You’re at the table with guys who have been doing this 30 years and you’re trying to say, ‘this is the type of player we want’ and they’re looking at you like, ‘hey, kid, you’re brand new at this. - Brian Burke
CALGARY, AB -- He hasn’t always been the grizzled face on the draft floor.
Once upon a time, Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke was a fresh-faced rookie tasked with navigating his first National Hockey League draft day.
“My first draft was as assistant GM in Vancouver with Pat Quinn and Pat was in a difficulty with the League because he had coached LA, gone to Vancouver and they suspended him briefly so he wasn’t at the table,” Burke recounted. “It was my first draft and I’m running the draft. There were scouts there who have been doing it 20 years. I was 31 or 32. My previous experience was six years as a lawyer. I’d never been at a draft table before.
“We took Rob Murphy, who worked out pretty well. He played a fair amount for us and a fair amount for Ottawa. He still works for Ottawa. Great kid but I remember being terrified.
"You’re at the table with guys who have been doing this 30 years and you’re trying to say, ‘this is the type of player we want’ and they’re looking at you like, ‘hey, kid, you’re brand new at this. You’re American to boot so shut up and sit there’. It was intimidating.”
Burke’s long removed from the days of being intimidated at the draft.
His demeanor, too, has evolved.
Closing in on 30 years of experience in the National Hockey League, the former general manager of the Hartford Whalers, Canucks, Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs has shown plenty of fortitude when it comes to how he’s tried to shape his organizatons.
“When you’re first there, you’re sitting there saying the rosary under the table that this guy will get to you,” said Burke, whose birthday falls two days after 2014’s draft. “By the 10th draft, you’re like, ‘who’s next on the list’.”
Of course, that’s not always the case as made evident by orchestrating two of the biggest deals in draft day history.
His first came at the helm of Hartford, swapping Sergei Makarov -- previously acquired from the Flames -- and first, second and third round picks for the second overall selection.
At No. 2, Burke tagged Peterborough Petes defenceman Chris Pronger.
At the helm of the Canucks and already holding the third overall pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, Burke dealt young defenceman Bryan McCabe and a future first rounder to the Chicago Blackhawks for fourth overall. He then flipped that fourth pick along with a pair of thirds to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for the first overall pick. He then traded down a spot with the Atlanta Thrashers before selecting Daniel and Henrik Sedin second and third overall respectively.
The pair has spent 13 seasons in Vancouver and has accumulated a combined 500 goals and 1647 points.
It’s not always about making the biggest splash, though. Other times, Burke admitted, it’s about the player you don’t get.
Take Brayden Schenn, for example.
“You do get excited about these kids,” he recalled, “but that one there, just because we had his brother there in Toronto, we had some interest but we actually were hoping that someone would take Brayden Schenn so we didn’t have the brother issue, so Luke didn’t say ‘why didn’t you take my brother’ and we could take a guy we wanted and not have that issue so that worked out fine for us.”
Burke’s Maple Leafs selected Nazem Kadri two picks after Schenn went to the Los Angeles Kings. To date, Kadri has 46 goals and 113 points to his credit -- 26 more than Schenn accumulated in 15 fewer games.
Set to embark on his first draft with the Flames organization, Burke offered a nugget of advice to general manager Brad Treliving -- believe in the list.
“I’ve always gone by the scout’s list,” Burke said. “We take the best player available. We follow that list religiously. The only rule I have is if you try to change that list on the floor, we’re going to have a fist-fight.
“If you’ve got it right, if you do the work, you should go off your list. I’ve done it now 20-something years always off the list.
“The one time when we drafted Tyler Biggs we had two picks close by, Stuart Percy and him, and Dave Morris, our chief scout, said ‘I think we better flip these guys’. I think we took Tyler Biggs first and a couple picks later we took Stuart Percy. He said ‘I’m worried that the two picks in between, we wont get the guy’ so I let him switch it.
“I said, ‘you realize that’s a firing offense, but we’ll do it’. I think his instincts were right. Later, a team that picked between us told us they would’ve taken him…would’ve taken Tyler Biggs.”
After all, in all his experience Burke’s learned to trust his scouts and their process.
“They’re the backbone of the industry,” he said. “I think if you don’t listen to them, first off, you demoralize the group and second, then why have them if you’re not going to listen to them?
“Scouting is the lifeblood of this industry and the scouts work all year to be on stage for Friday night and Saturday. It’s a bizarre job. It’d be like you’re an actor on Broadway and you get to do two performances a year. It’s a bizarre job. They work hard and they’re wonderful people."