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NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE MEDIA CONFERENCE
February 12, 2009
THE MODERTOR: Thank you very much. Good day, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your patience. I know we had some confusion in terms of the numbers. I trust everybody has gotten connected, and we're pleased to have with us as part of our Hockey Weekend Across America series of media teleconferences, Brian Burke today. I think you all know Hockey Weekend Across America is an initiative USA Hockey began a year ago. This is the second annual event presented by Reebok. It's an initiative that USA Hockey started to celebrate the game at all levels of hockey, and all those involved to also engage more young kids in playing our game, more fans, coaches, officials of the game, et cetera.
Tomorrow is the official kickoff of Hockey Weekend Across America, and our theme is Wear Your Favorite Jersey, so we encourage all of you tomorrow to pick out your favorite hockey jersey and wear it. Saturday is bring a friend to the rink, and Sunday is celebrate local hockey heros day.
HockeyWeekendAcrossAmerica is the website where you can garner more information of all the things happening around the country.
I think you all know Brian Burke, he needs little introduction. He is the General Manager of the 2010 United States Olympic Men's ice hockey team. And of course, the GM and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brian has had a long history of hockey in our country in leadership roles on the USA Hockey side in particular. In February of 2007 he was named to our National Team advisory group, a capacity he's served in since.
Back in 1993 he was the general manager of the U.S. men's National Team at the WIHF Men's World championships in Germany. Without further adieu, I'd like to turn it over to Brian for opening remarks on his journey in hockey and America, and to share with us in celebration of Sunday's theme, who his hockey hero is.
BRIAN BURKE: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us for Hockey Weekend Across America. With USA Hockey and our friends at Reebok, of course, I do want to thank everyone for taking the time. When I was asked to do this, I jumped at it like I do any time USA Hockey asks me to do something, because I think for us to elevate this game and celebrate this game we need to take every opportunity that we have to do it.
I was asked to talk about my journey in hockey. It's a little different than a lot of people. I didn't start playing hockey until I was 13. That's obviously very late. My family, there are ten kids in my family, we moved to Minnesota when I was 12.
And I remember being in the hotel waiting for the moving truck, you know, with ten kids, I don't know how many rooms we had, two or three. And watching the high school tournament on television. Being awed by how great the players were and how exciting the atmosphere was, and I was hooked.
So I started playing the next year as a 13-year-old. And Bob O'Connor, who is just a wonderful man was my first coach, and he is one of my heros. He encouraged me to play. I played for him again as a second year midget and we went to the national championship.
But my first year was house bantam, second year the same. Third year, midget B, fourth year midget A. Again, playing for Bob O'Connor and Bart Larson. Went to the national championships in Dearborn, Michigan. And the next year played for united west high school.
So in my fifth year, I was playing Minnesota High School hockey. And I'm very proud of that, and the work that went into that. And my sixth year of organized hockey was a walk-on at Providence College, where I met another one of my heroes, Lou Amarillo. Played four years there, and a brief and very unspectacular professional career with the Philadelphia Flyers. One year in the American League, and then I went back to school.
My management career started in '87, 1987 as an assistant GM with the Vancouver Canucks, moving on to the general manager of the Hartford Whalers in '92, and Senior VP of the NHL from '93 to '98. General Manager in Vancouver from '98 to '04. And then in Anaheim, '05 until November of this year.
This past year in 08, and since then, with the Toronto Maple Leafs. So I've been very fortunate. Starting as late as I did. And the only reason I've had a chance to get to the college level was the coaching and the support that I got from USA Hockey.
I was never a good enough athlete to represent my country as a player. So they offered the general manager's position with the 2010 Olympic team in Vancouver, representing USA Hockey once again, I was flattered, awed, and I jumped at it.
So I owe USA Hockey a lot. I said this last year, hockey has been a very unequal partnership for me. I've gotten far more out of hockey than I've given back, even though I've tried. Hockey has made a huge impact on my life. It educated me, it educated my children. I've traveled the globe just been a wonderful influence in USA Hockey.
