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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/5of7

Free advice: Silence is golden

From my own observations, deductions, things I’ve heard, and other pieces of evidence, I’ve come to this conclusion: Brian Burke’s only job in Calgary is to say things.

I came to this primarily because of his job title, President of Hockey Operations. Think of the teams that have POHOs (or similar titles): Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto, Columbus, and Calgary. All teams that have been rebuilding in recent years. Think of the people hired to be POHOs: Kevin Lowe, Trevor Linden, Brendan Shanahan, John Davidson, and Burke, respectively. They’re all huge names, well respected in the hockey world.

This is mostly because, in my opinion, POHO is mostly a symbolic position without any real responsibilities. Despite the important sounding words, the POHO is mostly here to offer some legitimacy to a rebuilding team. Teams like the fanfare of bringing in a big name to right the ship, especially if hopes are down.

However, their real results are hazy. There never appears to be a clear distinction between what is the POHO’s doing and what is the GM’s doing. Being POHO probably means that you are an extra voice in the room or occasionally consulting with a GM, but the power is actually very limited. It’s mostly a speaking role for GMs who are either too shy or too boring for network TV. That comes with its prices.

Consider when Burke first stepped aboard. After two fruitless years of rebuilding under Jay Feaster, the team was going nowhere. Especially after a disastrous 2012-13 season when he declared a high schooler to be the second coming of Joe Nieuwendyk, threw away the two best players – one of them the face of the franchise – for magic beans, and nearly tossed away first and third round picks for the opportunity to lose Ryan O’Reilly on waivers due to not reading the CBA (he also traded for and signed Dennis Wideman that year, but that was regarded as a good move). Perhaps if this organization was to go anywhere, it needed someone who had a bit more of a clue of what was happening and didn’t make grand declarations they couldn’t live up to.

Enter Burkie. Maybe in the first few months of the job, he had substantial and important things to do, such as firing Feaster and steering the ship for about a half a season. It went mostly alright; he managed to get a pick for Reto Berra but didn’t for Mike Cammalleri. The only move he made which still has an impact today was extending Matt Stajan. That was Burke’s impact on Calgary Flames hockey.

But ever since hiring Brad Treliving, it’s quite clear who is calling the shots. Even though some like to pretend that every bad move under Treliving was actually done by Burke, it’s more than likely he was, at most, just a voice in the room. There has never really been substantial evidence that Burke is actively overstepping Treliving and exercising his authority as POHO. If that was happening, the Flames would be the most dysfunctional organization in the league. Treliving probably would not have re-signed in Calgary. Burke’s role in the org during the Treliving era has mostly been to say stuff.

Here’s an example. At last year’s season ticket holder’s town hall, Burke said stuff like this:

That didn’t happen. Unless he was being incredibly crafty about Bollig’s imminent demotion to the AHL, he was speaking his honest opinion. He wanted Brandon Bollig to play more hockey. Everyone disagreed. Burke shuffled off and didn’t make a peep about it ever again, and didn’t do anything about it because everyone – literally, the people who are theoretically below him in the organizational structure – said, “No.” Seems like the president, the guy with the most power, couldn’t use that power for anything.

But of course, these are examples of the harmless things he says. Who really cares if they hand Burke a microphone at a town hall event? Everyone else is busy, he has some idea of what’s going on, and he’s got some pretty good quotes. That’s why they give him the mic during the trade deadline, sports network interviews, and pretty much any place where there is a mic. He can give you a headline.

Not all headlines are good ones, for example:

Now, there are many problems with these words. We can talk about the negligent, carefree attitude towards concussions, one of the most damaging injuries this sport can give a person. We can talk about the dumb reinforcement of a hockey culture that rewards the destruction of the human mind and body for the sake of appearing tougher and manlier than other sports.

But those are articles for other people at other times. Let’s just talk about how ridiculously short-sighted and completely misguided it is to say those words while the team that employs you is currently listed as a defender in a lawsuit centering around a head injury resulting from hockey.

How awkward will it be when the plaintiff of that lawsuit brings up this awesome quote of the head honcho saying, “Well that’s just how it is,” to the needless injury that ended a man’s career (or the chances of him living the rest of his days in a state without massive pain)? I’m not much of a legal expert, but I would definitely imagine that the President of Hockey Operations’ lax comments on the nature of concussions in hockey are not going to do him many favours in court over a concussion-related matter.

