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NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE MEDIA CONFERENCE
February 25, 2009
DAVID KEON: Welcome, everyone, I'm David Keon. National Hockey League's public relations department and I'd like to welcome you to our call. Our guest today is Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke. Thanks to Brian for taking the time today to answer your questions and thanks to Pat Park of the Leafs public relations staff for arranging the call.
One week from today at 3 p.m. eastern time is the NHL trade deadline. Brian has been involved in trade deadlines for over 20 years, having been the general manager in Hartford, Vancouver and Anaheim before taking his current post in Toronto.
He's also seen the trade deadline from another angle, having spent six years as Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations for the National Hockey League.
Again, thanks to Brian for taking the time to answer your questions. We'll open it up to questions now.
Q. Dmitry Vorobiev, he has been playable in the KHL, but recently was found to have an injury. Was he or is he on the Leafs' radar? Do you have any plans to check out the condition for yourself?
BRIAN BURKE: Certainly from my perspective, no and no. But that's the first I've heard of it, frankly. I'll ask our guys. But, no, it's certainly not on my radar.
Q. The state of the economy is obviously very bad. That can affect the trade deadline in many ways. We've heard I think of pretty much all the other major sports leagues, the NBA, NFL, MLB, NASCAR, all announcing job cuts. The NHL hasn't, still saying the league is growing. How do you reconcile all those other major leagues are cutting jobs, shedding salaries, and Gary Bettman is still saying the league is doing fine and doesn't need to do any of those things?
BRIAN BURKE: First off, I take it from the tone of your question you don't accept that explanation. I think part of the commissioner's explanation is based on timing. Our selling season was largely complete in our league before most of this bad news hit. So I don't think most of the businesses on the big ticket stuff, season ticket renewals, suite sales, electronic advertising, on the big-ticket items, most of that inventory was gone and the money was in the till before most of that news hit. So I don't believe we're going to see -- at the end of the year when you calculate league revenues, I think they're going to support what the commissioner said.
I think people are focusing on the bad news stories, saying there's a lot of empty seats in this building and that building. They're disregarding Chicago and Boston, which have rebounded nicely, selling out every night. I was told the Capitals have sold out every night on a season-ticket basis. I don't know if that was true or not.
First of all, the commissioner, he's a truthful guy, so the statistics will probably back him up. I think the corrosion and erosion we will see, if any, will take place next year.
Again, to repeat, this bad news all came in after our selling season was complete. That won't be the case.
I think our first canary in the coal mines will be the playoffs where we'll get some indication of what impact poor economic news will have on us. The second one will be in our selling season of the summer of '09. I don't doubt one bit what the commissioner says for those two reasons. But we'll see.
Do I think we're going to see an impact on our business? I think you'd be a fool to say no, and the commissioner has admitted that. But I think he said it hasn't hit us yet, and that's timing related.
Q. Trading of rental players, is that more difficult now or easier? Seems like a lot of the teams get a rental player and the player doesn't sign with the team anyway. You have to be wary of how much you give up when most of these players don't sign with the team they go to anyway.
BRIAN BURKE: I don't think the pressure on our group changes from year to year. Like there's a pressure on our group to win; it doesn't change. That's why I've said repeatedly, we, and I'm using a collective pronoun, we make our mistakes as a group more on the trade deadline than we do the rest of the year. That's historical and I don't think it will change.
Trades might be harder to make in this system. I don't think the pressure on an individual GM in an specific market that hasn't got the job done or someone leapfrogged him in the standings, or whatever, that doesn't change. The pressure doesn't change. It's unrelenting, unremitting.
Therefore, the temptation to add to your team or take from your team at the deadline, regardless of the price, is always there.
Q. Is it harder with a rental player if you have a team, an unrestricted free agent, who is suddenly 25 or 26, and you think we need him to make the playoffs. Not like you're giving up a player who is 31.
BRIAN BURKE: I think you're going to see a shift in the paradigm on the way we do business. In the NFL they've viewed a player with a fixed contract as you have that asset for that long and then he goes or he stays. And I think we're going to come to that in the cap system where we have the same mentality. A guy makes your steam at 18. At 25 he's unrestricted. If he goes, he goes, and you have to replace him.