There was always someone from USA Hockey standing in front ever me showing me how to do something or encouraging me to try it. And I'll never forget that. And that's what we have to provide for all the young men and women that want to play hockey across America.
So as we celebrate Hockey Weekend Across America, thank you to USA Hockey for the leadership role they continue to provide for hockey. Players in the U.S. and just they do an amazing, amazing job. They don't get enough credit, and I'm here to tell you they made all the difference in my career in hockey.
So, Fish, thank you for inviting me to be here. If I had to pick one hero in hockey for me, it would be Lou Nanny. When I was a kid in Minnesota, he was an icon as a player, and he wasn't the greatest player, but he was clearly a leader and did lots of things well. Represented the U.S. on National Teams, always went where the international people asked him to go. And this was a time when the US Team wasn't that competitive at times.
As far as a leader and general manager, selling the game constantly encouraging them to grow up, herb Brooks, the John Marriucci's that group. If I had to pick one guy, and he's still a close friend, it would be Lou Nanny. Thanks, Fish.
THE MODERATOR: All right, thank you very much. Of course, we are one year out from the 2010 Olympic Winter Games today. One year out from today, we're excited about that. That's obviously part of the call today. In regards to Hockey Weekend Across America, just a couple of things I'll mention before we turn it back for the Q & A.
We were pleased that Mayor Daily in Chicago has proclaimed this Hockey Weekend throughout Chicago. And earlier this week Mayor Nutter in Philadelphia proclaimed it Hockey Week in Philadelphia. So that among the many, many great things happening across our country as part of this festivity I'd like to bring Howard back in.
Q. A question about involving picking the team. Do you pick your team based around how any other team may be leading on choosing their teams? Do you do matchups to what they are thinking about picking? Or how do the processes work?
BRIAN BURKE: Well, we're not going to see the other team's selections before we have to make our own. So first off, let's go through the selection process. There are five general managers that serve on a committee that's helping us put this team together. Paul Holmgren, Ray Shero, Don Waddell, and then, of course, the associate general manager of the Olympic team, David and myself.
And Jim Johansson who is Mr. Everything for USA Hockey is absolutely invaluable in terms of everything he provides, so that group. And then we've used one of the GMs as a scout. That is the group that will put the team together.
Our philosophy is no different than my philosophy in building a team. We're not going to pick the team on a reactive basis. We're going to pick a team that can -- our goal is to be able to succeed, regardless of the style of the team we play.
So we want to be fast enough to play speed teams big enough to play big teams. I divide my teams in the top six sports, bottom six sports. To try to concentrate my skill in the bottom six are pick and shovel guys. And in an Olympic competition, the pick and shovel guys are the guys that are asked to do those jobs might be pretty skilled players, but they might be asked to accept a very different role for a short term.
Q. I'm concerned about, I understand the bottom six top six, but especially matching up with Canada, we seem to be coming up a little on the small side. Our top six are very well skilled, but very small. How do you plan on combatting that?
BRIAN BURKE: I'm amazed you could say we're too small when we haven't picked the team yet, but you must be a lot smarter than I am. It's an astute you're right, it's an astute comment. And I will say this, I predict we'll be the smallest and youngest team in the tournament. And I predict that not one cent will be bet on team USA in Vegas. But we're going there to win anyhow.
And I don't mind going in the underdog role. If we're small in the top six, we'll have to fill out the bottom six with some beef.
Q. My question is how do you react to fans and media that have labeled you as the savior of the U.S. National Hockey Team, and one of the franchises in pro sports that would be the Toronto Maple Leafs?
BRIAN BURKE: Well, I haven't seen too many people say that. I think we better win a few more games in Toronto before anyone starts calling me a savior.
