If past is precedent, hockey fans better get used to hearing the name Brian Burke. When there's an ugly slashing incident, a vicious cheap shot or a player angrily bumping a referee this season, the 38-year-old Burke, who last month left his job as general manager of the Hartford Whalers to become the NHL's director of hockey operations, will be the man doling out fines and player suspensions. Burke will also be involved in hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement with the players, improving the league's oft-criticized officiating and exploring international expansion.
"In the next decade the NHL will be playing [regular-season games] in more than two countries," Burke predicts. "I took this job because it offers me the chance to put a major imprint on the future of the game."
Ever since Gary Bettman became the NHL's commissioner last February, he had been searching for a "hockey person" to oversee the competitive aspects of the game. Burke, who learned to skate in Edina, Minn., matched the prototype of the man Bettman was looking for: energetic, educated, experienced, a guy who had, in Bettman's words, "seen the spectrum."
Burke played college hockey at Providence and spent a year in the minors before going to Harvard Law. In 1981 he passed the bar exam and became a player-agent, representing Brett Hull, Joel Otto and Pete Peeters, among others. In 1987 he switched to the other side of the negotiating table, joining the Vancouver Canucks as vice-president of hockey operations. Burke held that position until '92, when he became general manager of the hapless Whalers.
Forthright and opinionated, Burke is sure to rattle some china in the commissioner's office. "I'm known for being candid, and I won't change that," he says. "I think it adds credibility to the office. But it's not for the number-two guy to speak for the league. Gary Bettman didn't have to tell me that. I won't deny it will take some adjusting."
Burke is against the elimination of lighting in hockey. "I fear what the game will turn into without it," he says. "I find the stickwork frightening." The two areas in which he plans to crack down are stick fouls and vicious hits like Dale Hunter's postgoal run at Pierre Turgeon in last season's playoffs, for which Bettman suspended Hunter for 21 games. "I like physical hockey," Burke says, "but not cheap shots and not stickwork. And we are going to nail repeat offenders."
Suspensions this season will include game days—last year, ludicrously, players were suspended only for practice days. And Burke is negotiating with old pal and Players' Association head Bob Goodenow, who worked with Burke when both were player-agents in the mid-'80s to raise the amount that the NHL can fine its players, currently just $500. Burke has also been charged with the daunting assignment of improving NHL officiating, considered by main to be the worst in pro sports. In the preseason the league experimented with employing more than one referee, including a system that had one referee in the stands and one on the ice.
As for the oft-heard complaint that a penalty in the first period is not a penalty in the third period, Burke is among those who are happy to see the zebras swallow their whistles late in the game. "I believe in situational ethics," he says. "I believe the players should decide the game in the third period."
The jury's still out on that one, counselor.