I think it's going to be easier because I think one by-product of what's happening with our economy is you're not going to see, my own prediction, not suggesting this, I think you're not going to see these massive long-term contracts any more. I think you're going to see three- to four-year deals, maybe five-year deals. I think you're going to see the folly of having a huge player on a contract for a lot of years, as the cap might go down, which it appears it might, I think that's going to lead to more sensible terms on deals, then it won't be so hard to make deals.
Q. You sign these players to 12-year contracts, the last three years aren't very much money, so that lowers the cap hit. Isn't that why teams are signing these players to long-term contracts?
BRIAN BURKE: You're talking about the last two or three years of a seven- to 10-year deal. I'm talking about even the first six years of that deal. I think going forward, you'll see less of that.
My own prediction, my term limit internally in Anaheim was five years because I didn't feel that I could confidently predict what revenues and the cap would do. We set it at five. I think that's going to look prudent when history looks back on those deals.
Q. Talking about the GM meetings, doing it after the deadline where you can focus on rules, don't you think you lose some of the media coverage and speculation? What are your thoughts about moving the GM meetings till after the deadline?
BRIAN BURKE: It was moved by other GMs. To me it wasn't a priority. I share what you say in terms of the coverage it got.
But it did take away from the meetings. It's a rare case where I'm going to give you an answer that reflects some ambivalence. I see the merit of moving it because it does allow us to focus on the game. But I do think we'll pay a price for that in coverage. It did lead to a lot of speculation.
I think trade rumors, trades, as long as they're not untruthful and doesn't spook a player that doesn't deserve to be spooked, as long as there is something to them, I think they're helpful to our business. For people to be able to stand around a water cooler, coffee area in an office, talk about, hey, did you hear about this guy might be going here, I think it sells tickets and generates a buzz. That's one of the things, of course, not getting on a stump here, but my proposal to a lot of teams to retain salary and trades is based on that. I think that speculation is helpful to our business and does sell tickets.
Q. Are you optimistic your proposal will get some traction any time soon?
BRIAN BURKE: I don't know. It's like Groundhog Day, I just keep putting it on. My theory is that at some point the people that don't care will stop voting against it. The people that don't like it may see some merit in it. It's like my one-minute penalty in overtime. I think Colie hates when he gets my agenda items because it looks like last year's list with a couple of additions. I watch Marcelo (indiscernible). Marcelo put replay on year after year after year for instant replays in our league, which has been a marvelous change in our league and finally got it through. I think sometimes if you're progressive, ahead of the curve, you have to wait for some people to catch up with you. I'm not saying you're smarter than people at all, but you might have an idea that's out there in one year and three years later people say it makes sense. You just have to be persistent.
Q. This being your first deadline in Toronto, do you sense more scrutiny, more rumors? How is it different than previous ones?
BRIAN BURKE: More phone calls to return. There's just a bigger pack in the media. We have more coverage. I'm used to the scrutiny from working in Vancouver, obviously. But just greater volume.
So far I can't complain about one bit of coverage we've gotten. It's all been fair. Yes, the numbers are greater. But I think we've been treated very professionally and very fairly.
Q. With the tightness of the standings, especially in the west, do you think that's going to generate more activity in the deadline or less?
BRIAN BURKE: Well, I think first off, I would say more. The more people that are in that horse race, the more likely they'll try to add to their teams. So parity, which our league has now, there are a couple teams that have had extraordinary years to this point, and it opened up a gap, but the rest of the teams, there's good bunching. I think that's good for our business.
There's horrible math involved here. Any mathematician will tell you that we're all crazy. Collective pronoun again. We're all nuts. Because there's 30 teams. There's one parade. After the first round, there's only eight teams playing. So that's in the first round, you know, you get 22 teams on the sidelines. The math is horrible.
The notion that you're going to add to your team and hope you win a round, the math defies that. But the human element is, first off, there's that optimism we all share, that belief we're missing that one piece. Second, your team expects it. Your players are looking to you to add weapons for this last part of the race.
