It’s interesting that two distinguished yet distinct hockey personalities -- Pat LaFontaine and Brian Burke -- are traveling down the same hockey path at exactly the same time.
Both had the opportunity to become general manager of their respective teams -- LaFontaine, who assumed the role of president of hockey operations in Buffalo, and Burke, who became president of hockey operations in Calgary and immediately and repeatedly insisted he did not want to be the team’s GM.
On Thursday, Burke dismissed GM Jay Feaster and assistant GM John Weisbrod after preparing a detailed report for Flames ownership on the state of the franchise.
While there was immediate speculation that Burke would simply step into the GM's chair and assume a title he previously held in Toronto, Anaheim, Vancouver and Hartford, that wasn’t why he took the job in Calgary.
He will wear the interim GM tag until a new GM is found, a process he said Thursday already began with a call to a team asking for permission to interview. (ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun confirmed that Burke asked for permission to interview former Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk, whom Burke hired in Toronto after Nieuwendyk’s Hall of Fame playing career came to an end.) And Burke said by the end of the day there would be calls made to other teams asking for permission to interview others for the Flames’ GM spot.
We had a chance to sit down with Burke at the recent board of governors meetings in California to discuss the 2010 U.S. Olympic team. During that interview, he talked about his job in Calgary and reiterated how comfortable he was in his new hockey skin.
Since taking the hockey ops job in Calgary in early September, Burke has been in Toronto several times a month to be with his young family after the breakup of his second marriage. This allows him to take his two young daughters to school on some days and make them meals while working out of an office in a Toronto law firm.
Being able to make time for his daughters was crucial to him in any new job, he said, and it was something he couldn’t do if he was the full-time GM, whether it was in Calgary or anywhere else outside of Buffalo perhaps.
Beyond that, Burke said he was relishing his role as president of hockey operations, a title that he believes will become more and more commonplace within the NHL, a role that looks big picture at the relationship between the team’s on-ice mechanisms and its place in the community.
That he and LaFontaine share the same job title and description isn’t where the similarities to their current lots in life end, similarities that have become more pronounced after Thursday’s bloodletting in Calgary.
The Sabres are a terrible team and have become untethered, drifting further and further away from a long-suffering fan base. LaFontaine is tasked with remooring the Sabres and, to that end, has been interviewing clients for the GM opening created when longtime GM Darcy Regier was fired earlier this season.
It is a crucial hire, and from all reports, LaFontaine is being methodical in his search. It is not overstating it to say that if hiring LaFontaine was a seminal moment for the beleaguered franchise, the decision on GM is equally important to the long-term future of the Sabres; one begets the other.
Ditto for Burke.
Feaster was in the final year of his contract, and it was clear from Burke’s assessment of the franchise that he couldn’t recommend bringing Feaster back after this season. Given that the ending was inevitable, Burke chose to make the move now in an effort to begin the search for Feaster’s replacement as soon as possible. Knowing that another team was already combing the hockey woods for someone to lead it to firmer ground was another factor in the timing of the Flames’ moves.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that Burke and LaFontaine are going after the same people but rather they are looking for people who will produce the same result: restoring direction to franchises that have been without one.
Feaster and Burke have known each other a long time. After Feaster was let go by the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he presided over the team’s groundbreaking 2004 Stanley Cup win, he praised Burke as a man who had been kind to him in his early days as GM and who had offered support after he was without a job.
But the fact of the matter is the Flames, currently 13th in the 14-team Western Conference, are a team that has long been without any true plan or sense of self.
Some of that aimlessness Feaster inherited when he took the Calgary job in July 2010 from predecessor Darryl Sutter.
And the team did draft well under Feaster, the play of Sean Monahan an example of that prior to the rookie’s recent injury.
“His fingerprints are going to be on this team for many years,” Burke said.
But other areas were problematic, such as the botched trade of Jarome Iginla to Boston (the longtime captain ended up in Pittsburgh before signing with Boston as a free agent last summer) and the near-disastrous offer sheet given to Ryan O'Reilly, who ended up staying with the Colorado Avalanche.
In short, the clock began to tick for Feaster when Burke took over, not because Burke was predisposed to dump Feaster but because ownership wanted an independent set of eyes on where the team was.
Burke said he came to Calgary to win a championship. While he acknowledged it seems far-fetched to talk championship on a day when you’re firing your GM and assistant GM, you still have to keep that goal in mind.
Now, like LaFontaine, Burke is faced with a decision that will say much about his legacy with the Flames and the team's future.
Nieuwendyk is an interesting possibility given his strong ties to Burke and Calgary, having been part of the team’s only Stanley Cup win in 1989.
It’s hard to imagine that Burke wouldn’t also look to some of his former colleagues in Toronto, including Claude Loiselle, who is considered a top talent evaluator, and Dave Poulin, whom Burke brought into the Leafs fold and who is currently vice president of hockey operations in Toronto.
What about Laurence Gilman, a bright hockey mind who understands the Canadian hockey landscape as the assistant GM in Burke’s old hockey home of Vancouver?
Jason Botterill has been rumored to be a candidate for the Buffalo job, as has Tim Murray, the assistant GM in Ottawa whose uncle, Bryan, is the current Ottawa GM.
Paul Fenton in Nashville, Ron Hextall in Philadelphia and Tom Kurvers in Tampa are all assistant GMs whose work suggests they are worthy of a conversation, assuming they share Burke’s vision of how to revitalize the Flames’ fortunes.
Burke threw reporters a bone Thursday saying he wanted the Flames to be more blue collar, to play a more black-and-blue style of hockey, to be more “truculent.”
“I know you’re all waiting for the word; there it is,” he said, harkening back to a descriptor he used often in Toronto for how he wanted his Leafs team to play and which was also an apt description of his Anaheim Ducks team that won a Stanley Cup in 2007.
Burke’s plan will be to hire a GM who would then hire an assistant GM and at some point assess the work of coach Bob Hartley.
We know from our conversation with Burke this week that he has been mightily impressed with the work Hartley has done, and he confirmed Thursday that the coaching staff and other management personnel would remain in their positions for the balance of the season. While the team’s record doesn’t necessarily reflect it, Hartley has consistently gotten above-average performances from a below-average team talent-wise.
“Today’s not fun,” Burke said.
But when you’re a team that’s as bad as the Flames, or the Sabres, fun really isn’t a consideration and hasn’t been for a while. For men like LaFontaine and Burke, the road to "fun" begins with small steps, the search for the right people.
For Burke, those first steps were taken Thursday.