How can anyone, especially in the Flames organization, hear these comments and not respond with absolute fury? It’s not only a completely callous thing to say, it dives carelessly into the territories of “irresponsible” and “actually damaging.” If absolutely nothing else was happening, this comment is just an embarrassment the team can duck and hide. Now, it could potentially carry legal weight and ramifications. It’s eleven words that could cost the franchise millions.

Somehow, Burke was not done:

Well, we’re sorry to break it to you Brian, but CalgaryNEXT is in fact very much dead, and everyone agrees with that. It was an abhorrently crappy proposal that sucked from its unveiling and was never approved upon, and it was generous that the city acknowledged it in the first place. Our civic leaders may be onto something when they remain cautious about using public money, and we know you’re bluffing on the moving thing.

This huffing and puffing spread so fast that it forced Ken King to apologize for Burke’s comments. Yes, the very same Ken King whose public appearances in recent years have mostly been him apologizing for things he said earlier. It is quite something when he has to apologize for your remarks.

The statement is standard fare. Four sentences long, but you only have to pay attention to the middle two:

However, he is not our spokesperson regarding a new events centre for our city. We remain committed to our dialogue with the City and very optimistic we will get to a positive conclusion.

Indeed, Brian Burke is not a spokesperson for the new arena project. He also is not a spokesperson for concussions (the Flames did not respond to that comment), or for anything else for that matter.

Which raises the question: if Brian Burke is not the spokesperson of anything, why do the Flames keep trotting him out to any event that needs someone speaking? Why do the Flames keep bothering with the charade if it can, and repeatedly does, backfire on the organization?

The silence on the issue has, as already detailed, negative effects on real world things that affect the Flames. Here’s mayor Naheed Nenshi in response to Burke:

“Negotiations require negotiating. It doesn’t require saying the same thing over and over and over again.”

Is that what the mayor is hearing from the to-and-fro with the Flames?

“I’m hearing nothing because I’m staying out of it. I do know if people want to get these negotiations moving forward we’ve got to be able to negotiate.”

That doesn’t sound good.

King might love his “enthusiasm,” but that doesn’t change the fact that Burke has increased the stress on an already strained relationship with the city. Comments like these only weaken the bargaining position of the Flames in negotiations. Neither of those are necessary when arena negotiations are reportedly going swimmingly and there is potential for a deal before the municipal election. What is the point of trying to big-talk the city when the city has rebuffed you at every turn? What’s the point of big-talking when there’s actually progress being made on the project?

Furthermore, what is the point of Brian Burke anymore? The Flames have a proven competent GM now, one that they clearly trust with autonomy. Without completely knowing the roles and responsibilities, I still feel it’s safe to say that if Burke was no longer (if he still is) involved in hockey ops, nothing would change. Treliving would do what he does, all is fine.

If he still is substantially involved in hockey ops, that might be for the best because it’s better than whenever he actually speaks. If Burke’s main role here is to be the speaker, he’s not doing a very good job of it. His hot-headed honesty might be considered good TV, but at the risk of pissing off the fanbase, the city, and the hockey world in general, it’s too much. There’s a point where his words do more than make people roll their eyes.

  • BitGeek

    Someone may have told Burke to bring up the possibility of moving the team as a calculated move. It may be Burkes true feelings but I wouldn’t put it past the Flames to have Burke say it on purpose either.

    By re-hashing the original threat, it brings it back to the forefront of Calgarians minds. It also stirs a little pressure from those that support CalgaryNext and it gives Ken King a way to say…. whoa that’s not what I’m saying. Media outlets can now pick up on this and say… while Ken King says that Burke doesn’t speak for them on the CalgaryNext project, it does remind us that the Flames could leave at any time they want to (which they won’t).

    This just further stirs up supporters and induces more fear about losing the Flames. Meanwhile, Ken King goes back to the negotiating table saying things like “Sorry about my friend Burke, but where were we… oh yes. We were negotiating a new arena”.

    As far as Burke’s purpose…. As long as he isn’t meddling, then he acts as a barrier to keep Ken King away from messing with the team. Some day I see BT replacing Burke as the POHO.

  • Cfan in Van

    “There has never really been substantial evidence that Burke is actively overstepping Treliving and exercising his authority as POHO”.

    This may not be completely substantiated either, but wasn’t an increase in autonomy to make his own decisions, part of Tre’s new contract? If that is fact, it would point to someone else in the Org trying to pull the strings, or else why bother writing it into the contract? Burke would certainly be my first bet as meddler, as he seems to love to pipe up about things he’s not (or shouldn’t be) in control of.

  • snotss

    hey Calgary let them walk…..do it!!!!!! your fine city don’t need the flames or any of the other sports teams the flames own……………do so at your own peril…….then blame burke…..get a deal done………………………….

