The Life and Times of Brian Burke Part 2
Brian P. Burke was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on June 30, 1955. He was raised in the affluent southwestern Minneapolis suburb of Edina, Minnesota. Historically, Edina was a predominantly Irish farming and milling community comprised of immigrants landing in the Richfield Township during the Potato Famine, between 1845 and 1852. The son of Irish-Catholic parents, Brian grew up with nine brothers and sisters, in a close-knit family where education and accountability were of paramount importance. A commitment made would be a commitment kept. This sense of personal integrity would later become a defining trait of Burke's professional life. Large families, like the Burkes, were quite common in Minnesota, especially in rural centres with a largely Catholic background.
Burke was a strapping, highly competitive, and particularly bright youngster with a passion for the game of hockey. A graduate of edina High School, he enrolled in Providence college in 1973. Providence is a private, co-educational Catholic institution, with a strong background in sports. The 6'2” freshman soon found himself playing wing for the Providence Friars Division-1 hockey club, which was coached by legendary New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello. Burke was named team captain, and it was during this time that a lifelong friendship with NHL coach and then-teammate, NCAA-leading defenseman Ron Wilson began. In fact, the two were college roommates at Providence.
In 1977, Burke graduated from Providence with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, and pursued competitive hockey in Springfield as a member of the AHL's founding franchise, the Springfield Indians of Massachusetts. His tenure with the Indians, which also featured former defenseman and future NHL coach Barry Melrose lasted just seven games, and Burke soon found himself playing for the Maine Mariners, coached by fellow Irishman Pat Quinn.
That '77-78 Mariners roster also featured longtime NHL player and coach Terry Murray, as well as former NHL goaltenders Rick St. Croix and 1980 Stanley Cup finalist Pete Peeters. Led by Quinn, the Mariners won the AHL Calder Cup championship on May 15, defeating the New Haven Nighthawks, a talented squad that featured Ken Hodge and Ed Johnstone, who both went on to enjoy memorable NHL careers.
With his AHL championship, and a total of eight points and sixty penalty minutes on the year under his belt, Burke retired from pro hockey as a player and made his way to the prestigious Harvard Law School, where he continued his academic studies until 1981. As a graduate with a professional doctorate in law, Brian spent the following six years as an NHL player agent, until his former Mariners coach and current president of the Vancouver Canucks Pat Quinn hired him as Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations in 1987. Burke took to the task of restoring the mediocre western-most Canadian club to respectability while working diligently to make the team fiscally viable. The 'Nucks thrived under Quinn and Burke, earning a playoff spot in 1988-89, before losing in seven games to the rival Calgary Flames in the semi-final round of the playoffs. As a result of his dedication, the team and its disenfranchised fan base flourished.
Burke remained with the Vancouver organization until the '92 season, when he assumed the role of general manager with the 1979 expansion Hartford Whalers, a post he abdicated following the 1993 draft, in which he selected 6'6” defender Chris Pronger at second overall before accepting a league appointment as Senior Vice President. For the next five years, Burke worked under NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, managing numerous league-related affairs ranging from collective bargaining, officiating, proposed rule changes, player discipline, and international competition. Burke speaks fondly of his days working for the often criticized NHL commissioner:
“I think the world of Bettman...he is a genius. He is a brilliant guy who also has vision - that's not always the case (with other leaders). He was a great boss and he's a great friend."
Burke tells the story of his first few days working at the NHL's New York head office, and how an encounter in the restroom cemented his admiration for the most powerful man in the league, whom he found crouching down to pick up scraps of paper from the floor.
..."I tell Gary 'We pay someone to do this...he responds angrily, 'And when do they start work?' I say, I don't know - 6 p.m.' He responds, 'And until then, every guest, every sponsor, every vendor, every owner, and any and all club personnel will use this restroom. And it WILL be neat and clean."