I mean, let's take it separately. First off, the franchise, what the franchise with that storied past, it is one of the most famous franchises in professional sports on the globe. Not just in the National Hockey League and not just in Canada or North America, it is one of the biggest iconic brands on the planet. So when someone says to you, we want you to run this team, that has special significance, and I'm awed by it, flattered by it, and grateful for it.
The job of rebuilding a team doesn't change in Canada. It's no different than it was in Anaheim. It's no different than it was in Hartford. It's just a little more scrutiny, a little more pressure and that's okay. I've worked in Canada enough my adult life that I'm accustomed to that.
As far as the US Team, our program, if you look at programs across the globe, and Fish may yell at me after we get off the call here, I don't believe any program has improved more in the last 15 years than the U.S. program. I think that's the honest truth. I really do.
It's not just because I'm a proud American. But if you look at the numbers in the under 18 team, and the first round picks, number of second round picks, the percentage increase is so dramatic and so large, and so staggering that I think you have to point a finger at USA Hockey and say they're doing something right. That's what I believe.
Now whether that group can take its place on the podium remains to be seen. Obviously in '96, the U.S. won a World Cup in Canada. We've won gold in squaw valley and lake placid. We've won silver in Sapporo. You know, this is a team that's won silver in Salt Lake. This is a team that our program doesn't have to apologize to anybody. We think we're one of the elite programs.
That being said, given the constitution of our team and the other gentleman's question, we're probably going to be on the small side, and we're going to be young. But that being said, we're going to win. That's the only reason we're going to Vancouver, and that is to win.
Q. How often do you meet or talk with Boyle and sheer owe and Holmgren, the rest of the guys on the staff about potential players for 2010?
BRIAN BURKE: We've put in and had a couple of meetings. We've had two meetings, another meeting and we'll have another in three weeks with the whole group of five. I'd say Dave and I have been talking probably every other day or every third day, and then the group, all call Ray Shero and ask him a question or call Paul Holmgren and ask him a question.
But we've put in a rating system last fall. We've been watching the games, rating our players, rating the American players. We've produce aid group that we're watching, so we're watching them like a smaller group.
Our group wants a small evaluation. The camp where we bring in the players on the other team, we want that group as small as possible. In the old days, they would have brought in 40 or 50 guys, and we're going to try to keep that number under 30. And that 30 will include a couple of guys we don't think will be on the team, but are young players we want to get involved with USA Hockey. And get them to absorb the culture and drink the cool aid and see how important it is to be a part of what we're trying to do.
So it could be only 28 candidates on the roster of 23. And, you know, there's a lot more than 20 good hockey players in the United States. There are going to be some disappointed people, and people yelling and screaming and pointing fingers.
Well, that is the beauty of selection. When you name an All-Star team or Olympic team and you name 21 guys as a player, and everyone from that team or city starts throwing rocks. So it will be an interesting time. But I'm comfortable with the rating system we've put in. Of the people we've evaluated. I think the selection process will send the 20-plus three the best we have.
Q. Do you look at guys like Modano, Kachuk, the older guys and say maybe their time as passed? Or do you still need some of that? I know Kachuk is a meat and potatoes guy, and Modano can still skate. Do you still meet some of the older guys there as well?
BRIAN BURKE: That an astute question. We have not resolved that. At no point have we said any one of the groups said that we don't or can't use or won't use or can't use any of the great generation of U.S. players. I mean, you have to keep this in perspective.
For the last 20 years, our teams have included one or more of a group of guys, and the last 15 guys, this is a group of guys that I predict will be in the U.S. hockey Hall of Fame but some of them are done U I don't have a list here. But this is from memory.
You're talking about some of the players that ever wore the red white and blue, and these guys showed up at every tournament. Represented the they went with pride, passion, and valor. Regardless what happens in 2010, I'll come back to that, but that's Mike Modano, Keith Kachuk, Mike Richter, Billy Garan, and again, Brian Leach, I'm not even going to begin.
Fish, you jump in with a couple more names when I get down. But that group carries the USA National Hockey Team with great distinction. They may not be represented on this team. There may be a total change in the guard.
