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Burke was guiding force in Ducks' success

by Eric Stephens /
Maybe Scott Niedermayer would have signed to play for Anaheim anyway, the pull to dress for games alongside brother, Rob, strong enough to head west no matter who the general manager was.

And, maybe, the star-studded defenseman and four-time Stanley Cup winner would have joined the Ducks no matter what Brian Burke would have said when the longtime executive recruited Niedermayer at his western Canada home in the summer of 2005.

Or maybe Burke was the reason Niedermayer left a safe situation in New Jersey for unchartered waters as an unrestricted free agent, a move that would trigger a chain of events ultimately leading to the Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup triumph, the highlight of Burke's three-plus year tenure as their general manager.

"I'd been used to New Jersey, which had been a stable situation," Niedermayer said, following Burke's decision to step down Wednesday and hand-pick top lieutenant Bob Murray as his successor. "And I guess when the Samuelis (Henry and Susan) stepped in, when they hired Brian and made a couple of decisions, it was a bit of a leap of faith, I guess, for me.

"But I sort of believed and found what looked like something that's building toward a stable organization which had a long-term goal. I was looking forward to that. I sort of bought into it."

Fact is, Burke's successful pursuit of Niedermayer spoke volumes about what he thought could be accomplished in Anaheim under ownership that wanted to win. Leaving a bold impression is the 53-year-old's forte.

Could another general manager have brought Niedermayer to the Ducks or pull off the now-landmark deal to get the other finishing piece in Chris Pronger? Could someone else have taken the chance on an injured and seemingly fading Teemu Selanne trying to resurrect his career in the place where he has his most success?

Could another have acted upon the advice of his trusted assistant and sent away a former league MVP in Sergei Fedorov for a then-unproven Francois Beauchemin? Possibly.

Fact is, Burke got those moves done, along with a number of others that brought about a period of on-ice and off-ice success that's unparalleled in franchise history. At one time a threat to relocate, Anaheim had a streak of 78 consecutive sellouts and the Ducks now have a season-ticket base north of 14,000.

All general managers have their share of moves that backfire, and Burke can be criticized fairly for a spotty draft record and free-agent signings of Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider. But it's also fair to say the night of June 6, 2007 wouldn't have happened if Burke wasn't running the team.

"We all know that it's not easy to build a hockey team," Selanne said. "You have to find the right chemistry, the right kind of guys. Obviously what he has done here ... you all know. The Stanley Cup, and so many other good years too.

"We're very lucky and thankful that he has been our GM, for sure."

Michael Schulman, the Ducks' chief executive officer, expressed his disappointment in Burke's decision to turn down an extension, but he also laid out what was accomplished when he brought in the tough-talking Rhode Island-born and Minnesota-raised hockey man following the lockout.

"What Brian Burke has done for this franchise is remarkable," Schulman said. "One Stanley Cup, one division title, two trips to the conference finals and six playoff rounds won. He brought in players that are entertaining and aggressive on the ice while classy and humble away from the rink.

"In short, Brian developed a team our community could be proud of."

The reaction in the Ducks' dressing room was not necessarily one of surprise, but more of lament. As is his nature, Burke made it clear that his future with the team wasn't clear and that change could be in order.

The only thing that caught them off-guard was the timing, with Burke announcing that he'd stay on as a special consultant until Schulman goes through with his stated goal of informing the League office of Burke's availability when he is released from his contract.

"It's not something that happens every day," Niedermayer said. "But at the same time, everybody sort of knew the situation. Brian had talked to us in training camp and really let us know sort of what he was going through and the decisions he had to make and what was important to him."

Said Selanne: "We kind of knew that Brian was going to have another challenge coming up."

Niedermayer, the Ducks' captain said their focus should only be on how they improve on their current 9-7-1 record and not their former boss' future.

"I think we had a pretty good understanding of how everything would play out," Niedermayer said. "Really, our job isn't going to change a bit. Our job is to go out and compete hard, play the way Randy (Carlyle) wants us to play. I'm sure we'll have to answer  some questions about it a bit but ultimately our jobs and our focus isn't going to change at all."

Burke said his choice to sit on a lucrative extension offered months ago by owners Henry and Susan Samueli and turn it down has "been the hardest decision I've ever had to make."

"Telling Michael Schulman that I didn't want to come back was hard because of how well I've been treated here," he told "I couldn't even do it. At first I stumbled through it and stalled. I said, 'I told you Nov. 1, but I didn't say it was going to be written in concrete.' He basically said, 'If you reached a decision, I think I deserve to know what it is.' I said, 'OK.'

"We're very lucky and thankful that he has been our GM, for sure."
-- Teemu Selanne

Family considerations are the main reason why Burke has sought to leave. During the past year, he has openly expressed his desire to be closer to his four children who reside in Boston and reduce the amount of travel that takes him away from his wife, Jennifer, and his two young girls.

"I go back two weekends every month and visit them, but I still don't see them enough," Burke said. "When I'm gone, I'm leaving behind a 4 1/2 year old and a 2 1/2 year old. I don't think it's been fair to either group. This is my 11th year doing that commute, going coast to coast. I think it's time if I get a chance to get in the same time zone, I'm going to take it."

Burke said that he has no idea what he will do next, although he stated a goal of being in his new job by Thanksgiving. No one will be surprised if he's working again by that timeline.

Wherever he lands, Burke figures to make waves and fill reporters' notebooks.

"Whether it was the wry one-liners or his passion for the game or his personality, he always kept it exciting," said Pronger, noting how he finally got to play for the man that drafted him No. 2 in 1993. "He's got a brash in-your-face quality that's fun to be around."
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