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Hockey honoree Brian Burke takes on Olympian task

Brian Burke
Brian Burke

Brian Burke discovered hockey late, as a 13-year-old, one year after his family moved from Rhode Island to Edina. He never played in the state high school hockey tournament — Edina West didn’t qualify in his only varsity season — and he was never chosen to a U.S. national team.

Burke’s biggest achievements as a player were modest: a productive career at Providence College, and a 1978 Calder Cup championship with the Maine Mariners of the American Hockey League.

Now, Burke — the Anaheim Ducks general manager, and one of four men honored Wednesday as recipients of this year’s Lester Patrick Award — faces the biggest challenge of his lengthy hockey executive career.

Burke among four honored for service to U.S. hockey
Four months ago, Burke accepted the often thankless job of president and general manager of the U.S. Olympic hockey team. Since the Miracle on Ice in 1980, every Olympic GM and coach operated under the inescapable shadow of the late Herb Brooks, whose statue stands across Rice Park from the St. Paul Hotel where Burke, outgoing Minnesota Wild owner Bob Naegele, South St. Paul’s former NHL star Phil Housley and rugged NHL great Ted Lindsay were honored on Wednesday.

The Lester Patrick Award, given for outstanding service to United States hockey, is named for the innovative coach and general manager who ran the New York Rangers from 1926 to 1946. The Rangers won three Stanley Cups with Patrick in charge, the last in 1940; they’ve won one since.

Since Brooks badgered, pushed and melded that bunch of scrappy Minnesota and New England kids to gold in Lake Placid, the U.S. team returned to the medal stand exactly once, a silver with Brooks coaching again in 2002. Reasons vary. Politics. Selfishness. A lack of ability and/or cohesiveness. Arguably, the American team gained more notoriety for trashing its rooms in Nagano in 1998 than for anything it accomplished on the ice, even with NHL players on the roster. 

Burke faces challenges in restoring hockey luster
Now it’s up to Burke, one of the NHL’s most respected and accomplished executives, to sort it all out in time for the 2010 Games in Vancouver, which are 16 months away. Burke, who earned a law degree from Harvard, has done it all: player agent, league disciplinarian, and GM who helped build Vancouver and Anaheim to Western Conference prominence. The Ducks’ 2007 Stanley Cup was the first by a franchise from California.

(Cups won by franchises from the self-proclaimed State of Hockey: Zero. But that’s another topic for another day.)  

So Burke knows what he’s doing. Before the NHL general managers meeting in Chicago today, Burke plans to meet with Nashville’s David Poile, the Olympic associate GM, and three other NHL execs to talk about players. “We’ve sketched out ghost lineups already to find some common ground,” Burke said.

Thirty to 35 players will be invited to a camp next summer, probably in Lake Placid or Colorado Springs, and Burke expects at least part of the roster to be named by early that September.

Though USA Hockey hasn’t appointed a coach yet, Burke already knows what kind of team he wants. Because the Olympics will be contested on a NHL-sized rink (200 by 85 feet), Burke said, “We’re going to need a lot more sand and grit in the lineup than on an international size sheet.”

So don’t expect a team loaded with familiar names and flashy skaters. Figure a roster with some stars, but also grinders whose names may be unknown to you, unless you track NHL prospects or USA Hockey’s national team development program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

In one sense, Burke could use a few players as tough as Lindsay, an eight-time NHL All-Star over 17 seasons who never backed down from a fight despite standing 5-foot-8 at best. Nicknamed “Terrible Ted,” Lindsay played left wing on Detroit’s famed Production Line with Sid Abel and Gordie Howe. NHL players were nastier and more rough-and-tumble back then, and Lindsay is one of only two players who have led the NHL in scoring (in 1949-50) and penalty minutes (1958-59). 

That’s not saying the U.S. team needs thugs and goons. Burke wants guys who can take the body, win little battles in the corner and hold their ground. Kind of like that team from 28 years ago, which nobody expected anything from until that magical 60 minutes against the Soviets.  

“We’re going to be heavy betting underdogs,” Burke said. “On Canadian soil, with their lineup, the money’s going to be on Canada. And that’s fine with us.”

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