The world championship team we had last year was not represented by that group. So it may be a full turning of the page. It may not. I will tell you one thing, it would be grossly unfair to that group to make that determination based on age or that it's time to turn the page, so let's make a total change. We'll make it on the merits of the people involved.
Q. Rick Dipietro has injury problems, we all know it. Is obviously you have to see the guy play before you can consider whether he's going to be there or not. But is he still in the group of guys you could watch at least in the beginning of next season? Or is he off the radar a little bit as a result of the injuries?
BRIAN BURKE: Not a chance. He's too good an athlete to be off the radar, and hopefully, hope any players that have injury trouble that they solve those injury problems and get healthy.
This is a guy who is a world class athlete, a world class goaltender. Great kid, and, yes, he's very much alive, even though he hasn't been able to stay healthy the last couple of years.
But no, Rick Dipietro is very much alive. We don't have, I just bragged about how much the pool has increased. I will also add it's not deep enough that we can overlook an athlete of that magnitude of that athlete.
Q. Just wondering given the deeper talent pool perhaps that you have alluded to, how much more difficult do you think this job is for you and your group this year than ten years ago?
BRIAN BURKE: I think it's a lot more difficult. And that is a wonderful, wonderful headache to have. Thank you USA Hockey for making this more difficult. I'd much rather have harder choices to make among more athletes than, you know where if 20 of us were pooled, we'd have 18 guys picked. I'd much rather have a deeper pool to choose from. So you're absolutely correct, Chris. It creates a headache. Pass me the aspirin, I'm happy to have it.
Q. You've been on this theme before about how much pressure there is playing in Canada. The Canadian Olympic team, obviously we just talked to Steve Yzerman a couple hours ago, is going to be under immense pressure when they get to Vancouver to win this thing on on home ice. How do you see that playing into the whole formula when it comes down to actually performing on the ice?
BRIAN BURKE: Well, that's the 64,000 question, isn't it? When you apply to host the Olympics, you're putting -- when they make that announcement. I was there in Vancouver when they opened that envelope and said Vancouver. At that moment, all the pressure shifted to the Canadian team for the hockey part of this tournament. How they handle that will be a huge part of whether they're successful or not.
The Olympics are a huge elephant on the sports page, but you're talking, you know, a religious part of Canada that hockey represents, and now they're playing for a gold medal on Canadian soil, the pressure is immense.
Q. I'm just wondering you've taken over and in charge of a team that is certainly in the beginning of a rebuilding process. And you're assembling the Olympic team, you may be the busiest man in hockey in the next year. How are you going to find enough time in the day to get it all done?
BRIAN BURKE: Until that time it will be put together by members of Canada and the U.S., I think it's a pretty silly question.
Q. You referenced the 96 World Cup win when Ron Wilson was behind the bench for that. Is he a candidate this time around? Maybe the leading candidate?
BRIAN BURKE: He's a candidate. We have not, our committee has not discussed coaches we're doing that, but we haven't drilled down on them. That's going to take place at the next meeting. He is definitely a candidate. There are several. We'll leave it at that.
Q. What is the timetable?
BRIAN BURKE: Our timetable will be dictated by USA Hockey. I'm the general manager, but represent USA Hockey. We've not received our instructions on that. Certainly my wish list would be what Stevie explained. Not before the draft, but not to take away from the draft the teams that participate in the finals, but certainly very shortly after that, and certainly before the orientation camp in August.
Q. Kind of piggy backing what Dan was getting at with the changing of the guard. What are your thoughts, is it a little better to almost kind of go completely young so there's not, you know, that awkward transition? Can you do a partial transition with some of those great players from the past? Or are you almost better off letting the new generation take the mantle?
