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Metro Mailbag: Brian Burke

by Staff Writer / Calgary Flames

Metro News gave Calgary Flames fans the opportunity to submit a question to president of hockey operations Brian Burke. Here are the best submissions from Metro readers:

Clay from Calgary: What are your thoughts on the Coach's Challenge so far this season? How it's been utilized & the few times it's affected games significantly?

I think it’s been great. It’s something we as the GM’s asked for actually two seasons ago. When I went to my last rules meeting as the interim GM of the Flames, we asked for a coaches challenge and it came in. I think it’s been great. It’s limited to offside and goalie interference. It’s been used effectively and it’s actually gotten the right result a number of times and affected the outcome of games and we want to get it right. The balancing act is we don’t want three-hour games. So wanted a limited amount of video review, we wanted it done as quickly as possible to get the call right and I think it’s been a great success.

Curtis from Calgary: How do you get into the hockey business. I've always dreamed of being an NHL GM and would love to know you're route. Thanks

You’re talking about three quarters of the male population of Canada that’s dreamed of being a GM. That’s a half-hour answer which I can’t give so let me give you a short answer. If you look at the NHL GM’s, historically they were former players of some character – guys that have been captains. Many went on to coach in the NHL and then became GM’s. The room is more split now between former players, like Jim Nill, guys who have played this game, and guys that played to some level – college hockey, Junior ‘A’, CHL, and then went back and got specialized degrees. Either Masters in business or Law degrees. So you would have a Ray Shero, who played college hockey and I think has an MBA. You would have a Peter Chiarelli, who played college hockey and has a law degree. If you’re not a former player then you better have a degree that gets you through the door.

Erik from Sherwood Park: With all the teams you've been a part of, what stands out or what makes the Calgary Flames different from the others?

I think the number one thing is the city – I love living here. I love the physical beauty, I love the people and I think we have tremendous hockey fans. It’s been a real exciting and invigorating change after working in Toronto for those years.

Brayden from Medicine Hat: Are you going to the new Star Wars movie?

No. No. I remember the first Star Wars movie came out the summer I turned pro and I took my little brother to it and I was fascinated by the special effects and they are so primitive now – you watch now and you think … god. Just the one scene where Luke Skywalker goes outside and there’s two suns... I remember we thought that was radical back then. I saw he first two and then they just got a little too complicated for me. I’m not a sci-fi guy.

Sean from Calgary: On average, how many emails do you receive a day?

I’d say on a slow day 200 and I’d say on a busy day maybe 400, if you factor in texts – a lot of hockey people text now so if you factor those in 400.

Charlie from Peterborough Ontario: Hey Brian, lifelong Flames fan here. Just wondering how you find the Calgary media as opposed to the Toronto media?

I’d say the two biggest differences are the Toronto media, they’re like Lemmings – there’s masses of them everywhere. Everywhere where you turn there’s someone there with a recording device. The players are forced to deal with a huge quantity that gets tiresome, frankly. There will be 100 media in the room after a game and here there might be 40 and in Anaheim there might be 20 or 15. The number one thing is the volume, there’s a crush of them everywhere. Number two is, of course, in a 5-million market compared to a 1.2-million or whatever we are. The social media component is huge. If a player stops at a bar to have one beer, someone’s going to tweet that he had four. Or if he’s talking to a woman. Social media, if you add that to the media thing, is a crushing burden. Second is the attitude. I’ve said this before so this isn’t a revelation, I think in Toronto they breed on the misery of the team. When the team does poorly then love it and love to pick up rocks and throw them. I think here the media have been fair. I think they’d like us to do well but they’re not cheerleaders and I think they’ve been fair.

Joe from LA/Calgary: What are your thoughts on the lack of scoring in the NHL and do you think bigger nets are the answer?

To me, I’ve always said that what I have to do to sell hockey – because I’m in the entertainment business – what I need to do to sell hockey is I need to get you to the edge of your seat or up on your feet and I need to do it more than once or twice a period. My criticism of soccer as a sport is there is very little excitement in it. There’s too much work to generate one scoring chance. You might have a scoring change every seven or eight minutes, we have to do better than that. I think a big save is an exciting play. So the key to me is the flow of the game and the number of scoring chances – that’s what I need to do to sell tickets, I don’t need more goals. The notion that we need more goals, I don’t accept that – I’ve been to 1-0 games that were fantastic. If we need more goals then I think we need to look at other rule changes first, like moving the goal liens out, or back, shrinking the neutral zone, shrinking the goalie equipment. To me changing the size of the goals is such a global change, such a see change, such a major change and you have to re-write the record books, which I don’t want to do. If we believe goal scoring should be increased I think there are steps we can take that are less radical.

