CALGARY – One of the NHL’s biggest personalities vows to work in the background for the Calgary Flames.
Veteran hockey executive Brian Burke was named the team’s president of hockey operations, a position the Flames created for him in an effort to return to the playoffs after a four-year absence.
Burke will “assume overall responsibility of the sport side of the Calgary Flames.”
General manager Jay Feaster will report to Burke, while Ken King remains president and CEO of the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation.
In addition to the Flames, the company encompasses the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat, the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen, the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders and the National Lacrosse League’s Roughnecks.
Burke’s description of himself on Twitter is “a dash of truculence”. He’s brutally honest and unfiltered, so reporters both love and loathe him depending on the day.
“I don’t intend to be front and centre,” Burke said Thursday during a news conference at the Scotiabank Saddledome. “That would be a nice break after being front and centre and getting into a lot of little scraps in the media.
“I know people think I need to be driving the bus all the time. I’m actually a pretty good teammate.
“The guy you should talk to every day should be the coach. The transactional guy, if you make a trade . . . the guy that should explain it should be the guy that pulls the trigger on the trade and that’s Jay.”
Flames owners aren’t normally present at team announcements, but chairman Murray Edwards and others in the ownership group sat in the front row of seats Thursday.
Burke was fired as president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in January. He had been working as a part-time scout with the Anaheim Ducks since February.
Reporting to Burke instead of King is the only change Feaster expected in his job description.
“To be able to bring somebody in who has won a Stanley Cup, who has taken a team to that lofty level and who has been in the game in as many capacities as Brian has been throughout his career, to be able to tap into that wealth of knowledge on a daily basis, it’s a great thing,” Feaster said.
“I endorse it as the GM.”
A dual citizen of the United States and Canada, Burke sits on the board of directors for Rugby Canada and is the director of player personnel for the American men’s hockey team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
He was general manager of the U.S. team that won Olympic silver in 2010. He also won a Stanley Cup as GM of the Ducks in 2007.
“Brian’s worked pretty hard in our game to do a lot of different things,” Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf said in New York. “Obviously I’ve seen first-hand what he can do. I’m happy that he’s back to work and I’m sure that’ll make him happy.”
It took some convincing by King for Burke to accept the Flames job because he wasn’t clear on what it entailed.
As part of his research into similar pro sports management models, the 58-year-old lawyer said he consulted Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti.
“This is a relatively new structure in professional hockey,” Burke said. “There are two teams in the NHL that have this type of management structure. There are a number of teams in the National Football League that do, a number of teams in Major League Baseball that do and a number of teams in the NBA that do. And it works effectively. And it’s going to work here.”
Burke will be an adviser to Feaster.
“I’m not the general manager of the Calgary Flames,” he declared. “Jay Feaster is. He is going to be in charge, but with my guidance.
“I think I add a value. I’ve been able to fix just about every team I’ve worked for, sometimes quicker than others.”
Burke’s contract with the Flames doesn’t have a set term, but is instead an open-ended work agreement.
“There’s a long runway here for Brian,” King said. “He can do this job for 10 years, maybe longer than that. He’s got that sober second-thought opportunity to take a long view, a long vision, to help Jay, who by nature has to have a shorter vision.”
Burke plans to embrace a job where he’ll be on the road less after scouting the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia, in January.
“I didn’t enjoy that. I got as sick as a dog. The food was awful,” Burke said. “I was saying to myself ‘This was not a good use of my time.’
“This job allows a guy of my seniority to do less the grunt work, the day-to-day stuff, but still be involved.”
Flames coach Bob Hartley said his club will benefit from Burke’s sheer passion for the game and his hockey knowledge.
“There will be no grey areas with Brian,” said Hartley.
The coach said he doesn’t feel any extra pressure with a second executive above him.
“Any time that you can add a gentleman like Brian Burke to your team, and teamed up with Jay Feaster, I feel that I’m very well surrounded as a coach,” said Hartley.
“We know one thing about Brian: The roles will be clear, and the expectations will be well put there. At the same time, he always backs you up.”
Also Thursday, the Flames promoted John Bean from CFO and senior vice-president, finance and administration to chief operating officer.
After graduating Harvard Law School in 1981, Burke was a player agent until 1987 when Vancouver Canucks general manager Pat Quinn asked him to become the director of hockey operations for the franchise.
Burke held that post for five years, until the 1992-93 season when he became the GM of the Hartford Whalers. He stayed in Connecticut for a year before moving to the NHL’s head office, becoming commissioner Gary Bettman’s executive vice-president and director of hockey operations.
In 1998, Burke returned to Vancouver to become the GM of the Canucks. He drafted players such as twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, as well as centre Ryan Kesler. Team management elected to not renew Burke’s contract after the 2003-04 season.
After spending time as a TV analyst, Burke returned to management, becoming the GM of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2005-06 and winning the Stanley cup a year later.
He stepped down from the Ducks in November 2008 and two weeks later was hired by the Maple Leafs. The Leafs didn’t make the post-season during Burke’s tenure.
“There was a lot that needed to be done in Toronto that took longer than I thought,” Burke said.
He believes the Flames are on the right path, but isn’t imposing deadlines on the hockey team’s re-build.
“I remember when I was a rookie GM, I called Harry Sinden and was complaining about my team. He said ‘When you take over a non-playoff team, you inherit a leaky ship,'” Burke said.
“It’s hard in a cap system to turn your team around. You have unrestricted free agency obviously, but in a cap system, it’s a slower process.
“I think fans can be patient as long as they see a plan that’s in place and being executed and faithfully stuck to. I think there’s a plan here and I think the fans can see it.”
NHL rookie camps are underway with main camps scheduled to start Sept. 11.
The Scotiabank Saddledome is undergoing restoration from massive flooding in June. The Flames main camp will be held at another facility, but the first exhibition game Sept. 14 is scheduled to be at the Saddledome.
—With files from Stephen Whyno and Monte Stewart