BRIAN BURKE: Well, it depends on how that -- if you look at it. I'm trying to think of an appropriate time for that group. Someone on here with better artistic talents than I have will think of one. But with that group of warriors, to me it's unfair. It's no different than saying we're not taking anyone over this age. To say, well, it's time to turn the page and exclude a guy that's played my warrant with inclusion. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
So I know what you're getting at. But to me, the greatest player that's ever represented -- I mean, with great due respect from the 1960 team, great respect from the 1980 team, the guy that's worn the sweater and accomplished the most and competed the hardest for my money in my lifetime is Chris Chelios.
Now, is he a guy that could help team USA as a player at this point? Probably not. But I'd certainly want him involved in some capacity. So I think based on the way the season has begun, you cannot exclude Mike Modano. You cannot exclude Keith Kachuk, based on their play so far.
So, no, no one's drawing any lines on anything. No one's trying to mach a statement. We're going to take the 20 best skaters and three best goaltenders in goal and win the tournament. If that means some of the -- think of a name of this group, but that means some of the old warriors go on, then they go on.
Q. Touching on Ryan Wilson. How dicey a situation do you think it would be for you on professional with Ron if he's not among your coaching staff? The reason I ask is because of the history?
BRIAN BURKE: I don't care what didn't work for other teams before. Ron Wilson and I go back to I first met him in the fall of 1973. We've been friends ever since. His daughter is my Goddaughter. Right now we're in a new relationship. Ron works for me in Vancouver before, but not in this direct situation. We're making that work.
I think people can see how I work, and the coach is the coach, and I want him to be the voice of the team. I want him to have complete authority. And I think that, you know, we're going to -- our friendship's going to survive this relationship's ups and downs, and I think it's strong enough that it's going to survive that selection.
If it doesn't include Ron Wilson for two reasons. Many one, I think we're better friends than that. But two, this selection isn't even going to be made by Brian Burke. The team is put together by this group. At the end of the day, David and myself. And I would expect any player who is omitted or coach who is omitted, they'll be omitted because we're trying to win this tournament, and I'd expect them to handle it professionally, including Ron.
Q. You said the pressure is basically on Canada because it's on home turf. How does that sort of factor in? Does it help the American cause or the cause of the other team to put the pressure on Canada or hinder it?
BRIAN BURKE: Well, I think I didn't listen to Stevie's press conference. My guess is he's trying to down play the amount of pressure. Of that's what I would do if I were the GM of Team Canada and we were on Canadian soil. I think the pressure is going to be immense, as I said earlier. It's going to determine their fate.
To me, our squad will fly under the radar to a large extent. When people put the teams on paper, you know. Like we had an earlier question say your floor's going to be tiny. Well, we haven't even picked the team yet.
So I think when people put all the teams on paper, they're going to say, oh, look at the favorites in this tournament. They're not going to mention our team. And that's fine with us. We go to Vancouver under the radar, and that's fine. Because I think there is going to be a huge glacier of pressure on the Canadian team.
Q. I'm wondering getting into Toronto for the last few months and now building a team with the U.S., what kind of experience you can take from your experience, brief experience in Toronto and pass on to the brief experience that will be building this team?
BRIAN BURKE: I think the mechanics of putting a team together don't change. You know, this isn't my first rebuilding job in Toronto. I went through it in Vancouver, went through it in Hartford. Briefly, but in Hartford we made unbelievable strides in 15 months. Went through it in Vancouver, went through it in Anaheim, and the blueprint hasn't changed for me.
I've said it so long that people can probably recite it. But focus on character people, identify it, and find people specific jobs to do. If you drive by a job site, I tell my players all the time, if you drive by a job site, you don't see people standing around. You see one guy pounding nails, one guy digging a ditch, one guy welding a pipe. You have to do a job that justifies your presence on that job site. No different than a hockey game.
Now the one difference in the short term, you might not need -- you might try to structure your leadership a little different or your defense in other words, you might build for 82 games it might be different.
But other than that, Steve Yzerman's blueprint, I would hazard to guess is not going to be very different from mine, and mine's not going to be very different from whoever is in charge of the Soviet team or Russian team or so on.
