CALGARY, Alberta — “Ah, f---.”
Behind his desk at the Scotiabank Saddledome, Flames president Brian Burke issues this coarse utterance not with anger but simple resignation. Ah, f---. As in, time to explain. He has just finished filming an anti-bullying campaign message and hasn’t changed from his bright pink T-shirt that symbolizes an upcoming national awareness day. Fittingly enough, the current topic involves fashion. In between wrapping the shoot, addressing season-ticket holders at an event that night and flying redeye to Toronto for another charitable endeavor, Burke prepares to clarify perhaps the most mysterious aspect of his candid, public persona:
Why the hell doesn’t he tie his ties?
You know the look. You’ve seen it everywhere—on television during interviews, at the rink for morning skate, in the press box during games. White dress shirt with the top button unfastened. Long hair slicked back, almost prickly like a porcupine. And the signature centerpiece: an unknotted tie draped around the collar.
“Business scarf,” it was dubbed by @NHLTies, a Twitter account dedicated to NHL neckwear.
“Business slob,” Burke clarifies now. “You can’t not wear a tie. That’s just casual.”
Whatever its label, the look was born from what he calls “sheer laziness.” In the early 2000s, when Burke worked as Vancouver’s GM, he settled into a comfortable routine of rolling from bed, slipping into jeans and a T-shirt, and driving to the rink dressed as such. He would arrive by 6 a.m., work for a couple hours before anyone else arrived, hit the gym, shower and return to the office, where he kept his suits.
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“I didn’t tie it until I had to, until I had an interview or something,” he says. “A lot of nights I’d tie it during the national anthem.”
As time passed, Burke delayed the task later and later until he abandoned tying it altogether, developing as signature a look as any in the league. “It was one of those things where it was the last thing you possibly do as you’re heading out is tie your tie, then that last thing fell off the priority list,” his daughter Katie says.
Earlier in Burke’s career, Katie notes, his wardrobe was “heavily informed” by the late, legendary head coach Pat Quinn. “You had your tie tied, jacket on, all that stuff,” she says. “But it was heavily predicated on convenience.” For instance, Brian orders custom, monogrammed white dress shirts in bulk. He also holds a serious interest in cufflinks, which still remain acceptable holiday gifts from relatives. They do not buy him ties anymore. There is no point.
“I don't think it hurt that it ticked a bunch of people off,” Katie says. “I also don’t think it hurts that it certainly sends a subconscious message that he’s ready to drop his gloves at any time for a good fight.”
Indeed, Burke’s tie stubbornness seems to inform his personality. (So does his hair; son Patrick has issued a $1,000 bounty for anyone who cuts it.) “With a dash of truculence,” reads the biography on his Twitter account, which carries more than 135,000 followers and is maintained by Katie. In other words, “Once he realizes something annoys people, it might as well go on our family crest,” says Patrick Burke, the NHL’s Director of Player Safety. “It’s happening.”
Though Burke claims ignorance with Twitter, his children keep him abreast of tie-related mentions. Since many range from confused to slightly annoyed, Burke keeps driving the joke mostly because he can. “I love the fact that it aggravates some people,” he says. “If I can aggravate people without doing something, I’ll keep doing it.” Instead of the four-in-hand, he offers just one middle finger.
While rare, counterexamples do exist. He tied when visiting the White House after winning the 2007 Stanley Cup with Anaheim. He knots up for funerals, weddings, and most recently while attending Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman’s disciplinary hearing. Most recently, he obliged for his induction into Providence College’s athletics hall of fame, rolling with a red model loosened at the neck, top button still open nonetheless. Katie posted a photo and captioned it, “Hope you’re happy now, Twitter.”
“I call it the ‘Midnight at the Blackjack Table,’ where a guy pulls it down a few inches from his collar,” says Patrick M., one of the operators of @NHLTies, about the rare instances of Burke breaking sartorial character. “It’s like, I’m sitting here at this event where I’m supposed to be wearing a tie, but damn it, all I’m going to be comfortable.”
In this way, Burke embraces the look. When others started taking notice, he started playing along. After Vancouver declined to renew his contract in 2004, former Canucks forward Matt Cooke parodied Burke at a charity roast, traipsing across the stage with a tie around his neck. Earlier this season, when NHLTies held an auction to benefit Hockey Fights Cancer, Burke submitted one he claimed was “Game worn, never tied!”. Burke says his Vancouver-based tailor sends him periodic shipments of a half-dozen ties, but he’s unafraid to buy ones he likes as well, just so they can hang around his neck like graduation cords.
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“That’s him,” says Flames assistant GM Craig Conroy. “Hey, I’m Brian Burke, I’m going to do it the way I want. No one’s telling me what to do.”
So there. Mystery solved. An NHL team president, searching for comfy shortcuts, drifts from conventional formality and instead winds up here, sitting in his office on a busy afternoon in mid-February, fielding questions about fashion, explaining that, really, there is no explanation at all.
“I’m not smart enough to develop a fashion statement,” he says. “It wasn’t a conscious decision where I said I’m going to be the guy that doesn’t tie his tie. That’s just how it happened.”