There’s more to hockey than wins and losses.
Brian Burke, the Calgary Flames president of hockey operations and acting general manager, told a Red Deer audience on Monday that he has three objectives for his teams.
They must be entertaining, run like a business and involved in the community.
The 58-year-old, who became general manager of the Hartford Whalers 22 years ago and subsequently held similar positions with the Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, said all of his teams have played a similar style.
“We don’t trap, we don’t play boring hockey; my teams trade chances. We try to hit in all three zones and we fight.”
Burke explained that his goal is to entertain fans, who have many other places they could spend their money.
“I view the competition we face as not just other pro sports teams.
“We compete for your entertainment dollar, and that includes going to movies, going to concerts, whatever.”
This connects to the second pillar of Burke’s operational philosophy.
“We try to run it with the same prudent fiscal principles that you all run your businesses with,” he said during the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
“I think it’s easier to get people to support a team if it’s run like a business.”
That includes corporate stakeholders like sponsors, marketing partners and suite owners, he said. They’re more likely to support a team if it’s financially responsible.
When Burke joined the Canucks in 1998, the team was attracting small crowds and had lost $36 million that year.
By putting a more entertaining product on the ice and watching the numbers, he cut the deficit to $28 million the next year.
The following seasons the losses decreased to $14 million and $8 million, before hitting zero and then turning into profits.
Community service is another hallmark of his hockey organizations, said Burke.
“It’s not optional on my team. We do about twice as much as the next team.”
Not only does this connect the team to the community, “it’s the right thing to do,” said Burke, who leads by example.
The causes he focuses on are Ducks Unlimited, the Canadian Safe School Network, the You Can Play Project, the Special Olympics, and support for first responders and members of the military.
“I’ve been to Afghanistan three times and Kuwait twice to visit the Canadian soldiers there.”
Burke’s son Patrick co-founded You Can Play, after another son Brendan — who was gay — was killed in a car crash. The project combats homophobia in sports.
Burke said his position with the Flames — president of hockey operations — is rare in the National Hockey League, where general managers have traditionally called the shots.
“This model exists in about half a dozen teams in the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball, and I think it’ll be the wave of the future.”
Burke explained that the president of sporting operations can provide broad direction to the organization while the GM focuses on the day-to-day responsibilities of running the team.
It helps eliminate drastic changes every time a GM is replaced and allows one person to focus on the big picture without distractions or concerns about job security.
The GM’s position is full of risk, said Burke. From trades to draft picks, the person calling the shots can look pretty foolish with the benefit of hindsight.
“You’ve got to take a big risk. You’ve got to have a riverboat gambler’s mentality to be a good GM — with some caution.”