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Brian Burke reveals his method for Leafs success

In Canada on October 10, 2010 at 10:01
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Brian Burke reveals his method for Leafs success

October 09, 2010

Paul Hunter

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Brian Burke believes in running the Leafs’ farm team in the exact same manner as the big league club because when players move up, he says, “the only thing different is the building.”

Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Brian Burke’s approach to making the Leafs a respected contender is simple. He soaks up something important from almost everyone he meets, and seeks out those he can learn from. Some of the most important lessons he’s picked up along the way: be decisive, realize assets come in many forms, and while you can’t always be compassionate, fairness is not negotiable.

“As you walk along the path, you have to be willing to find something on the side that helps you.”

“I called Bill Polian (Indianapolis Colts president). This is eight or nine years ago probably, well before we had a salary cap. I said, ‘We’re going toward a salary cap, I know we’re going to have one.’ I (didn’t) have the first idea how to handle a salary cap, how to manage a salary cap and I certainly don’t want to learn on the fly. I don’t want to hit the ground walking on this. If they put in a cap, what do I do? He said, ‘C’mon in. Talk to our cap guys.’ So I spent the better part of a day going over how they manage the cap.”

“Later on in the day, I’m sitting in Bill’s office and he had a depth chart and there was a little red box on three of the offensive linemen. I said, ‘What’s the little red box?’ He said, ‘They’re all unrestricted free agents.’ Of course, I’m thinking old system NHL where you’ve got to get something for everybody. And I went, ‘Oh my God, what are you going to do?’ and he looked at me like I had two heads. ‘What do you mean, what am I going to do? I’m going to replace them.’ I said, ‘You’re not going to get anything for them?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to get back all the cap space.’ People say to me, you’ve got to get something for Tomas Kaberle. No, I don’t. I get $4.2 million back if he decides not to stay at the end of the year.”

“He’s a valuable contributor and he’s a real good guy. If we keep him for the year and he walks, he walks. I get $4.2 million back. I let Ruslan Salei walk in Anaheim. We didn’t get anything for him but I needed him to make the playoff run we did when we went to the conference finals (in 2006). I told him at the deadline, ‘I’m not moving you. I need you to play the next 20 games, have the spring of your life, then I’ll help you get the big dough somewhere else.’ He did.”

“Lesson learned, in the cap system first things first. You do not have to get a return on every asset like you did in the old system. The cap room comes back to you, that’s an asset. There’s an example.”

“My two outside guys, the guys I would rely on most for advice, would be Bill Polian and Ned Colletti. Ned Colletti (L.A. Dodgers GM) was there when we won the Cup in Anaheim. I was happy that he was there. Bill Polian and I won our championships the same year, which was really cool.”

“I remember calling Bill Polian before I did the Pronger deal (in Anaheim). I said, ‘I think I can get Pronger from Edmonton but it’s a horrible, horrible price. We’re overpaying badly.’ And Polian said, ‘You can get Chris Pronger? Hang up the phone, call Edmonton and make the deal.’ I said, ‘It ties up so much of our cap on defence.’ And he said, ‘No one has ever won a championship in the NFL without spending on defence. Hang up the phone and call.’ I was going to make the deal anyway, it didn’t push me over, but there’s a seasoned, championship executive in the most popular sport in North America and that’s the decisiveness a guy like that has. That was a lesson: Boom. Do it.”

“With Colletti, it was the same thing. . . . He said, ‘Do it, get him.’ These guys are valuable . . . if you’re having a dispute with ownership, and we haven’t had one here and we didn’t have one in Anaheim. Guys frequently have friction with their owner. Call a guy, ask what he would do, how he would handle it. Problems with the media . . . ‘We’ve got a problem guy here, what do you do with your guy if you have problems.’ They’ve been great influences and great help.”

“I used to drive up to Manhattan Beach and have coffee with Ned at 6 in the morning. I could leave my house at 5 o’clock. Up at 4:30, shower, drive up to Manhattan Beach, meet Ned at this little breakfast place and talk about what we’re trying to do with our teams. I went to spring training with them. I went to Vero Beach to see them in spring training. I went up to see games at Dodger Stadium, met with his key people. His key people met with us last year during the Edmonton/Calgary trip. I think he’s coming here this year over the New Year’s break to see the world junior and see us play two home games.”

