Bonanza" in Hartford, what other U.S. cities could support the NHL and more -- including doubling down on his Joe Thornton-to-Anaheim proposal 15 years ago.
ESPN: The talk in the NHL right now is about having a centralized playoff location, possibly North Dakota or Saskatchewan or New Hampshire. What do you think? Is this a realistic option? Is this a good option?
Brian Burke: Well, any option that gets us back on the ice is a good option, so let's start there. It's not like anything we've seen before. But this year, this life, this world we're living in is nothing like we've ever seen before. So in my mind, the NHL is determined to play as soon as the authorities say we can play. Do I want to play games in North Dakota in front of no fans? No. Do I think we should if we can? Absolutely.
We're going to get this game back on the ice and back on TV. Even if the live audience comes later. We've got to try to finish the regular season if possible. If not, we have to try to award the Stanley Cup in a credible playoff format. So to me, I love the league's approach. Is it ideal? No. But not much of our life is right now.
ESPN: You mentioned a "credible" format for the playoffs. In Brian Burke's world, what would be the most credible way to do it if it did involve expanding in a bid to include some bubble teams?
Burke: Well, I don't think that's going to be possible. I think that is pie in the sky. I think credible is three rounds, eight teams.
Expanded playoffs would be great because of the unusual nature of things. But first off, I don't think we're gonna play. I don't think this pandemic is going to solve itself in time to play. And they're worried about a secondary wave anyhow. I don't think we'll have a vaccine operable by the summertime. I'll bet substantial money on that. I don't think we'll have enough testing materials to determine if it's even safe with the guys we have.
So let's assume we can surmount all those obstacles. If they wanted to expand a playoff format, we've got enough days, that's fine with me, just for this year. My worry is, let's say there's a miracle cure discovered tomorrow -- which ain't going to happen -- and they said, 'OK, you can play on June 1.' Well, then we would have time to do an expanded playoff format and let in, you know, 18 or 24 teams or whatever the right number is. My fear about that is that this would be opening the door for expanded playoff formats of the future, which I do not support. I think 16 teams is plenty. But for this year, I could live with that if we had the time and the building dates. Great. We're not gonna. But if we do, great.
ESPN: Brian, you've been really involved with USA Hockey over the years. I'm just curious if you've thought at all about how this pandemic could affect youth participation in this country.
Burke: Well, I don't think anything's going to change in terms of importance at the amateur level. I mean, all of us want to expose our children to sports. Some are athletes, some are not. But the benefits of being part of a team sport and the physical benefits, the psychological benefits, if you look at the business leaders and political leaders in both countries, Canada and the U.S., the number of women and guys that played sports to a certain level is significant. It's not an unusual circumstance. It's an indicator. And so it builds character, builds teamwork, builds physical fitness.
I don't think that's ever going to change. I'm concerned about what kind of economic landscape we're coming back to in terms how many people are still going to write big checks for season tickets and so on. I know the demand will be pent up like in the past from lockouts and things to come back really strong. I'm just worried about people's financial ability to still participate. I have season tickets here in Toronto. They are not inexpensive. I don't know how the average person is going to write that check this year.
ESPN: Do you see teams taking the extra step, slashing prices for season tickets and that sort of thing?
Burke: I think it'll depend on the market. If we get to play, and say there are eight playoff teams, they're not going to cut their prices. Teams that were in a playoff position but did not get to play because of a different format, I don't think they do much discounting. But non-playoff-team markets might have to.
We'll wait and see how long this goes and how quickly the economy comes back. It'd be lovely to come back to just what we left. Unemployment instantly restored to what it was. Everyone back to work. Open your doors. Let's go. I just don't think that's realistic.
ESPN: One of the reasons we wanted to have you on is because you did a wonderful thing for fans the other day, which was to open up your Twitter feed to some Brian Burke tales from the past. You said that you tried to get Joe Thornton in Anaheim, and that you thought that you had an offer that beat whatever the Sharks were offering to Mike O'Connell and the Bruins. O'Connell told The Athletic "the details surrounding this story are fabricated and I can confirm that no such offer was made to me as I never informed Anaheim of my intentions to trade Joe Thornton. Unfortunately, certain personalities never let the truth get in the way of their ultimate goal, self-promotion." Any reaction to that?
Burke: I just got tipped off about this just a few minutes ago. It's unfortunate because Mike and I were friends once. The day after I did the Q&A, he called me, he was quite upset. He said, "This never happened." I said, "Hang on a second. I can see you're saying I've got a detail wrong. Maybe it was six players I'd protect, but what, you're telling me this never happened? That's your answer?" He said, "Yeah, you fabricated this."
Well, first off, I wish we were in the same room. If you're going to call me a liar, I wish we were in the same room. I've been accused of many things, but certainly not being untruthful. I said the second problem you have, Mike, is I wasn't alone when I made this offer. Bob Murray was sitting right at my desk. In fact it was Bob who came in, he said, "Look, I heard they're trading him to San Jose, we've got to hijack this trade." He said, "Let's protect six. No, we'd better make it better than that, we'll protect five." And I call and made the offer with Bob Murray sitting 3 feet away.