So we all get sucked in. We all make poor decisions and brilliant decisions. Some guys have made brilliant decisions at the trade deadline that have won them rounds, carried them farther than they should go. But for every guy that makes a brilliant decision, there are five or six of us that made poor ones that same day. It's an awful day, it's an exciting day, it's a day full of magic, and a day full of very poor decision making.
Q. We've seen two coaching changes pretty late in the season. Does that pressure also build and lead to those decisions as well?
BRIAN BURKE: I think that's part of it. When you make a change, obviously it's not based on -- there's a lot of factors that go into it. He doesn't need somebody to speak for him, but I saw him after we beat New York the other night. He looked like somebody shot his dog.
You know, firing a coach is a hard thing. Even if you don't get along with that coach, it's a hard thing. They have families. They've done their best. At some point a change -- you feel a coach has lost the team. It's not based on any one game or any one result or any one incident that might have happened in your office. But you've got to firmly believe two things. One, that your coach has lost that team, 'cause that never changes. Once he loses a team, he never gets them back. And, two, that you have a Plan B, you have a guy that can come in and hopefully make a difference. If you don't have Plan B, there's not much point in Plan A, which is firing a coach.
I saw (indiscernible) the other night. I saw the pain. He knew he was going to make a change. He didn't say anything to me obviously, but I could see it, that weight on him. It's a hard thing. Tom is a good man and a good coach. He's a friend of mine. When you fire a coach, a lot goes into it. There's a huge weight of decision making on it. It's a terrible thing.
But you have to do it. That's what you get paid for as a GM. If you feel like the guy has lost the team, you have to make that change. Certainly in this case, bringing in John Tortorella, I think John Tortorella is an excellent coach, a good guy, he makes the players accountable. I wish him well in his new capacity.
Q. With a week to go, is it a buyer's or seller's market?
BRIAN BURKE: There's only been a couple deals, but I think they're helpful on the seller's side certainly on the prices. To me the two deals that have gone down have indicated there's been certainly no blue-light special on rentals.
Q. In your conversations with your colleagues so far, do you think most of them made up their mind at this point whether they'll be a buyer or seller or are there still guys maybe on the fence?
BRIAN BURKE: I'd say most guys have decided. But there's some guys on the fence. A lot of the calls that I've gotten have been parameters, like who are guys you would move, what are approximate price ranges you're looking for back, can you take money back, those type of I guess preliminary discussions to set some parameters.
I had four of those yesterday, teams saying, Let's set some ground rules here and we'll let you whether we're in or not. I'd say probably 20 teams have checked in on that basis or I've checked in with them and gotten their parameters.
To answer your question, a number of teams have identified themselves as buyers or sellers. There's a couple more on the fence to wait to see how a couple more games goes. The three-point games, they're fatal. As you try to do the arithmetic, to figure out if you're in ninth place or 10th place, you're trying to calculate how many games you have left, how many games against divisional opponents, to really have more control over the standings. How many games against teams you're chasing. The fatal, fatal, fatal part of this is the three-point game. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, it just makes it really hard for you to do the math and say can we catch this team. We played them twice. If we beat them, we can make up four points on them. Then Vancouver comes in our building, all the teams around Vancouver in the standings are holding their breath and they sneak out the two-point game.
You know, everyone in the west that's close to them, the Nationals, going, Oh, my God, what happened? That makes it harder to do the math.
Q. In your experience, when does it start getting more serious than just the parameter talk? Is it a day before the deadline? Is it sooner than that?
BRIAN BURKE: Well, like Bob just said, I'm going to beat the rush to the till, made his deal. He went and got his defenseman. Bryan Murray, same thing. I think it varies with personality. I think these guys said, I don't need to wait till the market's established. This is a price I think is fair. I'm going to make my deal.
And we have set our prices internally. I'm not waiting for an auction mentality. If we have players we're going to sell, we have set prices on them. If a guy offers us the right price, we're willing to make that deal today, as soon as I get off this call, if I get a call. It varies team by team, different approaches.
