Former Vancouver Canucks general manager Brian Burke has long been known for the firmness of his opinions. And if he didn’t like what you had to say, he’d let you know.
That instinct has remained in full evidence since he’s made the full-time switch to the media. Hockey fans get regular doses of his views about the game and the NHL on Hockey Night In Canada, and now they can get more insight into his colourful career through his newly published memoir, Burke’s Law: A Life in Hockey, which he wrote along with Stephen Brunt.
Postmedia News spoke with Burke this week from his home in Toronto:
Q: How did you figure out which stories to include?
A: The stories included are designed to show either a management issue or was about a player, a coach or an owner, or another GM. And it had to be something that was widely known by the team or the management team. In other words, I would never tell a story about a player at a one-on-one meeting where something embarrassing happened. So that was the test. It had to be factual, had to be verifiable, and had to already be known widely in our circle.
Q: Is there something in the book that you think perhaps reveals something about you that might surprise readers?
A: I think people would be surprised to know how close I was with my players.
As an assistant GM, you have lots of contact with your players, you’re helping them move in. You’re distributing meal money, you’re booking travel for guys. You’re involved with the players and their wives on a daily basis.
As a GM, unless you force that to happen, that doesn’t happen. It was an important part of what I thought we needed in Vancouver. And so I just kept doing it.
Q: It seems clear how important Pat Quinn was in your professional career. Was that something you got a sense of from Pat as well?
A: He was very much always focused on what his players needed, what his players were feeling, what his players were dealing with. Yes, I had a great teacher that way, but that was kind of my own view. When I played — I didn’t play very long and didn’t play very well — but there wasn’t a lot of communication. Bob McCammon was my coach and back then there wasn’t a lot of communication. So I thought, if I ever get a chance to do this, I want to do it better.
Q: In the book, you write about how you moved around the U.S. a lot because of your dad’s work. Is this instinct to have a more personal touch something that you think comes from your childhood, the fact that you often had to adapt to new situations and get used to new people and try new things?
A: Yeah, I would say, No. 1 thing it did for me too, was I was a shy kid. Moving around you had to have more social skills than I had.
So yeah, but I would say that was one thing.
Q: Why did you choose to work with Stephen Brunt?
A: I think he writes the best sports books of anybody and that’s why I asked him to do it. I admire the other books he’s written, that I’ve read. So polished and so thorough. He’s really the only guy I talked to. I talked to Scotty Morrison too. Stephen, was the right guy. I believe that firmly.
Q: I think in Vancouver everyone is well-aware of your experience with the media. Is it weird to find yourself on the media side now?
A: Well, I approach it the same way. I want to say what I think. If people like it, great, if they don’t, I’m great with it.
People forget, I got along with most of the media famously. I was popular, I gave them time. I tried to give them good quotes. I tried to be accessible. And so I had a great relationship with the media, except for a handful of guys.
Q: You’re pretty clear about who you didn’t like in your book (Larry Brooks of The New York Post, Steve Simmons of The Toronto Sun, Tony Gallagher of The Province, Al Strachan of The Toronto Sun, and The Globe and Mail come in for particular criticism). Why was that something you wanted to touch on?
A: I didn’t have to touch on that, but in my mind, it was important to talk about because I think there’s a perception that I don’t get along with the media and that just couldn’t be farther from the truth. But the fact is that I was plagued in a couple marketplaces by unprofessional people. And I was determined to call them out.
I don’t like books that settle scores. Like, if you look at how I treated getting fired by these different teams, I didn’t take a big run at anyone for it, it’s part of the job.
But this handful of people in the media continue to act unprofessionally and bully. And I’ve had enough.
Q: As your contract’s coming to a close in 2004, owner John McCaw was looking to sell the team. And the lockout was looming. Do you think if either of those situations weren’t happening that you would have carried on as the GM in Vancouver?
A: I think going back to the fall (of 2003), the difficulty we had getting (Todd) Bertuzzi’s contract done. I think it stops right there.
They did not make me a contract offer after November. So no, I don’t think if the team had not been sold, if John McCaw had remained the owner, I think he still would have made the change, despite the fact that we were a 100-point team again.
Q: Maybe it’s just a Vancouver thing, but fans seem to hold on to GMs, or be dismissive of them, in a much more passionate way than they are with coaches. Why is that?
A: They absolutely lionized Pat. Everyone loved Pat Quinn. Yeah. And I think the perception of my firing was, how can you fire a guy who just won a division title and two or three 100-point seasons? It’s clearly going the right way. How can you fire him?
That’s why people have looked back on my firing and say, “Boy he got screwed.” And then the twins became such special players.
