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Getting by with some help from his friends

by John McGourty

"I owe these mentors so much. Pat Quinn was a wonderful teacher and he taught me patience, something that is still not my strong suit. Lou Lamoriello is one of the finest men I've met in my life and Gary Bettman has high intellect, high integrity and high intensity, all the things that I hope are true about me."
-- Brian Burke

Bob O'Connor remembers the big kid standing near the warming hut by the lake, watching his practice. This was long before O'Connor would rise through the ranks of USA Hockey to become national Coach-In-Chief. In those days, O'Connor was coaching Edina, Minn., youth-hockey teams and assisting Bart Larson, the coach at Edina West High School.

"I'm running a practice for my Bantam team and I saw a big kid with no hat and his glasses all fogged up," O'Connor recalls. "He was definitely not dressed for 15 degrees above zero. Next day, there he is again so I went and talked to him. It was Brian Burke, he was 13 and his family had just moved into town on the West Side. He wanted to know how he could get on the team.

"I told him registration was back in November and that's when he said he just moved in. So I told him, 'Come to practice Saturday and bring your parents to sign your forms.' He came and I put him on the team. It was early January."

"It was the Creek Valley outdoor rink, right next to the elementary school," Burke recalled. "I was born in Providence, moved around and moved to Minnesota when I was 12. I had skated on ponds in Boston but never played organized hockey. I had no equipment. Bob asked if I wanted to play and I couldn't even stand up on skates.

"At 13, that's too late to start in Minnesota, but I played two years of house league, then I played Midget B, Midget A and then high-school hockey for Edina."

NHL fans are well aware that Burke, the Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Anaheim Ducks, is not afraid to voice his opinion. He was that way as a boy, O'Connor said.

"We get to the championship game of the village recreation league and it's 2-2 in the third period when we go on the power play," O'Connor recalled. "Brian gets upset that I don't put him out there. It's his first year, he's been with us six weeks and I've got kids who have been with us since November and the
year before. I tell him I want my best shooters at the point and he tells me I'm putting out his line without him. Says it's not fair.

"We don't score. We get another power play. Brian is demanding to go out there. I tell him to be like a triangle, stick on the ice, feet wide apart and set a screen in front of the goalie. He gets in front of the goal, deflects a shot and we win the championship."

Burke took skating lessons that year and played summer hockey, the first year it was offered in Edina.

"He was playing against high-school kids and doing well physically. He moved up, but I had to calm him down. I told him, 'You're not Dave Schultz, I don't want you to be Dave Schultz. If someone checks you, let it go. No vendettas.' He said, 'OK, coach.'

"I told him I want you moving the puck fast and accurate. The next year he was playing Midget A. Bart Larson was the coach, I was Bart's assistant and the team won the Minnesota travel-team state championship and went to Detroit to play Little Caesar's, with all their great players, in the national playoffs."

"We beat International Falls to win the state and then got bumped in the nationals at Dearborn, Mich.," Burke recalled. "We had a great team, a great bunch of guys."

"In three years, Brian Burke went from a rec-league team to a select team and the next year he was the leader of the Edina high-school team. Bart wasn't sure he wanted him on the team because of his skating. I told Bart he's a leader and we can improve his skating, but he has a real passion. We went to the state tournament with him."

"I played only one year of high-school hockey and if Edina hadn't split into two schools that year, I wouldn't have played at all," Burke said. "And, I was good enough to play four years of Division I hockey. Bart was a good coach for me. In my sixth year of organized hockey, I walked on at Providence College and made the team. Four years later, I was captain."

O'Connor said he talked to Burke around midseason about his college plans and was told Burke was going to Dartmouth.

"I thought that was great, but four weeks later he was upset and said Dartmouth had put him on the waiting list," O'Connor said. "He said, 'I'm on the student council and the honor roll. I play hockey and football, but because Dartmouth has begun to admit women, I'm on the waiting list.'

"I grew up in Providence with Lou Lamoriello and he was my right winger when we played at Providence College," O'Connor said. "Lou was coaching Providence College and had scouted one of our players two years earlier and took him. He also saw Burke that year and I told him that some day Brian would play for him. So, I called Lou and told him this guy will be a leader for you. He's a guy you need, a tough, aggressive and assertive forward.

"Lou agrees to take him and I tell Brian and he says, 'Did you get me a scholarship?' I tell him it's late, the scholarship money is gone. He said he'd wait on Dartmouth so I call Lou back. He finds a little bit of money and says Brian will have to prove himself to get more. Next year, he's got a full scholarship. Then he was co-captain with Ron Wilson. He got drafted by the Flyers, got sent to Portland and led them to the Calder Cup. Plus, he was their team leader in the community, addressing all the different civic groups."