Q. Right now in Toronto, do you think there's a little bit of danger in terms of the expectations around the team? There seems to be this sense in the city that you were going to be one of the busier or more active GMs at the deadline. Is that necessarily true? If the deals aren't there, could it be quiet for you guys?
BRIAN BURKE: Well, I don't think it will be quiet. But I don't think it's going to be as active as people think. I've been trying to manage those expectations the last few days with my comments, which are I don't think the changes will be as widespread or radical as people expected. I'm trying to manage those expectations so people aren't disappointed.
The fact is, we have a couple players with no trades. One has given us a list of teams, but I can't imagine that the deal will make sense. That's Tomas Kaberle. The other is Pavel Kubina. You know, I met with Pavel. He said, I want to be a Toronto Maple Leaf. I want to stay. And in the past I think that's been turned on the players. People said, That's selfish. As I said, as soon as I got the job, I'm not going to ask a player to waive a no trade. You're talking about elite players that get these no trade clauses. And having got then them from a team, I think the team should honor that.
I don't think the fact there's been a shift in the GM, allows me to break Don Ferguson, Jr.'s word. He said these people will give you no trade. I intend to honor that. I don't think there's going to be as much activity as people think, but we are looking to improve our team long-term.
Q. Can you take us inside the war room on trade deadline day? How crazy does it get? Do you have the TVs going, the phones going?
BRIAN BURKE: Yes, on the last part. It is crazy. The phone is going. From a league perspective, I feel sorry for the league's central registry people and lawyers on trade deadline day.
The rule is you have to file your trade by the deadline. The trade call doesn't have to be completed. So when the deadline comes and goes, often there's six or eight people at the league fielding these calls, doing the trade calls. Sometimes it can be two hours after the deadline when you do your trade call, and they finally get to you and say, We're going to trade Burke for Hornby, they go through the questions the league has to go through.
So for the league personnel, they work hard all year, they're good people, never get thanked, it is a hard day, and we thank them for that. They work their tails off that day.
As far as from a team standpoint, I wish I could add more insight. I've been on it from the seller point of view, but not recently. I've never been a big deadline guy as a buyer. I always felt that plugging in major pieces at the deadline was disruptive. If you go back over my career, my teams have been in the playoffs seven straight years. My additions at the deadline most years have been minimal. So there's guys that are a lot more interesting at the deadline than Brian Burke. You get your key guys around you. You got as many phone lines open as you can. You try to do as much work before the actual deadline day. Like you've got to have an idea going in the night before that there's four or five deals that are possible, here are the assets involved. It's going to come down to a yes or no or add a sixth round pick. If you haven't done all that work and gotten the parameters, gotten these deals in the can so they're almost ready to put the cover on, you're not going to be able to make deals. You put a guy in play one or two hours before the deadline, you're going to make a poor deal.
There's a lot of work that has to be done well in advance of the deadline if you want to be successful. We've done a good deal of that work now.
Q. You mentioned quite a few teams have contacted you. Has Mike Gillis of the Canucks contacted you about any of your players? Are there certain GMs or teams you might not deal with because of past history, like yourself and Dave both being fired by the Canucks?
BRIAN BURKE: First off, whether I talk to Mike or not, I wouldn't divulge on this call. I think a GM has a right to call me and ask me about trades and not have me go on a conference call with the league and blab about it. I got enough heat about doing that article in the USA Today a couple years ago. Guys are still sour about that. The league asked me to do it, so I did it. It tee'd off some people. I wouldn't say whether Mike has called me or not.
We have spoken recently, I will confirm that. When they were in our building, I stopped and said hello to him. We're working together on an issue, a rule change, that affected both of our teams in past years. The relationship is certainly professional cordial.
As far as not making a deal with Vancouver because they fired me, let's get some semantics out of the way. I wasn't fired.
Q. You weren't renewed.
BRIAN BURKE: That's right. That's right. But the people that gassed me are all gone anyway, so I could care less. If there's a deal that makes sense between Vancouver, Mike and I will talk about it. If it makes sense, we'll do it.
