Q&A: Team Canada GM Sean Burke on Building His Olympic Roster

Sean Burke had an extra special challenge in putting together Canada's roster for Pyeongchang. Luckily, he had plenty of Olympic experience to help guide him along the way.
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Midway through the 1988 Winter Olympics, Canadian goalie Sean Burke entered the 24-hour athlete cafeteria, looking for a late-night snack. He cannot recall what he ate, only where—alone, at a long table, several seats down from “a strange-looking guy” with “big, thick glasses.” Then 21 years old, Burke was confused. His neighbor hardly appeared athletic, let alone capable of competing among the world’s best. “I remember thinking to myself, what sport is this guy in? I’m going to try to figure it out before the Olympics are over.’” Burke says. “Well, I didn’t have to. It was Eddie the Eagle [Edwards].”

Plenty memorable moments accumulated during Burke’s two stints with Team Canada, between a fourth-place finish in Calgary and winning silver four years later in France. But this random encounter sticks with him for a reason: Where else could he drop into get some grub and wind up near an internationally famous ski jumper? “That’s the real special element about the Olympics,” Burke says. “You’re competing for your team and your country, but you’re also cheering on other athletes. They’re watching your events, you’re going to watch theirs. It’s unlike anything else you’ll experience.”

In his current capacity as general manager of the Canadian national men's hockey team, Burke has found himself reliving these experiences, sharing them with countrymen slated to compete at the Pyeongchang Games. A month before Canada begins pool play against Switzerland, if not outright favored against the KHL-loaded Russians then certainly in the medal hunt, he spoke with SI.com about selecting a roster of overseas pros, expectations for the tournament, the surplus of swag promised to every Olympian, and more.

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SI: What else still sticks with you?

SB: From ‘92, it’s the gold medal game. All the hard work you put in, there you are, playing for a gold medal. You don’t win a silver. You lose a gold. That’s unfortunately how you look back on it when it first happens. Then years later, you have much more of an appreciation of how great that was. You’re actually there competing for a gold medal. '88 was a bit of a blur, because I was younger. I was so wrapped up in wanting to play well that I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I did in '92 from that standpoint. They were both highlights of my career, for sure.

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SI: Did you find yourself in ‘92 doing more stuff outside of hockey?

SB: Absolutely. I still stayed friends with different athletes because of that. I still run into people. I remember more about ‘92. And maybe because it’s not in Canada. When you’re in your home country, there’s a lot more family around and people you’re tied up with a bit. Whereas in ‘92, you’re in France, I got engaged in more of what was going on, went to more events, and really just took in the whole experience more.

SI: What’d you see? Who’d you meet?

SB: Obviously figure skating. Doug Ladret, who was a Paris figure skater, he ended up in Arizona so we still stay close. It was more just cheering for athletes in different sports. Obviously the skiing was a thrill to watch, the figure skating’s always exciting, bobsledding is something that … it’s really Olympic. I don’t watch it any other time of the year. That’s what you end up doing at the Olympics. You end up getting into it more, because they’re not sports that you follow all year. It was cool in that environment to actually see those events.

SI: If Eddie the Eagle was your best random encounter in ‘88, who was it in ‘92?

SB: I remember more about our team. Eric Lindros, and Joey Juneau. It was such a great run for us. Dave King coaching, now we’re back still working together after all these years. [King will serve as an assistant under head coach Willie Desjardins.] I remember a lot about our own journey in that experience. My dad was over there, which was special for me. He hadn’t been to Europe a lot, so he got to come over and share it.

SI: I heard you get a lot of swag.

SB: Oh, god, yeah, you get so much. You love it. It’s always great stuff. But you end up giving a lot to family members when it’s all over.

SI: How much do you still have?

SB: I believe I have my ‘88 jacket, and little pieces here and there. But it’s a long time now. The years go by, and things end up in boxes. Houses move. They get misplaced. I don’t have a lot of it anymore, but I still have the odd piece here and there.

SI: How about your silver medal?

SB: I have that, for sure. I don’t have a big display in my house or anything, other than my silver medal sitting out on a nice mantle. It’s always a good conversation piece. People look at it and go, “Is that really silver medal for the Olympics?” It’s pretty cool to people to see.

SI: That’s their first question? “Is it real?”

SB: I don’t think most people have ever seen or touched an actual Olympic medal. Because of the nature of where I have it, I guess most people would think you’d have that somewhere locked away, or displayed prominently at my house. For me, it’s something I’m really proud of. But I’ve never been one to have a big display. It sits in a nice spot on a mantle in the house. If it comes up in conversations, there's a lot of excitement about it.

SI: What do they ask next?