Zac from Calgary: Mr. Burke, you're also the head of the board of directors for Rugby Canada. With a disappointing World Cup behind us, what do you see the biggest challenge is with growing Canada's ability to compete with other tier two teams? We had a great chance to take Italy out and inexplicably decided to kick for goal when we were five points down with 10 minutes left; we were unable to adapt our game plan against Romania when the rain set in. With other coaches like Eddie Jones, fresh off the upset win against South Africa with Japan and John Kirwan who brought Italy back into contention both on the market, should we be looking to try a new direction?

Many people don’t know that I’m a Canadian citizen as well and have been since 1993, I have dual citizenship. I think we’ve made some progress and we’ve moved up the charts in terms of our world ranking and we’ve dropped a bit. We’ve been looking at some of the things we’ve done and seeing if we can do them better. We are competing against countries that their primary sport is rugby. Their primary athletic resources and coaching and focal points are rugby. So we’re competing with countries where kids start playing at age 4 or 5, there are academies for the top kids, there are pro leagues where the players can make a living. We’re not there yet in Canada and I think we’re doing the best we can. I hate that answer generally. I think when people say they’re doing the best they can generally it means they’re failing but I think that we have made progress in a lot of fronts and I think we’ll continue to do that. Imagine Finland where the best athletes play hockey. There’s four million people in Finland, I think. They go head-to-head with Canada they usually come up short, even though they have wonderful athletes and almost all of their elite athlete resources are put into hockey. That’s the scope we’re up against. We’re going up against New Zealand or Australia, where almost all of their resources for athletes go into rugby, that’s what we’re up against. As long as hockey remains the primary focus in this country, we’re going to have that handicap.

Also, the announcement of a North American professional league starting in April has many excited - this has been heard before but this is the first one backed by World Rugby and by Rugby USA. The announcement suggested six Canadian teams to be added in 2017; what are the chances that we see a Calgary-based team?

This is a recent development, they just announced this league. I knew it was coming but they haven’t even announced the six cities in the US I don’t think. They announced Sacramento I saw but I don’t think they announced what the other cities are yet. I was at the game at Soldier Field last fall when the All Blacks played the Eagles and it was an embarrassing game. I think the All Blacks scored the first four times they touched the ball so quickly it was like 28-0 six minutes into the match. It ended up like 60–something to seven. I was really mad at New Zealand. I thought they could have kept the score more respectable, kicked a little more and so on. I’m not sure that North America is ready for a professional rugby league – I need to know a little more before I form an opinion on it. If it will go then great. I’m excited, if it will go, great. It’s a great sport. I know the plan would be six teams in the US and then six more in Canada. I think there is a future for professional Rugby in Canada but I’m not sure we’re there yet.

Evan from Calgary: Earlier in the season, what were the alternatives to not doing full team practices and cancelling practice?

Some teams have cancelled the game day skates. I know Colorado just announced they’re not going to do it. I’ve always viewed the game day skates as a waste of good ice and I don’t understand them. I didn’t understand them as a player. I was playing pro and on a game day we had to go skate – I didn’t understand that. I like having ice available on game days, sometimes you change your stick pattern or sometimes you have new skates you want to break in and the goaltenders certainly want to get some shots and the Black Aces, the players who don’t play much, certainly want to skate. I get all that. The optional game day skate I’ve never viewed it as a big thing but I know when I got here I asked our captain, I asked Mark Giordano if our players were committed to the game day skate and he said absolutely. We will do a game day skate as long as the coach wants to. Optional [game day skates] are one way, we did an optional the other day. Sometimes the player would rather get medical treatment than go on the ice. I leave it to our coach, I trust out coach and whatever he decides is fine.

Ryan from Calgary: Brian, I am constantly wondering why you are seen virtually everywhere with your tie draped over your shoulder. Why is that?

I don’t like wearing a tie. I get up very early, I’m up by 5:00 or 5:15 most mornings so I’ll either workout at home and go into work around 7:30 or I’ll just go into work. I don’t like wearing a tie that early so I’ll put in around my shoulder so I don’t forget it and then I go into work and don’t tie it until I have to. I used to tie it before the game day skates and then the next thing you know I’m wearing it out in the arena and then of course people comment on it. I could care less. Now it’s at the point where I just hardly ever tie it. It was just pure laziness to start, I just didn’t want to tie it until I had to.

Boyce from Calgary: Do you think the NHL will ever move into a direction where NHL contracts are more bonus-driven, meaning players need to maintain a performance level in order to reach maximum salaries?

I don’t think so. I think if you look at how the history of contracts in our sport, there’s something innately appealing to that. If you think to yourself, I only get paid when I perform. But there’s an equity argument and a fairness argument to the contrary saying, we want players to play hard so if they get hurt then they don’t get paid? Our players work hard and they compete. They’re the most fantastic athletes in the world. If it was less guaranteed money and they had to stay healthy to get bonuses would they play with the same intensity? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I could see a day where they permit more bonuses but not where they change the guaranteed nature of the contract.

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