Q. In terms of contract negotiations with players, I don't know if you're having any with any of your players. In general, do you sense the agents are still looking at the past market and are not coming to grips with the fact things are changing, just like they've changed in the real estate market where last year's prices are no longer en vogue and this year the price has gone down? Do you sense agents are lowering their expectations in terms of contracts talks?
BRIAN BURKE: Well, I don't deal with the agents on a day-to-day basis. Jeff does that. My sense is Jeff relays stuff back. I don't think the agent's view on the basis of discussions that we've had, with players on our team, entry-level players, I don't sense that they would concede the economic conditions, looking ahead, might have changed as much as we feel they have. I still have two houses in California. Like when Jennifer and I moved, we had an offer on our house, we bought another house, that fell through. We have two houses there. That reflects to me personally. I don't think I'll be able to sell those homes, even what I paid for them, for three years. That's a stark economic reality for us. Not complaining. Just to me, I don't need to speculate on whether the economy's off. There's firsthand evidence of it in our family. That's going to come home to roost. Whether it has yet or not, I don't sense that it has.
Q. I've heard some agents saying they're citing what contracts of a certainly comparable have gotten the last four or five years. They expect the same for their clients. Whether that's blowing smoke or whether they're not aware of a global economic recession, I find hard to believe.
BRIAN BURKE: I wish them well in their quest.
Q. With the uncertainty of what the worldwide economy is going to do to the salary cap, not the next season, but the following season, what impact does that have on the trade deadline?
BRIAN BURKE: It's huge in my mind. I think the key season is not the 09/10 season. I think what teams are wary of is 10/11. The 10/11 season, next year's cap is going to be based on the revenues from this year's season. Like I said, I don't feel that we've seen the bite, because of timing, that we might see in the future. So I don't expect to see it.
We're not allowed to talk about league economics. I don't want to get fined here. I think the commissioner would agree with this statement. We don't anticipate a huge impact on a salary cap for the coming season, for 9/10. 10/11 is where the uncertainty comes in.
Taking on contracts that carry into that season, speaking for our team only, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me unless it's a player that we're absolutely confident can help our team at that point in time. That to me is going to be the trip wire in this trade deadline.
We are perfectly willing, we've made this known to the teams that have called us, we have cap room, we have cash, we have tagging room. We are perfectly prepared to take back money if it makes sense for our team. 10/11 is a tougher year to contemplate than 9/10.
Q. Have you experienced any different feeling from other teams now that you're sort of in charge of the big, bad Toronto Maple Leafs? Have you experienced any different atmosphere in trying to make a trade than when you were with Anaheim or Vancouver?
BRIAN BURKE: No. But we're in a salary cap system. I don't know how anyone could look at us as the big bad Leafs that can outspend teams. The origin of your question makes sense to me because there probably was. But I can't spend any more than anyone else can, so I don't know how that can be a factor. I don't sense that.
You have patterns with GMs. There's some general managers that you can make a deal with. You talk to them. You get the names. Now you got names on a piece of paper. Then you talk about draft picks, this and that. You know you can make a deal maybe or maybe not. Might fall apart, but at least you have names on a piece of paper. There's some guys I can't even get to names with.
It's not personality. (Indiscernible) is a good friend of mine. He and I joke about this. We never made a trade. Never even gotten close. We have different styles and they don't mesh. You tend to go to guys that you think you can make a deal with, that they have assets you want, that you have some rhythm or wavelength with. That's why you see GMs make the trades with the same guys because they have a rhythm with those guys.
Q. Kaberle listing 10 teams he wants to be traded for, is that disappointing or do you consider it helpful?
BRIAN BURKE: Let me step back. Tomas Kaberle has not given me a list of 10 teams he wants to be traded to. I'm sorry if I explained that poorly. He has made it absolutely crystal clear he doesn't want to go anywhere else.
But the mechanics of this no-trade clause are such that if the Toronto Maple Leafs miss the playoffs, this no trade goes away starting with the commencement of the NHL Entry Draft and stays out till August 15th. So what Tomas has done with his agent, Rick, he said, I don't want to go. But if I'm going to go, let me at least retain some degree of control over where I go. Can I give you a list of teams? I said, It cannot be fewer than 10. A guy gives you three teams, well, you're handcuffed, can't make a good deal for the hockey club. I said, you give me 10 teams, I'll respect that.
