Cruising down a dirt road in eastern South Dakota, Brian Burke
surveys the dashboard digital clock that reads "5:41."
"We should be just taking the ice for pregame warm-ups," said Burke, who has just concluded a grueling, seven-hour day of pheasant hunting as part of the Pro Hockey Celebrity Hunt in Mitchell, S.D.
For the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs
, missing a home game against the New York Rangers
is akin to skipping a child's birthday party for a business trip.
This is neither, but for Burke, supporting a great cause in the name of USA Hockey means he'll be there.
"I'm the boss, so that always makes it easier," said Burke, who took over the reins of the Maple Leafs in November 2008. But more importantly, he added, "You have to remember that I didn't begin playing hockey until I was 13 years old, and at that time USA Hockey coaches were always there to help me whenever I asked for guidance on how to get better. So anytime I can do anything to return the favor, I will be there."
That's why Burke was able to break away to be the headline celebrity at the Pro Hockey Celebrity Hunt, which raised close to $50,000 for college scholarships for local high-school hockey players.
"Sometimes my work schedule can get in the way of my hunting," Burke said during a break from hunting in a field of the Granite Springs Hunting Lodge outside of Mitchell. "But to put it into the proper context, you have to remember that I have the greatest job in the world as the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Technology helps Burke stay wired to his team even when he's thousands of miles away. Hours after the first day of the charity hunt was complete, Burke was sitting in the front row at a banquet, constantly checking his Blackberry for updates on his team's progress. Despite outshooting the Rangers, 36-24, the Leafs lost, 2-0. Also, the Leafs' top minor-league affiliate, the AHL Toronto Marlies, fell to the Lake Erie Monsters, 4-1.
"We lost tonight, 2-0, and out-shot our opponent. At the same time our farm team lost, so I'm in a bit of a sour mood," Burke said in addressing a packed house of local youth hockey supporters and hunting enthusiasts.
Not knowing just how sour Burke was, one audience member left his seat and headed toward the exit as Burke began to speak.
"Hey, am I boring you?" he said. "I'm real sorry about that."
Minutes later the guest returned and Burke picked up where he left off.
"I'm glad you're back. I wouldn't want to keep you from anything important," he said. "Just so you know, you owe me a drink once we're done."
Ashamed of his faux pas, the patron approached Burke after the program to apologize.
"Don't worry about it kid," Burke said. "That's one of the oldest tricks in the book. I learned that from Dennis Hull
. He used to use that on people who would have to leave the room when he was speaking."
"Sometimes my work schedule can get in the way of my hunting. But to put it into the proper context, you have to remember that I have the greatest job in the world as the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs." -- Brian Burke
Still, Burke's commanding presence kept people in their seats, not only with his words but also the threat of calling them out when nature calls.
Out in the audience, Pat Verbeek
sat among his newfound hunting buddies, listening to Burke, hoping to escape the verbal barbs. He enjoyed no such luck.
"I see Patty Verbeek is here, the union guy that he is," Burke said of Verbeek, a key player in several Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations during his 20 years as an NHL player. "And yet, I still like Pat."
And the feeling is mutual.
On Sunday morning, both men took part in a special hunt where local hunters bid upward of $250 to talk side-by-side with the hockey heroes while trying to blast birds from the sky.
Since retiring in 2002, Verbeek has found that his windows of opportunity for hunting have opened wider.
"I love to hunt," said Verbeek, now the director of pro scouting for the Tampa Bay Lightning
. "Now that I'm retired, I have more chances to do what I love."
Now living in Michigan, where he spent two years as a player and four as a scout for the Red Wings, Verbeek has a little more flexibility whern it comes to pursuits outside of hockey.
"When I was a player, it was a lot harder," Verbeek said. "Now I can spend more time in the great outdoors, which I love."
Still, by midday, Verbeek hustled from the field in time to catch a flight back to Detroit. Play time was over and there were games to watch and players to scout. Plus, it's his wife's birthday Monday.
"I was on a hunting trip last year," he said, "and I'm not sure if she would be as understanding this time around."
Harry Thompson is the editor of USA Hockey Magazine.