"Lou Lamoriello was the perfect coach for me because he likes physical hockey and holds players strictly accountable," Burke said. "I wanted to be a coach's player and my plus-minus was very important to me. He defined my role and improved my hitting. I became the prototypical Providence College forward under Lou Lamoriello.

"Ronnie Wilson carried our team. He was the first marquee player to go to Providence, although they had had All-Americans before. After Ron, the recruiting really picked up and they went to some Frozen Fours with better players. People try to place me with Providence and they can't until I tell them I played with Ron. Then they say, 'Oh, I remember Ron Wilson at Providence.'

"Lou cut a scholarship guy, paid for his four years and played me instead. I found Lou to be innovative by the standards of the time, especially with our stretching program. Other teams would laugh at us, but Lou was up-to-date on everything from nutrition to training to off-ice training. He was a voracious reader and he studied the pro teams. He had a solid relationship with pro GMs even then. They respected him.
"I went to Providence a boy and came out a man. Lou Lamoriello was the biggest influence in my life, other than my dad." -- Brian Burke
"I went to Providence a boy and came out a man. Lou Lamoriello was the biggest influence in my life, other than my dad. As a senior, I had my routine down: early-morning classes followed by two hours of studying. Then I'd go get in an hour of skating before practice. One day, Lou's secretary said the coach wanted to see me and that's never good news.

"I go in. Lou is at his desk and he pushed the law-school admissions test application at me. He said take this exam. I shoved it back and said I had no interest in becoming a lawyer. Lou said I misunderstood him, it wasn't a request. I took the exam, got 97th percentile and got into Harvard all because Lou cared.

"But I had been drafted by the Flyers and went to play for their AHL club, the Maine Mariners. I did a lot of community work for them, but didn't contribute much on the ice. We won the Calder Cup, but my problem was every player reaches his level and my level was college. I was big and strong enough for the pros, but not skilled enough. I had another year on my contract when I contacted Harvard and they said come now or we'll have to take you off the list.

"I called Keith Allen, the Flyers GM, and told him my situation. Allen said, 'If I were you, I'd go to law school. I can't see you making the NHL.' It's a kick in the butt for an athlete to be told that by his boss, but Keith was brutally honest and gave me very sound advice. They had three right wingers in Maine better than me, let alone in Philadelphia. It was the right decision."

Burke practiced law in Boston for six years, including representing professional hockey players. He joined the Vancouver Canucks in 1987 as Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations.

"I was representing Brett Hull, Dave Poulin and Pete Peeters and a bunch of other guys," Burke said. "Pat Quinn asked me to go to Vancouver with him and I had a tremendous amount of respect for Pat. The agent business was a great learning curve for someone who wants to work for a team. I wanted to be involved in the wins and losses and I jumped at it."

Burke left to become general manager of the Hartford Whalers in 1992. He joined the NHL the following year as Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations. Commissioner Gary Bettman was reshaping the NHL's image and Burke became a vocal promoter of the NHL as well as its chief disciplinarian. He was also involved in collective-bargaining issues.

"My great mentors were my dad, my older brothers, Bob O'Connor, Lou Lamoriello, Pat Quinn and Gary Bettman," Burke said. "I initially said no. We were on a rapid rebuilding program and I think I did my best rebuilding job there, better than Vancouver or Anaheim. But Gary asked again. I went and it was like getting a free MBA. He's a genius, a brilliant man, a good guy and a tough little bugger.

"I owe these mentors so much. Pat Quinn was a wonderful teacher and he taught me patience, something that is still not my strong suit. Lou Lamoriello is one of the finest men I've met in my life and Gary Bettman has high intellect, high integrity and high intensity, all the things that I hope are true about me."

Burke left the NHL front office to become the Vancouver Canucks President and General Manager in 1998. In 2002, the Canucks led the NHL in goals and two years later, they won the Northwest Division.

Burke became Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Anaheim Ducks in 2005 and the next year guided them to the Stanley Cup, beating the Ottawa Senators in five games and becoming the first West Coast general manager to win the Stanley Cup since Lester Patrick guided the 1924 Vancouver Cougars.

Now, he's getting the Lester Patrick Trophy in front of his hometown friends and family.

"With three Minnesota guys getting this award, I thought it was highly appropriate to have the dinner in St. Paul," Burke said. "I'm very proud of my Minnesota roots so it's very special for me to have this function there."
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