And some of the guys I drafted turned into real giants on the team like (Kevin) Bieksa and (Ryan) Kesler. And so I think people look back on that and say, “This guy did a really good job and never got a chance to set the table and get to eat the meal.”
Q: So who gets the most credit for that 2011 team, for building it, for putting it together? Was it you, was it Dave Nonis, was it Mike Gillis?
A: Well, it’s all three.
I think if you go back and look, I think on that team 15 of the players were there when Dave Nonis was there.
(Eleven players on the 2011 Stanley Cup playoff roster were Burke/Nonis acquisitions: On top of Kesler and Bieksa, the Sedins, Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider, Mason Raymond, Alex Edler, Alex Burrows, Jannik Hansen and Sami Salo.)
(Dan) Hamhuis came in, he was new, I’m not sure who else.
(Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres, Mikael Samuelsson, Christian Ehrhoff, Chris Higgins, Max Lapierre, Jeff Tambellini, Tanner Glass, Andrew Alberts, Aaron Rome, Chris Tanev, Keith Ballard and Cody Hodgson were all Gillis additions.)
It was mostly David Nonis’s group. And, of course, a good chunk of that was mine. And then, I think Mike Gillis added some good pieces. So I think all three of us.
Q: What’s the thing you’re most proud of from your time in Vancouver? Whether it’s working under Pat (Quinn) or having been the GM in the second stint? And what’s the thing that perhaps you regret the most?
A: Oh, that covers a lot of ground. Well, first, my first tour of duty there working for Pat, it was truly magical. We got better every year. Everyone loved Pat. We brought in Trevor Linden. The first tour of duty and working for the Griffithses was a privilege.
And it led to my first GM job.
Second time was magical because the team got better and better and better. We had the West Coast Express. Brought in the twins and we added toughness and that was fun. The team just kept getting better.
But I didn’t have any relationship with John McCaw at all. After the first year, he stopped coming up to games. First year he was around a lot. But then not so much. He got married and wasn’t around as much and I didn’t have any contact with him at all. It was all through Stan McCammon. And that wasn’t pleasant.
I had fun with that team. And I loved living in Vancouver and I loved getting better. But it didn’t feel like I was going to be there forever because they really didn’t pay. They weren’t worried about me. It didn’t feel the same, even though the city was great.
Q: You spent a long time here, you obviously won the Cup in Anaheim and you ran teams in Toronto, Calgary and Hartford too. Which team do you most attach yourself to?
A: The Cup team. That’s obvious. That’s climbing Mount Everest, and that’s what we, all of us, ever aspire to or care about professionally. So that’ll be my legacy.
I loved every place I worked.
My favourite was Calgary, because it’s so clean and people are so nice. And it’s so beautiful. And I loved Vancouver. I mean, I did two tours of duty there. I loved them both.
Q: You talk a lot about family in your book. This is your second time round as a parent. Is it any easier?
A: It’s exciting to get a chance to do it a second time. And hopefully you’re better at it. I’m certainly more patient with my daughters than I was.
But all six kids were just magical. I’m so fortunate.
I work very hard at the parenting side of things. It’s a joy. They’re just a joy. Kids are a miracle.
Q: The legacy of Brendan (his son who died in a car accident in 2010 and who was gay), and the You Can Play Project, how have they influenced hockey?
A: I was determined when Brendan passed away that we weren’t going to let that be the end of his work. And I think You Can Play has made a tremendous difference in a lot of young LGBTQ people’s lives. And will continue to do so. And that’s our mission.
The day after the funeral, I said to the kids we can sit by the side of the road with our heads down or we can keep marching and I’m marching and so are you. And we’ll make sure Brendan’s never forgotten.
I think we’ve kept our pledge on that. I think Brendan continues to change lives.
This was all foreign to me before my son came out.
That was the hardest part of the book, obviously. But I think that we’re determined that there must be a legacy for Brendan and there has been and there is and I’m very proud of that. Very, very, very proud.
Q: We’ve seen three Cup runs in this town and each time it seems like they got a little bit closer but there’s been heartbreak at the end of all three. Is Vancouver hockey cursed?
A: I’m not a superstitious guy. So to me. No, it’s not.
You know, we never solved the goalie problem.
Dan Cloutier, he was a good enough goalie, but he had hurt himself every year in February or March. And then they brought in Luongo and so now they solve the goalie problem.
But they had to move Bertuzzi to get the goalie. So they got that close. They had to win Game 7 and they couldn’t do it. They’re getting closer right now, this team is marching north fast.
No, it’s not cursed at all. They’ll have their Cup there and I’ll come to the parade.