Brian Burke is not just the square-headed cartoon of the map of Ireland that he has played on television, though in honesty that role is probably his truest calling. He is that, but he is also a bunch of things that seem utterly opposed to each other, and now that he has become the Pittsburgh Penguins’ new brain in a jar, he is the indefatigable firehouse dog. Someone asked him to help run a shop, and even though he was doing just fine as a more digestible version of Don Cherry on Hockey Night In Canada and isn’t particularly analytics-driven, Burke took the gig without much negotiating: “Only as long as it is less secure than my TV contract and allows me to perfect my imitation of Pat Quinn.” Burke wouldn’t have done it for free, but it seems likely that he’d have at least considered accepting it for minimum wage.
Burke is going to run the Penguins with another Rottweiler impersonator in new general manager Ron Hextall, and together they will inherit the back end of Sidney Crosby’s career as well as those of Geno Malkin and Kris Letang. It seems an imperfect fit at first glance, given that Burke traditionally likes teams that will headbutt locomotives and fistfight tractors and the Penguins have been the stereotypically elegant team, with the singular exceptions of Crosby v. Alexander Ovechkin and Steve Downie v. any mammal you’ve got.
To the extent that this legendary hardass and the Penguins fit together at all, it’s because Burke is the author of this spectacular quote, delivered at a year-ending press conference he held while he was the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, when he was asked if he might have done some things different, like following “the Pittsburgh model.”
“What’s the Pittsburgh model?” Burke growled. “They got a lottery. They won a goddamn lottery and they got the best player in the game [Crosby]. Is that available to me? Should we do that? Should we ask the league to do a lottery this year and maybe we pick first? The Pittsburgh model, my ass.”
It’s funny how time works: Now it very much is his ass. Though he has said he is not going to an aggressive meddler or cast a shadow that overtakes Hextall’s, Burke also said this in the same presser nine years ago: “I am not a patient person. I was born impatient and I’m going to die impatient.” Urgency will not be an issue, here.
It is easy to see some other issues, though. Everything Burke says he’s going to be in Pittsburgh will be in direct internal conflict with everything he’s been in Vancouver, Hartford, Anaheim, Toronto and Calgary. With Mario Lemieux as his supervisor and Crosby as the guiding light of his roster, he is about to re-learn that he’ll be exactly as patient as Lemieux wants him to be, and precisely as public as the reticent Hextall needs him to be. If such a thing can be imagined.
There really is no direct American equivalent of Brian Burke, not in front offices now populated by analytic proselytizers who fade into beige rooms with ease. Nobody looks like him, for one; Burke’s hair alone is a combination of Santa Claus and an opossum. He wears a knotted tie only under orders, but he almost always wears one the way a priest wears a stole. It’s always time to go to church in Brian Burke’s world, and his church serves beer and is open all night.
He gets full marks, indeed, for being a proud spokesman for and defender of LGBTQIA causes. But he also speaks on a lot of subjects, and at age 65, he is unlikely to be any less snarly/verbose. He is the erudite lawyer who would chase down the ambulance and kick in its grill, because law is just a way to punch folks without getting one’s knuckles all bruised. He is the clever management type who always wants to tell the union exactly what it’s going to get so it may as well capitulate to the owners and save everyone some time—just for the union’s benefit, of course. He doesn’t say “goonlike” when he can say “truculent,” and he has both the Rhode Islander’s worldview of taking three punches to throw four and the Canadian gift for manners and tolerance in defending fighting as a useful tool for mood adjustment.
In short, Burke is whatever you want him to be, while giving off every impression of refusing to be anything anyone thinks he actually is. What he’s going to do in Pittsburgh, he’ll probably want to do more quickly than he actually can, because the roster is in the state it’s in, and there isn’t a lot of help in the minors, and the team’s culture isn’t the one Burke has always championed.
If you had to pick a team to hire the full Brian Burke Experience, it would actually be St. Louis, which not only has a hardnosed coach in Craig Berube well, but is in the middle of an unholy seven-game series with Arizona made necessary by the NHL’s inbred schedule and COVID postponements. If you want to know what Brian Burke’s vision of truculence is, watch the last two games the two teams have played and the next three after that. The only other team you’d want Burke to run is Columbus, if only to see whether Burke would devour John Tortorella’s face or Tortorella would devour his.
Instead, we’ll get Brian Burke the Penguin working against type. If the team has any level of marketing skill, they’ll have hoodies for sale by the Sunday game against Washington that read simply, “The Pittsburgh Model, My Ass,” with the appropriately rosy Gaelic hinder emblazoned under the saying. Why, they’re already my new favorite team.