I don't know if I can take much of the, the 100 days, I'm not sure that I can transfer much of that.
Q. From 2006, what does the team need to do differently to be more successful?
BRIAN BURKE: Lots of things. I mean, no, that's why Donnie Waddell is part of our management team. That's one thing we're trying to figure out. We weren't happy with the way that tournament went, nor was Canada. So we're going back and second guessing, and nit-picking, and trying to figure out, you know, what went wrong in the selection process.
You know, you can't learn from your mistakes unless you examine them. And once you examine them, you put them behind you. But you have to look back and reconstruct what went wrong to the extent you can. And that's why Donnie Waddell has been such a marvelous contributor for USA Hockey for the years. That's why to me, his experience is invaluable to us.
Q. How many players were in your pool when you guys started this process back in the fall? And how much would you say are in it right now?
BRIAN BURKE: I would say I'll probably be off, Brian, I apologize, I could give you a more specific answer. Going in, the initial discussion was every single guy every single guy with an American passport would be considered. Johansson gave us a list of all the pro players that were American. And we didn't want one guy without at least talking about it. So we talked about every single American in the pool, and fish can probably give you that number.
As far as guys on that NHL roster at the start of the year, we started before the season began, and we used it in the last year the young man comes up to me and says I'm an American. I want to know if I can be considered for that team.
Yeah, sure we talked about every single one. Again, I know we're going to make an unpopular choice before we're done. That comes with the territory. You don't accept an assignment from USA Hockey on the basis of whether it would be easy or not, or whether it will be popular or not. Your country asked you to do it, you do it.
Q. Can you say how many are in your pool right now?
BRIAN BURKE: Yeah. That's a good question. I'd say we're down to, from in the 100, I forget the exact number. I'd say we're down to, I wish David was on the phone, he is more precise than I am. I'd say we're down to 50.
Q. Wondering and I know you don't want to give into specifics, but is one area where this team that at least appears to be strong, and you haven't obviously selected the guys yet or goaltending? When you look at the ways that guys like Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas are playing right now?
BRIAN BURKE: Again, what I'd say is I'll leave that to you guys. To me the danger when you're talking about the selection process is if you start boasting about that this is one position where we have depth or in any given injury situation is where you start putting your team together, you look silly.
So we like our depth at every possession. The question is, is it good enough to compete in this tournament? Size and age issues but we think we have depth at every position. And again, credit to USA Hockey.
You know, you could imagine, and that's why I say leave it to you. You would imagine Zach Parisi is having a great year. Wonderful young American player, product of USA Hockey. Who is going to lineup against them?
If he's a first line winger, I'm not saying he is, but if he is, who is going to lineup against him? Iginla? Nash, who? Probably someone bigger.
So that's going to be the question mark is are we going to be able to put the components together to be able to compete? We believe we are. But as far as the depth at different positions and where we have strength, we think we have depth and strength across the board, and we'll let you guys pick that apart or praise it.
Q. Going into the world championship, some of these guys who obviously don't make the playoffs or who are out of the first round, is this going to be kind of like a chance for them to further showcase their wears, so to speak?
BRIAN BURKE: It's going to be a must, a mandatory audition for some of them. Like we're not begging anyone to play on this team. And if that means they've got to go and show us what they can do because we're undecided, then they better get on that plane.
Q. I know this mind seem a little off collar and going a little way back, but it is for the community and the fans. It's a little bit out of the USA Hockey pool here. But you were a part of the Hartford Whalers organization, and a lot of fans out there still love the old nostalgia of what we refer to as the whale. Do you feel a little nostalgia when people talk about that organization to this day?
BRIAN BURKE: Well, I think fish would rather -- I'll give you a short answer. Call me on my cell and I'll happily answer that question. Pretty sure this group doesn't want to listen to the answer to that question. But, yes, I do.
I was only there a short time. But it's a great community, and we had some very rabid support. Not enough. But the fans we had were terrific and they're still mad at me for getting rid of brass bonanza.
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