When you type the words ‘untied tie’ into Google, an image of Brian Burke pops up. Go ahead. Try it.
One could forgive Burke for not having the time to pay attention to the minor details of his physical appearance. He is, after all, probably one of the busiest men in Calgary these days, as he balances the duties of president of hockey operations and interim general manager of the Calgary Flames, all while searching for a suitable candidate to take over as the latter.
But that didn’t stop Burke — untied neckpiece and all — from making time to stop by the University of Calgary on Jan. 21 to speak to a room full of eager law students about his journey through the world of sports as a lawyer.
“If you’re in the sporting community and you have a chance to advance the career of the next wave of attorneys that are going to work in this business, I think it’s part of your obligation to do that,” said Burke after tying his tie, and before launching into an hour-long speech on his career as a hockey executive and the philosophies that have lead him through it.
Indeed, one of Burke’s main pillars for building a successful hockey team is dedication to community service, be it speaking to a group of students or promoting You Can Play, an organization founded by his son Patrick that is dedicated to breaking down barriers for LGBT athletes.
“We find that when gay boys get to a certain age they kind of drop out of team sports because they are not comfortable with the homophobic nature of the dressing room, and we are trying to change that,” said Burke, whose appearance helped the University of Calgary Sports and Entertainment Law Society raise over $1,200 for the cause.
“The trademark of my teams is that my players do more for the community than the next two teams combined,” said Burke. “I think the difference between being a [minor] leaguer like me and being an NHL player is one chromosome or one gene difference — a five pound difference, a little more explosiveness. Whatever it is, God gave these players a gift, and god damn they are going to give it back.”
Giving back to the community is not only a virtue that Burke expects of his players, but one that he encourages law students to display as well, especially considering the common public perception of lawyers as less-than-virtuous citizens.
“I challenge law students all the time — make sure that you are not contributing to the stereotype, make sure you are breaking it,” said Burke. “Make sure whatever type of law you practice that you are a leader in your community, that you are active in your community and that you give back, and eventually we will shed the stereotype.”
Burke never intended on using his law degree to enter the sports business. In fact he was reluctant to get a law degree in the first place. Burke told the story of how his college coach Lou Lamoriello — who is now the president and general manager of the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils — demanded that he take the LSAT. A Rhodes scholar in his undergraduate days as a history major, Burke aced the test and was accepted into Harvard law school.
After passing the bar examination — “My dad commented it’s probably the first bar you’ve ever passed,” joked Burke — he practiced law for six years, until his firm was no longer permitted to practice Burke’s specialty of industrial revenue financing due to new legislation.
In need of a new career focus, Burke used his hockey contacts to get into athlete representation. At a team reunion in 1987, Burke was asked by newly-minted Vancouver Canucks general manager Pat Quinn to be his assistant GM, and Burke never looked back.
Burke admits that abandoning his steady career as a lawyer for a job as an assistant GM on a team that was losing tens of millions of dollars a year was a risky career move on his part, but encouraged the crowd of law students to not be afraid to make bold moves.
“This is not a dress rehearsal, this is your life. You don’t get a chance to do it twice,” said Burke. “This is it, so don’t be afraid to take a chance. Everyone tells you to do the same thing, do the predictable thing. That’s bullshit. Do what you think will make you happy. If that involves taking a chance, if that involves picking up and moving somewhere, don’t be afraid to do that.”
The event was organized by the University of Calgary Sports and Entertainment Law Society. The new club was thrilled to have Burke as their first speaker.
“The biggest part of our club is trying to open up a network between the athletic community and the legal community in Calgary, because it is so rich and there are a lot of charity events and possibilities to give back,” said club president Shannon Davidson. “We want to be a part of that somehow.”