    • Kevin R

      Huh?? Coyote ownership have been desperate to move for how many years & Betthole wouldn’t let them despite the half empty buildings they play in front of, what makes you think that would be any different for the Flames or the Oilers for that matter. I would like to see a new building & I believe the City should be part of the venture but damn, it has to make sense.

      • McRib

        If the Flames did move at least two or three other floundering franchises would be lined up wanting to move to Calgary the next day. The Flames will never move, but the Calgary Coyotes or Calgary Hurricanes (name change) would be far more profitable than the Quebec Flames. Calgary has finished Top. 5 in league attendance the last decade, abyone would be stupid to even question leaving that.

  • Kevin R

    Times like this I definitely agree with you Christian. There aretimes where Burke will say things that should be said that most executives don’t feel proper protocol & keep quiet. I do think we got the officiating shaft over the Wideman incident & loved it when Burke beaked about it. I also loved it when he spoke against all the nonsense over all the trade rumours out of Toronto with Dougie Hamilton. There are moments when you love to have him but I know what you mean.

  • BringtheFire

    Christian, I’ve been waiting for this article since Treliving was hired. Thank you, and agreed.

    I want him to move on, and I hate on him a lot. But he has done some remarkable things in this sport, including bringing credibility to Anaheim, a franchise started to promote a movie.

    But to the question, I’m not sure what place he has with us anymore. And didn’t I hear a rumour he was retiring?

  • Denscafon

    I think the dumbest point that Burke tried to make at his little talk was that the “withholding” (income tax) for player/all flames employee salaries will pay off the the stadium in 10 years to the provincial and Federal gov. That’s great Burke, but as you just said the Municipality of Calgary won’t be seeing any of that money, and that’s who you want to pay for this ridiculous proposal.

  • freethe flames

    Burke’s comments “that he Thought the city should thank them” just goes to show how entitled pro sports has become. If say Walmart came to city council and said we want to build 5 state of the art stores and we want you to pay for 75% of them and then make us tax exempt for the next 20 years; oh and by the way if the stores need reno’s, repairs and ultimately replacement the city can pay for that as well. How should city council reply? Walmart creates jobs(mostly part time), they raise money from their loyal customers(and then take credit for doing so) and add value to the local malls as well so they should be tax free as well. The argument about the public library and I never use it is a red herring as well, think more of the public library as the new arena, swimming pool, park, or school you wish your community had. When Burke insults those who disagree with him by calling them idiots(including one of his customers); I wonder if this is a business tactic they use when they negotiate with advertisers? If so they will be in trouble.

    I want a new arena and I’m even okay with tax payers funding part of it as long as there is a revenue sharing plan in place and a a triple R plan in place that is funded by both sides(Repairs/Renovate/Replace) so that we don’t have to go through this again.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Before Burke’s arrival Murray Edwards was starting to become the target of fan frustration where the on ice product was concerned. Every Feaster misstep and every dumb comment became a complaint that Edwards was begining to wear. Enter Brian Burke and the arrows stopped, it’s back to normal. Frankly, it’s a new cost of business and money well spent for the Flames owner.

      • ChinookArchYYC

        King has long been a target of fan frustration, but once Feaster was onboard and the Flames were in the throws of a new rebuild, Edwards increasing became a new target. Notwithstanding him escaping new NDP taxation in London, criticism of Edwards has disappeared.

    • Just.Visiting

      I was thinking the same thing about Steve Bannon in the lead photo before I saw your comment. Also really surprised the tie as scarf fashion statement hasn’t caught on more fully….

      • Al Rain

        I’ve always just assumed that there’s something in his contract saying he has to “wear a tie” and that’s his loophole. But it’s clear now – it’s steps toward his fashionista career.

  • Parallex

    Leaving aside the arena talk. The bit about concussions is far more damaging. I mean geez… he was the League disciplinarian for crying out load. I wonder of the playrrs class action suit lawyers are doing a little jig right now.

    • Ari Yanover

      That’s the comment that leads me to believe this entire thing was less “grand master plan” and more “ignorant man running his mouth”. You can make a justification, however weak, for the relocation threat. There was absolutely zero reason for him to say that concussion comment.

    • class1div1

      It was a dumb thing for a person in his position to say,although id bet that most of the players would agree with what he said.The players are just as guilty of such moves.The move that sticks out for me is Dino Ciccerrilli,s tomahawk chop to Richardsons head followed by his peers voting him into the Hockey hall of fame.Dumb.