Members of the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce were treated to a different viewpoint on hockey last week.
Brian Burke, the Calgary Flames President of Hockey Operations, addressed a group of Chamber members during a special lunch at the Black Knight Inn as part of his Key Speaker Series.
“This is disputed territory. We view it as our territory, of course,” Burke said at the start of his 40 minute long talk, during which he addressed a number of hockey-related issues and topics including the CalgaryNEXT project, his own team’s fortunes this season, and the falling Canadian dollar.
“We had a tough start to the season,” Burke said of his Calgary Flames, who didn’t win a game in regulation until Nov. 7th this season.
Last year, the Flames were one of the most surprising teams in the NHL. While many believed they would finish in the bottom five in the standings, Calgary managed to fight their way into the post-season.
“Last year, obviously, we were probably the surprise of the National Hockey League. To make the playoffs and then to win a round. We beat the Vancouver Canucks in the first round and then we played Anaheim and Anaheim was a different story for us.
“They were too big and too fast and we were too young,” said Burke, who worked as the general manager of the Canucks, Ducks, and the Toronto Maple Leafs before joining the Flames in 2013. He won a Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2006-07.
According to Burke, the main issue with the Flames at the start of the year was their lack of team play, among other things.
“I felt our team play was poor, our special team play was poor and continues to struggle. I thought the goalies were okay, they weren’t stealing us games but I didn’t think they were the reason for us losing,” he said.
Since November, though, his team has managed to turn their fortunes around somewhat.
“I’m optimistic about our ability to have a good second half,” he said, pointing to the fact both of the team’s goaltenders as well as their defense have started to perform well.
Perhaps more pressing for the Flames, and all Canadian teams, Burke said, is the Canadian economy. While the falling Canadian dollar hasn’t had a huge effect on this season, next season will be a very different story.
“It’s a major problem for all seven teams. There are two issues here. One is the economy in Alberta.
“I don’t have to tell anyone in Alberta where we are with the price of oil and the layoffs. But the second issue is the foreign exchange issue, which is crippling to the Canadian teams right across the country,” he said.
“If, this summer, our player payroll is $70 million U.S., and I won’t have the figures exactly right, but when the dollar was at 93 cents our payroll was around $80 million, $82 million (CAN). Now it’s well over $100 million and climbing.”
A strong supporter of gay rights, Burke also spent some time talking about the You Can Play initiative, a project that was founded by his son, Patrick Burke in 2012.
The You Can Play project is aimed toward, “Ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation,” according to the project’s mission statement. It was created in honour of Brian’s youngest son, Brendan, who came out in 2009 while he was playing goal for the University of Miami RedHawks. A few months later, Brendan died in a car accident.
Since then, Brian has been one of the movement’s most outspoken advocates and allies. Since 2012, the project has partnered with professional leagues in nearly every sport, including the NHL, NFL, CFL, MLS and WWE to name just a few.
“We don’t have a problem on the women’s side. Team athletes who are gay in women’s sports aren’t ostracized, it’s not a problem, they’re accepted. But the drop-off rate of young male team athletes that are gay is staggering.
“I think it’s had a profound effect. I don’t think it’s a homophobic dressing room nature now with our kids. I think our young players would happily accept a gay teammate, I really believe that. I think the first (professional) hockey player that comes out is going to find a very welcome reception.”