So I think it's a bizarre defense. He knows he made a bad deal. He got a lot of heat afterwards for not shopping Thornton properly. You know, if you're going to trade a player of that caliber, you gotta offer him to every team that might have an interest and get the best offer you can. He tried to move him quietly, didn't make a good deal, and I guess he's taking it out on me. But my answer would be there were two people in the room. That's a bizarre defense.
ESPN: Another story you shared was about Phil Kessel. Someone asked for your favorite Phil story and you shared an anecdote about a time Phil was getting crushed by the media in Toronto. And you asked Phil if he wanted you to go on a rant or yell at a reporter to take some heat off you. And he said, "No, I only care about the guys in the room. I appreciate it, but save your breath. I'm good." Could you share a little bit more about what it was like managing Phil, and what it was like with him in Toronto and the media?
Burke: He doesn't care. And that's an asset for an athlete, to not care what the media thinks or what fans think. It's an asset. It allows you to play through the white noise. But it's really annoying to fans who think you should care what they think about you. It's an inverted relationship where it's like, "You should care what I think about you. If you don't, you're a bad person." And you're like, you go to bed every night, not worry what Brian Burke thinks of you, as you should.
So for Phil, it was a double whammy. He didn't care. But the fans thought he should have cared. So whenever they had something unhappy to say, it intensified. He's an American in a Canadian market, there's a bit of that, too.
But what I liked about having him, he played well for us, and was a very popular teammate. And one thing people won't know, because he never does it on cameras, is if we brought in any kid who was suffering from cancer, Phil, not when there were reporters in the room, but Phil would go right over to that young boy or girl and talk to them for an hour. He'd give them an hour, he'd sign a sick form, talk to him or her about his treatment for cancer [Kessel is cancer survivor]. He was wonderful like that. But if there was a reporter in the room? Not a chance.
ESPN: You famously were with the Hartford Whalers for a time. I know you have a complicated relationship with some people regarding Hartford because you got rid of "Brass Bonanza." But more to the point, do you ever see a situation or a path back to the NHL for Hartford?
Burke: No. I mean, it's too bad because it was a great, great place to live. When things were great there, Pratt & Whitney was employing, I want to say, 10,000 people at their aircraft engine manufacturing plant, and all the insurance companies were based in Hartford and West Hartford.
And what happened is, right before I got there, in the three to four years before I got there, a number of the insurance companies relocated to Manhattan. And those are thousands and thousands of jobs. Big companies, you know, 20, 30, 40,000 jobs, well-paying jobs, good jobs that moved down. Pratt & Whitney closed, that's another 10,000 union jobs. So there is so much bleeding out of the local economy that, when I got to Hartford ... the year I worked there as GM, I loved living there. I lived in Simsbury, which is west of the city. It's a great place to live, great people. But at 5 o'clock, well, 5:30, once the commute cleared out, you could set off a Claymore mine on Trumbull Street and not hurt a soul. Downtown empties right out at night, unless there was a concert or unless we were playing or unless UConn basketball was playing. The whole area was devastated, economically, and it has not recovered. So no, I cannot see a path back for them. I wish I had a better answer.
As for "Brass Bonanza," I did get crucified for getting rid of it. The players asked me to get rid of it. They said it was embarrassing to have a fight song.
ESPN: If the players didn't want it, you have to listen to the players.
Burke: As soon as I left, they put it back in. People were outraged. People really love the song. I could care less. Like, I care about game presentation; if fans like the song generally, then I like it too. OK, so some of the arena music that we have, I don't like, but if fans like it, it's about what they like.
But the players came to me before the season started and said, "When we get on the ice, it's like a college fight song. It's stupid and we feel like college players, so can you get rid of it?" Then it's gone. If it's affecting our ability to win, it's gone. But then they put it back in as soon as I got out of there.
ESPN: You mentioned you don't see the NHL going back to Hartford. Is there any other U.S. city or a market that you think could work for the NHL?
Burke: I think there are a couple markets that could support hockey, but I think our league is big enough. I don't want to expand after Seattle. Here's the thing, you add all of these teams, and it's been great for hockey. There are GM jobs, there are player jobs, there are coaches jobs. We've added some really good markets, but I don't see that many more. I worry at some point, we travel enough now, do we need to add cities to the grid? Do we need to add travel to the grid? So I'm not in favor of expanding anymore.
I think Houston could support a team. I'm not convinced that Portland, Oregon, could, but I would listen on that. There's not a long list of cities with building availability and population mass. I think our smallest population mass outside of Canada I want to say is Columbus, and I'm not sure you can go much smaller than that and still support a team.
ESPN: You're writing a book. What was your motivation to do that?
Burke: I got asked to write this book after we won the Cup, in Anaheim in 2007. And I said, no, there are too many more chapters to write. And it was the sixth or eighth person that asked me, I want to write your book, I want to write your book, and I said, "Well, I'll start writing it myself."
So my last year in Calgary, I had some spare time on my hands.They were consulting me less and less. And so I started writing an outline, and then flying back and forth to see my daughters from Calgary, you've got three hours on the plane, and I started filling it in. So I wrote about 200 pages of single-spaced type myself. Then I approached an agent, and said, "Do you think there's interest here?"
Got two book offers right away. So I went to work on it. It's 90 percent done, and it will come out in the fall.