Brian Burke arrived in Toronto to great fanfare and he wasted little time before demonstrating why he is a media favorite. From quipping that former Leafs captain Mats Sundin has “two dollars less than God” and thus won’t be making a decision based on money, to stating that the Leafs’ third and fourth lines need to bring “belligerence” and “testosterone,” etc., Burkie blew into town like a perfect storm.
While that is the Brian Burke the public and media often see, I want to give you a glimpse into the “other” Brian Burke some of us inside the game are fortunate enough to know: in short, the “kinder and gentler” Burkie.
In November 1998, the Lightning GM and coach at the time, Jacques Demers, hired me as his assistant GM and one of my first tasks involved traveling to New York City to join Jacques at his first GMs’ meeting. (At the time, the NHL allowed assistant GMs to attend the meetings, a practice that is no longer permitted.)
Upon arriving at the meeting, Demers motioned for me to sit next to him at the table. He had taken a seat opposite the head of the table where the league officers sit and conduct the sessions.
Shortly after sitting down and soaking in the atmosphere I felt a beefy hand squeezing my shoulder; it was Burkie. I had known him since my days in the American League with Hershey and greeted him with a big smile.
He leaned into me and quietly, but firmly said: “Jaybird, you do what you want to do, but the seats at the table are reserved for the managers. See those seats back there against the wall? Those seats are for the assistant GMs. Now, you do what you want, but I will tell you this, if you stay at the table your colleagues are going to be pretty (expletive) sour with you.”
Needless to say, I jumped up as though my seat was on fire and bolted for one of the chairs against the wall. The last thing I wanted to do during one of my first days on the job was alienate an entire group of people who I knew could help show me the ropes of working in the NHL. In my mind I needed the assistance of my colleagues.
Truth is, over the almost four full seasons I served as assistant GM in Tampa, those guys became my best friends and many remain so to this day. I often think about how differently things might have turned out had Burkie not cared enough about me to clue me in on league etiquette and protocol.
Burkie has remained a good friend and confidante throughout my career. When I resigned as Tampa’s GM in July, Burkie not only called me immediately, but made it a point to phone me every week for the first couple of months and now every two or three weeks, just to check in.
That’s the Brian Burke I know – a kinder, gentler, loyal, thoughtful and caring man. Here’s to Burkie helping Leafs Nation bury the ghosts of 1967 and maybe getting a school named after him in the process.
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2008-09 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.