“I was asked to be in a think tank at Wharton this summer, at the University of Pennsylvania. It was mind-boggling, the people they had in the room. People from all of sports. It was kind of like Sesame Street. Three of these things belong together, one of these things is not the same. I was like, ‘How did I get in this room?’ They were talking about issues that face sports — the economy, sponsorship dollars — and (team president/CEO) Mark Murphy was there from the Packers. I’ve always admired Mark Murphy. He was a great player, an important player in the NFLPA and now he’s on the management side, struck up a friendship, exchanged e-mails . . . To me, I think you can always learn.”

“There’s lots of lessons. Working for Pat Quinn was like getting an MBA. He’s a brilliant guy and a great teacher.”

“You know what I’d really like to do? I’d like to be able to speak French. I keep telling myself I’m going to learn and I haven’t done it yet. It’s a function of time more than anything. As far as hockey goes, you can do everything better. The day you stop learning, the day you stop improving is the day, really, you’re on the back nine. As long as you’re willing to learn and think you’re going to learn, then I think you’re still climbing the hill.”

“I think most GMs become friends with the GMs in their town . . . I have struck up a friendship with (Blue Jays’ GM) Alex Anthopoulos. I’m really impressed with him. I think he’s a really good guy, a really smart guy. Paul Beeston is a wonderful asset in terms of bouncing things off of, a very bright guy. I really like Bryan (Colangelo, the Raptors GM). He’s a really good guy but I don’t like to be seen with him in public. He’s taller than I am. He’s better looking than I am. He speaks better than I do and he dresses better than I do. So whenever I appear with him, I come off looking short and barely literate and not well-dressed. I like Bryan but I don’t like getting on stage with him.”

“I know what I don’t know, which I think is a key to be successful. There’s 30 teams and 30 farm teams. Each team in the NHL has somewhere between 40 and 50 contracts. There’s always unsigned draft choices in junior and in Europe. There’s no way you can mentally master the database as a GM. Anyone who says he knows every player in the league – knows in terms of how he plays, which way he shoots, what his propensities are – any GM who tells you that is lying. This year, there’s going to be three, four new guys on every team. Some of whom, I’ll have seen in junior, some of whom I’ll have seen in the American league but some of whom, I’ll have never seen. You got to start by conceding that you’re not going to know every player. So you darn well better have people who do. I place great weight in the people that work for me. I do take their recommendations and when they say, this is what we ought to do, that’s what we do.”

“I do believe in star power in the front office. I do believe it’s critical to have heavyweight candle-power in the front office. I had Bob Murray in Vancouver with Dave Nonis. These are GM-calibre guys working underneath me. Here, we’ve got Dave Nonis again. Dave Poulin, again GM-calibre guy. Claude Loiselle, same thing. I think it’s a top-heavy group and I think that’s important. You want to be successful, look at Kenny Holland (in Detroit). He’s got Jim Nill who is a GM-calibre guy.”

“The blueprint is never going to change for me but you inherit different assets everywhere you go.”

“If you’re picking 24 to 30, that’s not much different than a second-round pick. Everywhere I’ve gone we’ve tried to add free agents. We tried to add assets that don’t cost the team any corporate assets. I place great stress on coaching. We have an integrated system as far as our farm team goes. Our farm team plays the exact mirror-image system that our big club plays, which is amazingly not true everywhere. So when a kid comes up and plays for the Leafs, the only thing different is the building. He knows the forecheck, he knows the PK, he knows all that stuff. I believe in strength in coaching at the minor-league level. I think Dallas Eakins is just a top young coach.”

“Basically, I take the assets I have, who can play in this system, who can be a top six, who can be a bottom six, give them a chance and start putting people on airplanes.”

“The assets you have in a cap system are players, draft choices, cash, cap room and tagging room, which is the ability to sign players into future years. You need to have cap space in future years. You need to have contracts available too if you want to add players so you have to be under 50 contracts. Those are all assets.”

“Compassion is not the right word. What you owe your players is fairness. You can’t always be compassionate. You sometimes have to trade a guy whose wife is expecting, which is not compassionate. But I think if you say to the player, ‘Look I don’t have a choice. We need to do this deal’ and you explain it, which is fair. You owe your players fairness. The standard player’s contact, the word ‘compassion’ does not appear in there, but fairness is something every employee is entitled to. I value that with my non-playing employees too. The Christmas break is an example of that. But also, if there’s a rumour in the paper tomorrow . . . if you write that so-and-so is going to be traded and there’s nothing to that, I go right to that player and tell him, ‘Look, we’re not talking to anyone about you.’ I can’t guarantee you’re not going to get traded. Stop sweating it. You are not on the market here, this guy is full of crap. Compassion is something you always want to have for your players and you try to provide. Sometimes you can’t. But fairness, you owe them all the time, 365.”

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