One of the most colorful and outspoken figures in professional hockey shared his insights at a Red Deer Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Monday.
And Brian Burke didn’t disappoint.
The Calgary Flames’ president of hockey operations described how his team needs to get bigger, and his affinity for players who can hit and fight. He talked about his misgivings — albeit temporary — about drafting Daniel and Henrik Sedin when he was general manager of the Vancouver Canucks. And he took a few shots at Edmonton Oilers fans, but also defended the efforts of the Flames’ northern Alberta rival to rebuild.
Burke, who joined the Flames in September after serving as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Anaheim Ducks (where he won a Stanley Cup in 2007), the Vancouver Canucks and the Hartford Whalers, said he’s pleased with the Flames’ work ethic and their willingness to follow a game plan. What the team lacks is size.
“Our junior team, the Calgary Hitmen, is bigger than our team. That’s not good.”
Burke pointed out that the St. Louis Blues, which beat the Flames 5-0 last Thursday, averages 208 pounds a player. The Ducks team that he led to the Stanley Cup had a big bruising roster, and every subsequent champion has followed suit, he said.
“I think you can really impose your will on a team if you’re physically strong enough to do it.
“We need to get bigger.”
The recent addition of six-foot four-inch, 234-pound forward Kevin Westgarth, to complement the similarly proportioned Brian McGrattan, is already paying dividends, noted Burke.
“It’s made a material difference in the amount of abuse our smaller players have to absorb.”
But size isn’t the most important factor when choosing players, he pointed out. Character is.
“We try to focus on work ethic, leadership, followership — if the guy’s not a leader we want a guy who just wants to play hockey — discipline, coachability, empathy for teammates, academic work.”
Burke pointed to former Vancouver Canucks great Trevor Linden as an example. He recalled how, as an 18-year-old, second-overall draft pick, Linden called to say he couldn’t make it for psychological and physical testing because it conflicted with branding day on his uncle’s ranch.
“I said, ‘What’s your job on branding day?’ He said, ‘Well, when (calves) come in the pen I grab them by the neck and hold them down while we brand them and cut their nuts off.’
“I said, ‘Kid, you just skip these tests.’”
Burke said the exchange showed him the strength of Linden’s family values
“That, to us, spoke volumes about the character level of the kid.”
He also recalled going out on a limb to draft the Sedins second and third overall in 1999. When Burke later travelled to Sweden to watch the twins play, he was dismayed to see a less-than-mediocre performance from the pair.
Too angry to face them himself, he ordered Canucks scout Thomas Gradin to confront the brothers in the locker-room.
“I said, you go down and talk to them, and if they both don’t have the flu, I’m going to fire you, because I’m going to get fired right after this.”
Gradin reported that Daniel and Henrik were exhausted after studying for a calculus exam most of the previous night. That was music to Burke’s ears, because it demonstrated their commitment and discipline.
Despite directing some taunts at Oilers fans during his presentation, Burke praised Edmonton for its hiring last year of Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.
“That took courage,” he said of the promotion of an American Hockey League coach to behind an NHL bench.
He also dismissed criticism of the Oilers first-round draft picks in recent years, pointing out that they took the best players available.
Burke even acknowledged that he’s mended his relationship with Edmonton president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, after the two men had a public spat in 2007 after the Oilers signed restricted free agent Dustin Penner away from Burke’s Ducks.
Burke said he extended a hand to Lowe after his son Brendan Burke was killed in a car crash four years ago. Brendan, he explained, had criticized his father about the feud.
Asked for his thoughts on the men’s hockey competition at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Burke predicted that the host team would be tough to beat. But the general manager of the United States 2010 Olympic team also said he likes Canada’s chances.
“Canada is always a problem in international hockey.
“I think Canada is the only country that could enter two teams into most of these tournaments.”