What Brian Burke Hiring Means for Calgary Flames' Rebuilding

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2013

Photo: www.thestar.com
Photo: www.thestar.com

Eight seasons have come and gone since the Calgary Flames lost Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup final to the Tampa Bay Lightning. None of the top 10 scorers from that team still wear the red-hot “C” sweater. And head coach Darryl Sutter—along with three immediate successors—have left the building, too.

In the interim, the Flames have failed to win a playoff series in four tries, failed to make the playoffs on four other occasions and begun the requisite housecleaning with 2012-13 trades that sent stalwarts Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester away to Pittsburgh and St. Louis, respectively.

A front-office concession to the necessity for change came Thursday when veteran hockey man Brian Burke was brought in as president of hockey operations—a newly-formulated role that places him directly beneath team president and COO Ken King and directly above general manager Jay Feaster.

And while Burke’s arrival might prompt an additional sleepless night or two in the Feaster household, what it most certainly does is create a credible urgency in the renovation of a franchise that plummeted to fourth in the five-team Northwest Division and 11th in the 15-team Western Conference in 2013.

That’s a placement it doesn’t sound like Burke will stand for again.

In a recent interview, Burke said:

Some guys will stand up here and say it’s a three-year process, but what they’re really doing is buying time for themselves. That way if things aren’t going well right away, they can always go back and say, "Well, I told you it would take three years." It shouldn’t.

Based on track record alone, Burke come to the new job with know-how and street cred acquired at previous stops in Vancouver (director of hockey operations), Hartford (general manager), Vancouver (general manager), Anaheim (general manager) and Toronto (president and general manager).

The 58-year-old combines sublime personnel savvy with the hard edge of a leader who admits he can’t always be fair to players but can always be honest with them. It’s a style he labeled, in the foreword of a recent Jason Farris book, as an amalgam of “being a general, a priest, a teacher and so much more.”

His knack for personnel was first displayed with the Canucks in 1999, when he negotiated complicated draft day waters to land both the second- and third-overall picks—which he then used to select twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

He struck paydirt again four years later when he used the 23rd-overall pick on Ryan Kesler, recently deemed by NHL.com as the best selection ever at position 23.

A two-year stay in Anaheim provided the Ducks with defenseman Chris Pronger (via trade from Edmonton), two trips to the conference finals and a Stanley Cup championship run in which Pronger—who’d been to the final a year earlier with Edmonton—scored 15 points in 19 games.

At Thursday’s press conference announcing his arrival, Burke labeled Feaster’s work at the most recent June’s draft—at which time Burke was a part-time scout for the Ducks—as the best in the league and insisted that he wouldn’t take the lead from the incumbent and could work just fine in the background.

“People think I need to be driving the bus all the time,” Burke said, “but I’m a pretty good teammate, too.” He added that he and Feaster would work well together “if both guys are willing and determined.”

That’s a big "if" in the midst of a new workflow in which Feaster will report to Burke, who doesn’t shy from confrontation, as evidenced by a well-publicized spat with then-Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe, in which he challenged Lowe to a barn fight.

Still, if the old man gets impatient for a greater hand in things, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare.

The Flames were the NHL’s 12th-oldest team in 2012, though their forwards as a group ranked just 19th of 30 teams.

That figure will get even younger after they nabbed 6’2” center Sean Monahan, 6’0" winger Emile Poirier and 5’11” winger Morgan Klimchuk in the first 28 overall picks in June before going for 6’7” defenseman Keegan Kanzig with the 67th overall pick two rounds later.

Burke also showed he hasn’t lost any faith in his own prowess.

“I think I add value,” Burke said. “I don’t come here as some green guy who’s never run a team. I’ve been able to fix pretty much every team I’ve worked for.”


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first hand by the writer.