Burke brings same no-nonsense style to Anaheim

Updated: September 30, 2005, 10:52 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

ANAHEIM -- Granted, this sort of quick-change intrigue is common in the NHL, but it still seemed a bit strange.

Brian Burke was talking between periods of a Vancouver preseason game in the general manager's booth in a press box, but he wasn't talking about the Canucks.

Much.

After complicated and apparently contentious contract negotiations helped derail a new deal, Burke was shown the door of the Canucks' offices in General Motors Place in May 2004 and landed in Anaheim as GM of the Mighty Ducks.

Brian Burke
Brian Burke is convinced he can bring the fans back in Anaheim.

So long, farewell, and never mind those 86 straight sellouts and the revitalization of the franchise in his six-year run in the front office.

"I was disappointed about the move because, obviously, I wanted to see the thing through," Burke said in that GM booth at the Arrowhead Pond. "I don't think the decision had any logic or fairness to it.

"But that's 16, 17 months ago. I look forward, I don't look back in my life. I think these things happen for a reason, and I think I was fortunate to get an opportunity to work for the Samuelis."

The Samuelis are Henry and Susan Samueli, who, after agreeing to purchase the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim this spring, installed Burke as the team's executive vice president and general manager on June 20.

"I really believe in this market," Burke said. "In the interview process, I really fell in love with the ownership group. Dr. and Mrs. Samueli are wonderful people and they do all the things that are important to me. They're committed to the community. They want to win. I wanted the job before I met them. After I met them, I desperately wanted the job."

This is Burke's third stint running a franchise, following his stays with the Hartford Whalers -- we pause for a snippet of "Brass Bonanza" -- and then the Canucks. His bluntness and passion has rubbed some the wrong way, and that undoubtedly won't change. But his broad-based experience makes him one of the most influential voices in the game, at least, when minds and ears are open.

I think there's an assumption that hockey's harder to sell in Southern California than it was in Vancouver. Everyone tells me, 'Well, you turned it around in Vancouver, now you've got to do it in California.'
Mighty Ducks GM Brian Burke

Now, the task is to re-establish the Orange County-based franchise as an NHL force, both on the ice and at the box office. (There are no plans afoot to rename the team the Los Angeles Ducks of Anaheim.)

Addressing that challenge, Burke does manage to get in a dig.

"I think there's an assumption that hockey's harder to sell in Southern California than it was in Vancouver," Burke said. "Everyone tells me, 'Well, you turned it around in Vancouver, now you've got to do it in California.'

"At the end of my first year in Vancouver, we had 7,600 season tickets. We've got 9,300 here. We were at 6,000 when I was hired, and we're at 9,300 now. I believe this is a great hockey market. I remember when you couldn't get a ticket for games here. Then, we gave people reasons not to come, and they stopped coming."

The fact is, the Mighty Ducks' run to a Stanley Cup finals Game 7 against New Jersey in 2003 was an aberration. As recently as 1997-98, the fifth season of the franchise, the Ducks had 25 regular-season sellouts. But once the expansion honeymoon period expired, disillusion set in, and the momentum was arrested in the land so concerned about "A-list" places to be, and be seen.

Given Paul Kariya's eye-popping salary, the decision not to give the Ducks' marquee player a qualifying offer in 2003 was eminently defensible. It became even more defensible when Kariya was a bust at Colorado -- and not just because of injuries. But his departure was symbolic.

Even Disney bailed out, selling the franchise nine years after the third film in the trilogy was released. ("The Godfather," it wasn't.)

If Emilio Estevez had season tickets, he probably canceled, too.

Similar box-office slumps have played out in other NHL markets, but they are more easily overlooked and rationalized in cities north of the border or with snow banks.

Now, the fans must be coaxed back in the building, convinced that fighting the Southland traffic is worth the hassle. The new regime signaled its seriousness under the new order, signing Scott Niedermayer to join his brother, Rob, and the post-lockout atmosphere is upbeat.

Not thrilled with Burke's lukewarm endorsement and an offer of a one-year extension, coach Mike Babcock instead went off to Detroit, and Burke hired Randy Carlyle, who had coached the Canucks' AHL Manitoba affiliate under Burke.

"People in hockey know my reputation," said Burke, the former Providence College captain who was nudged to attend Harvard Law School by Friars coach Lou Lamoriello. "My teams plan an exciting brand of hockey. We play a fun brand of hockey. I think that sells anywhere. You can sell it anywhere in Canada, you can sell it in Southern California, you can sell it nationally.

"We're committed to entertaining, physical hockey. We either have the puck or are aggressive in pursuit of the puck. I think this is a great market, but we have to bring the fans back."

Burke was Colin Campbell's predecessor as the league's vice principal-vice president, and he also has been through fluctuations in approach and previous attempts to open up the game.

"Right now," said Burke, "our fans are seeing a parade to the penalty box. Once the players adapt, which they will, you're going to see better hockey. I fully support it. I think if they don't stick with it, our league has lost credibility. They've made it such a focal point, we don't have a choice. And that's a good thing."

While it plays out, Burke awaits word on the progress of two lawsuits.

Along with the Canucks, Marc Crawford, Todd Bertuzzi, and Brad May, Burke is a defendant in Steve Moore's civil suit, pending in Denver District Court. A decision is expected soon on whether the case will be allowed to proceed in Denver, which would involve the premise that a "conspiracy" began following Moore's hit on Markus Naslund in a February 2004 game in Denver.

"I'd love to comment on it," Burke said, "but I can't."

His defamation suit against the New York Post and columnist Larry Brooks, filed in April, also is being allowed to proceed in British Columbia Supreme Court. That case is tied to Bertuzzi's assault on Moore, because the Brooks column in question said he had been told that between periods of the March 8, 2004 game in Vancouver, Burke challenged the Canucks to retaliate against Moore.

Burke has said that he is seeking a retraction and that any proceeds above attorney's fees will go to Canuck Place, a children's hospice.

Meanwhile, he is overseeing a reconstruction project in Anaheim.

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

Terry Frei

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