Brian Burke: 'I felt exactly like Colie felt'
Brian Burke figured if there had been e-mail when he was the lord of the NHL's office of discipline, the current firestorm over Colin Campbell's indelicate messages to staffers would look like a single sparkler on a windy day.
"I felt exactly like Colie felt," Burke told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "There were divers and clowns in our league and I called them that."
The only difference is Campbell provided such assessment in electronic mail that lived on long past the moment that spawned the comments which ultimately ended up as evidence in a wrongful dismissal suit and fodder for the media.
"If I'd used e-mail, I'd have used the same language," said Burke, who was vice president and director of hockey operations for the NHL from 1993-98. "Only I didn't get caught because there was no e-mail trail."
Like many league officials, Burke is unflinchingly supportive of Campbell even though Campbell's e-mails to then head of officiating Stephen Walkom in 2006 and 2007 provided a candor about players and officials that have some wondering whether Campbell should continue in his post as NHL's head of discipline.
What sets Burke apart from others in the game is he has done Campbell's job. He understands the challenges Campbell faces.
"I can't imagine how Colie has lasted 12 years because I'd had enough after five years," Burke said.
It's fair to ask whether 12 years is simply too long on a job as relentlessly demanding as this one, but Burke maintains that perspective is needed in the midst of calls for Campbell's head and demands for a system to be overhauled.
"The system works," Burke insisted.
And maybe it is all about perspective when you're talking about something as emotional as how to deal with players' often dangerous actions on and off the ice, what is just and fair, and who is the right person to make such judgments.
Burke took over as the dean of discipline from Brian O'Neill in 1993. He immediately went to the NHL Players' Association to ask what changes the union would make and how to make the job of meting out punishment more streamlined.
"I said, 'I need a system that works for your guys,'" Burke said.
For instance, players no longer travel to league offices for all hearings, but only for longer suspensions. When he took over, Burke said the hot-button issues within the league were head butts and baseball-type slashes by players.
"Three quarters of what I did was stick-related, and we've taken that out of the game," he said.
Different time, different sensitivities, different hot-button topics.
"The doctor had to scrape black tape off the roof of Richie Sutter's mouth," Burke recalled.
"Do you know how many games Messier got?"
"Do you know what he'd get now?" Burke asked. "Add a zero to that number."
Now, those kinds of ugly stick incidents occur infrequently, and when they do -- think Chris Simon's samurai swing on Ryan Hollweg late in the 2006-07 season -- they are dealt with harshly. Now, the attention is on blows to the head and hits from behind, as it should be. Burke is confident this issue will also be weeded out of the game over time.
We have been repeatedly, if not relentlessly, critical of Campbell and how the disciplinary system works in the NHL, mostly as it relates to consistency. Mattias Ohlund received four games for breaking Mikko Koivu's leg a couple of years ago. James Wisniewski was suspended two games for his gestures toward Sean Avery. Avery received nothing for whacking Mike Komisarek on the feet. And on and on the merry-go-round goes.
But if you're looking for "cookie-cutter" justice like a speeding ticket -- you're 10 miles over the limit, you pay a $40 ticket -- it's just not going to happen, Burke said.
"The incidents are not all the same. There are all kinds of factors," he added.
What was the score of the game at the time of the incident?
Was there a history between the two players?
Was there an altercation earlier in the game that precipitated the incident?
Burke said there is, however, a body of law that is compiled when it comes to discipline and considered with every incident. When there are two incidents that are the same, Burke said he is confident the league hands out "cookie-cutter discipline" that it is consistent as far as it is possible given the fluidity of all of these events.
At the heart of the matter is what makes the game of hockey different than every other game, and that's the speed and constant physical contact between players. Whether it's Campbell or Burke or Joe The Dog ruling on justice, there is always going to be the challenge of making an inherently dangerous game as safe as possible without destroying its integrity.
"We need to keep contact in our game," Burke said.
Think Judge Roy Bean and delivering law west of the Pecos and you'll have a sense of the challenges that will continue to confront those who hold this office. As for the mechanism of delivering justice, Burke said calls for a committee or tribunal are misguided.
"It would make the process hopelessly cumbersome," he said. "It doesn't add to the wisdom of the process."
Perhaps he's right. Maybe it's less about who makes the decision than how the decision gets made. Maybe it's more about opening a window onto the process and making it more transparent. But, in the end, the buck has to stop somewhere.
"It's going to be one guy and people are always going to complain," Burke said. "[When you make a decision on discipline], you're lucky if you're only dumb once."
Burke said you'll mostly hear complaints from both sides, the injured team and the media that cover them, complaining the penalty was too light, and the team and the media covering the suspended player complaining the penalty was too heavy.
"I'd get fried in the media [in both cities]," Burke said.
In the debate over whether Campbell should remain on the job, other potential replacement names have cropped up. Brendan Shanahan, a newly appointed NHL executive (he's trying to fix the All-Star Game, which is a full-time job in and of itself), has been mentioned.
"People say Brendan Shanahan should take over the job," Burke said. "I can guarantee that, within a week, there'll be people demanding someone else do it."
Although he is dismissive of an overhaul that would see discipline handled by a committee or tribunal, Burke points out that Campbell does have help and does not operate in a vacuum.
"I think Colin's done an excellent job," Burke said. "This to me is white noise. It's background noise."