SB: A lot of about the village. People are curious about the setup, how the athletes are all in one area, one place. That’s really a unique specialty to an Olympic event. You walk down the hallway to watch a little TV and you run by all kinds of other athletes in different sports. It’s pretty unique to be around that many great athletes at one time, in one place.

SI: How cool was it for you to make those calls, telling players that they’d made the 2018 team?

SB: It was really exciting. For me, that was the most gratifying part of the job up until now, just to inform guys that they had made the team, know that every one to a man was going to be extremely excited.


SI: Who had the best reaction?

SB: We let [former NHL forward] Steve Thomas do the announcement to his own son, Christian, while we were on the other line. That was pretty cool to listen to how excited the family was. Chay Genoway was really funny about it. He said, “Hey, is everyone else being a lot cooler than I am?” He didn’t want to be as excited as he really felt. He was worried that he was going to be acting different. I said, “No, everybody’s excited Chay, you’re okay.” Wojtek Wolski, that was a good one, just because he’s come a long way. Then Quinton Howden, we had his [younger] brother [Brett] make the announcement to him, because he had just won the world junior and he played it off like, “Hey, have you heard anything?” We were on the other line. Quinton said, “I haven’t heard anything yet.” So Brett said to him, “Well I’m calling to let you know that you’ve made the team.” That was really neat to see another family story. Just a couple that had family hockey connections, we tried to do it a little differently with those guys, to stir up some pretty cool reactions. They were pretty incredible.

SI: What did you feel, hearing those reactions on the other end?

SB: Just the pride of how these players, a lot of them, didn’t see this on the horizon a couple years ago. For a lot of them, they’re in Europe and still making a good living playing hockey, but they’re out of Canada’s consciousness, really. They’re not in the NHL. They’re not guys that people would follow. And now they’re going to represent the country and put that jersey on. For me, it was the pride of being able to deliver that news to those guys.

SI: Was that familiar? Can you relate to that?

SB: I had been left off one team. In 2002 I was cut from Canada’s Olympic team. I had been in both sets of shoes. I knew that every call I made was going to be exciting, but there were the other calls I had to make for guys who didn’t make the team. I think it helped me personally, the empathy, to know what that was going to be like as well. It was a day of mixed emotions. But as I said, they were responsible for pushing. Guys who made the team can’t forget that there are other guys who helped push them, who had a reason for helping them get there too.

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SI: What advice do you plan on giving them?

SB: Just enjoy the experience. You can get wrapped up on the big stage. There’s going to be pressure, expectation, but you really have to enjoy it. You have to find a way to balance it when the puck drops. These guys will be extremely competitive, but there’s going to be other times there to sit back and say, wow, this really is the Olympics and I’m part of it and I want to make sure guys don’t leave there recognizing this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

SI: How would you describe the makeup of this roster?

SB: I would say we have a very mobile defense. That is definitely going to be a strength of our team. Up front we’re skilled, more built on character. I think we have a real element of grit where I think we’ll be a hard team to play against. To me, that’s a good combination. You need speed, you need skill, but I think our back end is where we’ll get a lot of mobility, and up front is where we’ll have more of a balanced lineup. Guys can move up and down the lineup. I’m not sure what our top two lines will be starting, but that can change as we move along. I like that we’ve got some depth.

SI: Have you done much peeking at the other rosters as they’ve trickled out?

SB: Well, not a lot of peeking. We’ve seen the other teams. Their rosters have changed a little bit too. The one thing about international hockey is every country has their own flavor. They’ve had it forever. The Russians play a certain way. The Swedes and Finns, everybody’s got a little flavor to their game. We’ll know the lineups fairly well. Our coaching staffs will do a lot of advance scouting. But at the end of the day, it really comes down to how you play, how your own team performs. I think we’ll focus more on that. Although, we will spend time knowing the other teams. We know Russia will be good. Just the nature of this event, and the fact that they have a lot of good players over in the KHL. We know it’ll be a good team. On paper, it’s probably the favorite. Which is fine. I guess that adds another level of excitement. It’s back to the way it was prior to 1998, when the NHL wasn’t going and the Russians were always heavy favorites. It goes back almost to the Cold War days, I guess.

SI: That was similar to what you went through, right?

SB: Very similar. Back in ‘88, ‘92, the Russians were heavy favorites, won both of those Olympics and won most prior to that. That was the nature of that. Their best players were still in Europe and ours were in the NHL. It gave them an advantage. I don’t think it’s as big an advantage anymore. I think the gap’s been closed because we do have a lot of players over in Europe. But I’m sure in their mind, they know this is an opportunity they haven’t had in the last few Olympics.

SI: Complete this sentence: Canada can win its third straight gold because …

SB: Because we’re going to play the Canadian way. That, to me, is where the intangibles are what separates us. If we get those performances again, that’ll give us a very good chance.