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Brian Burke One-On-One With Mike Ulmer

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Brian Burke jumps up from his chair and reaches for two jars full of coins.

They belong to his daughters Mairin and Gracie.

Turns out one of the girls wanted a toonie and a loonie held by her sister. And so a jar full of lesser coins, worth perhaps $100, was swapped for three dollars in shiny currency.

Dad interceded in the exchange and the message to the girls was clear:  before you sell or buy something know exactly what it’s worth.

That, in a nutshell, is Brian Burke’s job. He leverages his instincts, intel, experience and personality to quantify exactly what he has and exactly what he wants. His mastery of the margin between those two poles explains why he has a bright and spacious office at 50 Bay Street.

While Burke is best known for blockbuster deals that either brought or dispatched Pavel Bure, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ed Jovanovski, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel, the secondary component of his deals are often as important as the first. That’s why Burke delayed the Phaneuf deal for a day while the Calgary Flames came around to the idea they needed to part with defenceman Keith Aulie. Observers suspect the deal that brought Joffrey Lupul to Toronto was largely about landing Wisconsin defender Jake Gardiner. While the first and possible second-round draft choice Burke extracted for Tomas Kaberle  might have been eye-catching, the centerpiece of the deal was towering 21-year-old centre Joe Colborne.

Burke loves to swing for the fences. “I love the deals that stop the presses and really rock the hockey world,” he said. “People talk about hockey for three days.”

But in every game there are techniques and etiquette. senior writer Mike Ulmer spoke with the Leafs President and GM about what another trader, Donald Trump, called the art of the deal.

Mike Ulmer: The Dallas Stars recently traded James Neal to Pittsburgh for defenceman Alex Goliogski. That’s a significant deal. How much do GMs know about teams that are happening between other teams?

Brian Burke: Between you and your staff your job is to know every player who is in play. Realistically, that doesn’t happen. A GM isn’t under any obligation to inform anyone that he is making a trade. A lot of times when both GMs get exactly what they want, they don’t bother talking with anyone else.

My rule is the bigger the player, the more people should know that he’s on the market. It doesn’t guarantee that you will always get your price, but if you don’t shop a player you will forever wonder if you got as much as you should have.

Mike Ulmer: You have made several deals with the Anaheim Ducks. Why do some GMs acquire and re-acquire players?

Brian Burke: Sports has a familiarity factor. Managers deal with these teams because there is no guesswork when you are talking about a player you have had before. You know where they are going to fit in with what you are trying to do. When Bob Murray gets Francois Beauchemin, he knows exactly what he’s getting because he’s had him before. When I go out and get Mike Brown from Anaheim it’s the same thing.

Mike Ulmer: How important is the compatibility between GMs?

Brian Burke: You may click with a guy personally, but for some reason you don’t make a deal. I think Darcy Regier in Buffalo is a great guy. I have made one deal with Darcy and that was Dominic Moore. That was a deadline deal, that wasn’t a hockey deal. Glen Sather and I are business partners but we have never made a real hockey deal.

Mike Ulmer: Are there people you won’t deal with?

Brian Burke:
It’s not that you ever say won’t deal with some GMs, but you know that a further investment in time will not bear fruit. It just isn’t a fit, it’s like two wrench sets, one is metric and the other is imperial. They’re speaking French, you’re speaking English. You just haven’t got that fit.

Mike Ulmer: How often does that happen? Will the average GM only deal with about half the league?

Brian Burke: I would say most GMs deal with about two-thirds of the other GMs in the league.

Mike Ulmer: How important is knowing the needs of the other managers?

Brian Burke: When I talk to a guy I ask him what his most pressing need is. What I consider his biggest need often doesn’t line up with his actual need because he knows his plans for players in the minors. But I worry way more about what I get than what I give up.

If you look at the case of Chris Pronger, we gave a first-round pick and then we paid a later first round pick. People said I paid too much, but we had a parade. I got a ring. At the end of the day, you ask yourself ‘did you get what you need?’

Mike Ulmer: What happens when a deal turns out to be horribly one-sided?

Brian Burke: I’ve been skinned in deals before, but the etiquette of the deal is this: if you come to the team with a deal and they accept it, you’re the one who has to live with it. I got skinned in a deal with (Devils GM) Lou Lamoriello and I complained about how it turned out once and he said, “Look, this was your deal, it wasn’t my deal.” He was right.

Bobby Clarke skinned me. When I was in Vancouver I traded Donald Brashear and a sixth rounder to Philadelphia for Jan Hlavac and a third. That was a bad deal.

But skinning a guy isn’t necessarily a great thing. If you skin a guy you are radioactive to GMs, especially the young ones.

Mike Ulmer: So how do you find out what’s happening across the league?

Brian Burke: A lot of times you will hear second-hand. I asked (Calgary GM) Darryl Sutter about trading Dion Phaneuf and he said he wasn’t interested. Three days later, I was talking with Bob Murray. He asked me why I wasn’t going after Dion Phaneuf. I said he wasn’t in play. Bob told me Darryl had just thrown Dion at him, that’s slang for making a player available. I put down the phone and called Darryl.

Mike Ulmer: What are some of the difficult elements of the job?

Brian Burke:There are a lot of awkward parts. Walking by a player who is suiting up to do battle for the Toronto Maple Leafs and knowing you are going to trade him the next day, that’s tough. Players changing cities whose wives are expecting a baby. You have to do some tough things.

Mike Ulmer: Do you have hard and fast rules about players, maybe players who have held out and want to come to your team?

Brian Burke: It’s like Pirates of the Caribbean, there aren’t that many firm rules but there are guidelines. Do I like holdouts? No. My biggest beef is with players who publicly ask for a trade or a player who asks his GM privately and then leaks out the information. I know what you are thinking; we (Anaheim) made the deal for Pronger (when he declined to play for Edmonton) but Pronger went privately to management. The leak came out of the Edmonton front office. What you have to remember is if a guy does things to someone else, it stands to reason he will do it to you.

Mike Ulmer: What role does chemistry play in team composition? Is it overrated?

Brian Burke: I believe in the importance of chemistry. It’s vital. You can be successful without it but it’s much, much harder. There have been very few teams who have succeeded without great chemistry.

Mike Ulmer: But how do you know what players are good in the dressing room?

Brian Burke: If (Calgary GM) Jay Feaster was interested in one of our players, how long do you think it would take him to ask Matt Stajan in for a coffee and say to him ‘tell me about player X’? Players talk to each other, agents talk to players.  If you take the time you should know exactly what’s going on in every dressing room in the league.

Mike Ulmer: You have pressing needs on the blueline and up front. How do you address these deficiencies?

Brian Burke: I think it’s pretty clear we need a puck-handling defenceman and it’s clear we have to upgrade at centre. It’s like a chess game. In chess, you don’t do things in sequence. If you can get a Phil Kessel, you don’t wait to get a centre for him. You acquire these players as they become available.

Mike Ulmer: Knowing that your prime target at the blue line will likely be a defenceman, why are you so confident you can land a centreman when free agency opens July 1, especially since there is only one big-time centre available: Brad Richards?

Brian Burke: I’m not saying we are going to sign a centre via free agency. There are two ways to get a centre in the summer (free agency or a trade). We feel we’ve added enough assets and we’re confident we can fill that need.
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