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Burke fighting for Cup and Canada

12/11/2003 - Vancouver Canucks

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- A quarter-century ago, the Providence College hockey coach summoned his team captain to his office.

Uh-oh, thought the senior, one of his Friar teammates must have broken curfew because the coach didn't call summit conferences to go over the power play or discuss the life's work of Saint Dominic, the patron of the Catholic order that ran the university.

The coach slid a piece of paper across the desk to the player.

It's an application for the LSATs, the coach said. I've talked with your professors, and if you do well, you'll get into Harvard or Yale.

Shoving the paper back toward his coach, the captain said that he was sorry, but he had no interest in attending law school, at one of the Ivy League universities or anywhere else -- much less taking the screening aptitude test. It was as if the paper were an application for astronaut training or the Dominican priesthood. The captain wasn't interested.

You don't understand, said the gruff coach. This is not a request.

Come on, coach, said the captain, it would be a waste of time.

Just take it, snapped the coach. Just take the darned thing, see how you do, and then it's up to you.

Telling the story in his office this week, the former Providence captain smiled.

"I did really well on the test and got into Harvard Law School," Brian Burke said. "All because Lou Lamoriello cared. The first week of law school, a kid told me he wanted to be a litigator. I didn't know what a litigator was. He asked me what I wanted to be. I said I wanted to graduate."

Burke didn't tell the kid that he planned to parlay the law degree into a career as a National Hockey League general manager, and he couldn't have dreamed that one day, both he and Lamoriello would be running franchises -- in 2003, Lamoriello with the New Jersey Devils and Burke with the Vancouver Canucks. Lamoriello, of course, has been the architect of multiple Stanley Cup runs; Burke is hoping to achieve the sport's pinnacle in the near future with the Canucks, taking the next step after a broad-based career that included one season of playing in the AHL.

After graduating from law school, Burke was working for a Boston firm when former AHL teammates -- including Flyers goaltender Pete Peeters -- began asking him for legal advice. That evolved into work as a player agent. "I told myself that was a lot more interesting than what I was doing," he said. "I was doing corporate work, securities and stuff."

He then served as Pat Quinn's assistant GM with the Canucks, taking care of most contract and legal details, before a 15-month stint as GM of the Hartford Whalers. (Feel free to whistle "Brass Bonanza" the rest of the day.) He was the league's senior vice president and director of hockey operations (i.e., its vice principal and disciplinarian).

The impression most of us have is that his NHL job, now filled by Colin Campbell, is one of the most thankless positions in sports, because the flak comes from all sides.

"It was an educational phase and a growth phase," said Burke, who became the head of the Canucks in 1998. "I didn't feel, 'God, I have to get out of here.' Working for Gary Bettman was like getting an MBA. The guy's a genius, and he's a great guy. His image in the NHL is so much more poorer than it should be. If he said, 'Jump through that window,' I'd probably do it."

Burke said he sought to leave the league job "because: a) I didn't like New York, and b) I couldn't stand going to hockey games and not caring who won. It was like Chinese water torture where you're getting it for the whole season -- 180 days, plus the playoffs. It was the steady diet of praying that you wouldn't have to suspend somebody and that your officials don't make a mistake. I didn't care about the score. I'm a competitive person, and that's what I couldn't stand."

As an American born-and-bred hockey man in Canada, Burke has faced and largely overcome some inevitable prejudice and resentment. Even that passionate defense of Bettman, usually viewed in Canada as some know-nothing-about-hockey basketball man who shouldn't be entrusted with a sacred pastime, has ruffled feathers.

"I can state with some fairness that no GM has fought harder on these Canadian issues than I have," Burke said.

He has had dual citizenship since his first tenure with the Canucks, but that isn't always a prima face case for acceptance north of the border, whether for the bar or the even more snobby and clannish milieu of Canadian hockey. He has become one of the league's power brokers and respected voices of authority, though the relationship with the media hasn't always been cordial -- an inevitability that goes with the job and the territory. At the appropriate times, he will say "organ-eye-zation" when discussing the Canucks or other NHL operations, and spell the words as "centre" and "neighbourhood."

This much is indisputable: The Canucks have made huge strides in his tenure, which began with Burke inheriting Mike Keenan behind the bench before Burke brought in Marc Crawford in January 1999. A final-day flop in Los Angeles last season prevented the Canucks from ending the Quebec-Colorado franchise's run of division championships at eight, before Vancouver -- just as the Avalanche did -- blew a 3-1 lead against the Wild in the second round of the playoffs.


During all of this, Burke almost always has been outspoken, whether at the approach of his team's first meeting of the season with the Avalanche, with the Northwest Division lead at stake, or anytime else.

This week, with the Avalanche in town, he alluded to the work of another former player agent, Colorado GM Pierre Lacroix, in laudatory terms, but with a kicker that made a point about the state of the game as the end of the collective bargaining agreement and a likely September 2004 lockout both loom.

"Pierre is in a different situation than I am," Burke said. "He's done a terrific job there with a very large payroll. You can't quarrel with Colorado's success. They've spent a massive amount of money, but they've had great success. Pierre has a couple of rings. He's done an excellent job with a massive payroll. We don't have that. Our goal is to beat Colorado whenever we play them and beat them in the playoffs whenever we face them, with a payroll that is right now well below $45 million."

That's where Burke's candor can run the wrong way at times. He is an American bemoaning the plight of the Canadian-based franchises. Of course, he wouldn't use the word "bemoaning." To him, it is stating the facts, not citing excuses.

"That's the geography today," he said. "That's the landscape today. I've said it before: I want to see who can compete in a landscape where everyone has the same amount of chips. We all go to Vegas with the same chips."

The indisputable disadvantages the Canadian franchises face at least have lessened over the past year, Burke acknowledged. "This is my sixth year," he said. "Since June of '98, the situation has improved dramatically. The Canadian dollar has improved dramatically in the last 12 months and that's a
huge issue. The government treatment has improved dramatically." He cited agreements with lotteries that give teams revenue from parlay-type games that hinge on NHL results, and some public funding of arena construction, including in Winnipeg, home of the Canucks' AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose.

But without a drastic change in the CBA terms, he said, that's only buying time.

"I know our team would have an impossible time competing," he said. "Could we survive? Who wants to only survive in pro sports? It's not about survival. It's about winning. If you don't have a shot at winning the damn championship, then you shouldn't be in the business. I don't want to survive. I want to be able to compete. So far, we've been able to do that. We're beating the odds.

"The system doesn't work for us. Long term, the disparities that exist in this system won't work for this hockey club. It's that simple. Is there a doomsday scenario? You could probably survive for a period of time, but the key is we believe in Gary Bettman's leadership. We believe that he will get us a system that works. If he tells us we need to take a work stoppage as part of that, we're prepared to do that. Our fan research indicates our fans understand that. They understand a work stoppage might be needed to get things straight, and they will be back. If that's the way Gary Bettman says we should go, that's the way we should go."

And if Bettman told Burke to take the darned test, he likely would do it again.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."