But I said, that being said, I want this clear, Tomas Kaberle made it clear a to me right to my face, I don't want to go anywhere else, I want to be a Toronto Maple Leaf. He believes we'll get it turned around. He loves the city, wants to be part of the turnaround. If I did not explain that well to everyone on this call, I apologize. This is a case of where more the agent wanted to keep some control if we decided to trade the player. The player has been adamant he wants to stay.
Q. One of the things going on at the GM meetings next month will be the issue of fighting. I wanted your view on fighting in the NHL, if you feel it needs to be regulated in some way.
BRIAN BURKE: I think when you have a tragedy like we had with the Sanderson family, you need to look, as Gary Bettman has termed it, the rules of engagement. I think since we opened our doors, the NHL, we've had over 20,000 fights. We've never had a fatality. I have personally never seen a player hit his head on the ice in a fight. I know it happens. I know that's how the Sanderson boy passed away. I'm not belittling that. I've never seen it personally. I've been to a lot more hockey games than the average adult person in their life is ever going to see.
But when you have a tragedy of that nature, you have to step back. We're not heartless people. You have to step back and look at the rules of engagement or the mechanics of it. I think it's far more likely a player is going to suffer a serious injury -- strike that.
We should look at the mechanics and look at it. We have had obviously a litany of injuries that are related to helmets, broken hands, broken fingers. But obviously they don't rise to the same magnitude of a player losing his life. So we have to look at it.
My view on fighting is it's an important historical part of our game. It has its place. We shouldn't expand its place. But as far as the discussion of the elimination of fighting, I think that will be a very brief discussion. I think there's virtually no support for that.
Q. You mentioned you had the five-year internal limit on contracts when you were with Anaheim. Have you brought that same self-imposed restriction to Toronto?
BRIAN BURKE: That's my orientation rather than do I think there are cases where it might make sense. I would certainly look at it to go longer than that. But, no, that's my sense on what the industry, again, personally speaking from my team. I think there are a number of contracts where GMs have gone well beyond that and they're choking on those deals right now.
Q. Kaberle, you repeatedly said you'd have to be blown away to make a trade for him or trade him away. Can you define that any clearer as to what it would take to pry Tomas away from the Maple Leafs.
BRIAN BURKE: It would take in my opinion, again, I won't divulge the entire details, the minimum would be this: a minimum of a first-round pick, a guy that can play on our team right now and a top prospect. It would be a package just like I paid when I got Chris Pronger from Edmonton. I'm not putting a price on it that I haven't paid myself in the past.
Q. Looks like Mark Bell has been plucked off waivers by the Rangers. Was that expected by you on the recall or were you calling him with the hopes of seeing him play?
BRIAN BURKE: I'm thrilled for Mark Bell. This kid has been through a lot. He was in the minors on a one-way contract. He worked his butt off. He never complained. He did a good job for us. I'm absolutely thrilled for us. Glen called me last week. We put all of our reentry guys on. We've lost two of them now. But all of them were guys that were given a chance to go elsewhere. They deserve that. They've all been quality people for that. I'm thrilled for Mark and wish him well. Glen called me last week. What do you think, do you think you can help us? I'm not altogether surprised. But good for Mark Bell, it's awesome.
Q. Is it your understanding that some of the issues that he's dealt with in the past, he's been able to put that behind him and is sort of on the path to getting his career back to where it needs to be? If so, do you not see that as something the Leafs organization would want to invest in?
BRIAN BURKE: To my knowledge we haven't had a speck of trouble with. Surface issues that other organizations have had with him in the past, he's been an absolute model citizen with us as far as I've been told. Like this is great if it gets his career back on track, good for him. But I just got that email right before we went on the call. I emailed back to our office that's awesome.
DAVID KEON: Thanks very much, Brian, for your time today.
BRIAN BURKE: Thanks, David.
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