Brian Burke lends a helping hand to hockey in Ireland

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Calgary Flames' President of Hockey Operations & acting GM, Brian Burke speaks to the media as team members show up for NHL hockey season-end activities in Calgary, Alberta, on Monday, April 14, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Larry MacDougal)
Calgary Flames' President of Hockey Operations & acting GM, Brian Burke speaks to the media as team members show up for NHL hockey season-end activities in Calgary, Alberta, on Monday, April 14, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Larry MacDougal)

It's an unusually hot August morning in Dublin as I amble along to an equally unusual interview. In a largely nondescript commercial building on the south-side quays, I'm escorted into a largely nondescript meeting room and there's Brian Burke, intimidating and imposing.

It's more than a little ironic.

There's a crunching handshake and an exchange of pleasantries before some Canada-related small talk.

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I tell the current president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames of my three-year stint in the country and he's interested in the places I've been and what I was doing. In a former life, I hosted a nightly TV show called Fox Soccer Report and when I mention it, Burke excitedly points at me and says “That's where I've seen you'” Inevitably, he's intrigued by my spell in Winnipeg – “How’d ya like that?” Inevitably, I complain about the weather, those never-ending winters. But he's quick to point out the positives.

“I grew up a little bit east but mainly just south of Winnipeg and in Minnesota, when it got to minus-40...firstly the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales cross so minus-40 is minus-(expletive) 40. You can't go outside for any length of time but when it got that cold, which was rare, we'd always get Northern Lights which is breathtaking.”

He asks if I ever went ice fishing. Nah, I tell him. Too scared.

“We fished a couple of years ago. When I was still running the Toronto Maple Leafs, we played in Winnipeg on New Year's Eve and we went out to Lake Winnipeg that day to ice fish. The time before we went at the end of May and the kid is coming out with the auger to drill the ice. Usually, ice is 18 inches thick or so. I ask him how deep it is. 'Oh, it's not too bad, Mr. Burke – about three and a half feet',’’ he says.

“Now that's where water is moving – the Red River empties into it. I say 'Three and a half feet?' He says 'Oh, I've had to drill in here when it's five feet deep.' Five feet of ice on a lake! So, yeah. It's cold there.”

An ice-breaker. And we're up and running.

The reason Burke is in town is to help the Irish Ice Hockey Association (IIHA), who are desperate to grow the sport over here. Bizarrely, there's plenty of romance when it comes to the relationship between hockey and Ireland though the majority know little about the background of it all.

Strong Tipperary finish sees off Dublin to book All-Ireland minor hurling final place
Strong Tipperary finish sees off Dublin to book All-Ireland minor hurling final place

One of the Irish national sports is hurling, a game played with a hard ball and a long stick, curved at the top. With football-style, H-shaped posts at either end of a field, teams try to score goals (between the posts and into the net) or points (between the posts and over the crossbar) and can either hit the ball along the ground or throw and strike. It's the fastest outdoor sport in the world and attracts crowds of up to 80,000 to Dublin's iconic Croke Park stadium during the championship's finale in the first week of September.

Hurling was brought to the Scottish highlands by the early Gael emigrants where the locals quickly changed the rules slightly and called it shinty. When the Scots made their way to Canadian shores in the middle of the 19th century, they brought their sticks with them though the harsh winters made it impossible to play their game without some major changes. And soon there was hockey and history changed forever. Ever wonder where the term shinny came from? Now you know.

If Scotland have at least kept up their long-standing traditions by featuring four teams that compete in the UK Elite League, Ireland's interest in the sport is almost nil. North of the border, there is the Belfast Giants franchise and two facilities. In the Republic, there's not even a rink anymore. And Burke is here to try and fix that.

“Nothing happens without a rink”, he says.

“I think we need to do a better job of tapping the hockey market in North America that has Irish ancestry. There are some pretty prominent hockey people from Irish families – their parents or grandparents were right off the boat. There have been a couple of players, like Owen Nolan from Belfast, who were born here. So that’s the number one thing. We haven’t really tapped that group for fundraising ability or interest so we’ve got to do a better job on our side of the water and the investors, the buildings – they’re things we’re working on in the gestation period.”

In the early 1980s, a rink was built in Dublin's south inner-city. Kids in the local neighborhoods learned to skate there and it was a hub for the community. Young girls pretended to be Jayne Torvill, teenagers went on first dates, older couples held hands as they pushed along the ice. And soon, Canadian doctors who were studying at the nearby Royal College of Surgeons began to bring their sticks and pucks. Dubliners stood and watched, enraptured by a new frenetic and ferocious sport.

Those young, impressionable types soon immersed themselves in the game and would later be instrumental in forming the IIHA and Ireland has been a member of hockey's world governing body since 1997.

Former Boston Bruins player Terry O'Reilly waves to the crowd after a ceremonial puck drop prior to the Bruins' NHL hockey game against the Calgary Flames in Boston, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Former Boston Bruins player Terry O'Reilly waves to the crowd after a ceremonial puck drop prior to the Bruins' NHL hockey game against the Calgary Flames in Boston, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

So, there is a nostalgia to all of this. And Burke is keen to stress the Irish impact on the NHL.

“If you look at the early days of the National Hockey League, there were very important roles for Irish immigrants or for guys who were first generation Canadians whose parents were Irish. The ties between hockey and Ireland are very real. You look at some of the great players – Terry O’Reilly – go through the names.

“It’s almost like five Irish guys were sat around a table and said ‘Let’s design a game that’s perfect for Irishmen’ and they came up with hockey. This is a sport that was made for this country.”

Burke’s resume and passion for sports prompted Rugby Canada to name him to its board two years ago. Passionate about the game after first playing it at Harvard Law School in 1979, he'll be at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium next month to watch Canada take on Ireland in the first match of the Rugby World Cup.

So, given he's becoming increasingly used to stepping outside of his comfort zone professionally, is Burke keen on doing more work with other sports? Ralph Krueger, the ex-Oilers head coach, is now the chairman of Premier League soccer team Southampton. Can Burke see himself doing something similar?

“I love what I'm doing so not right now. Ralph Krueger is a really bright guy. He's a very interesting man and I'm proud to say he's my friend. A very sharp guy, interested in lots of different things.

“I love having a beer with him because I don't have to talk. I can just listen and everything he says is intelligent and with Ralph you're always saying 'Why didn't I think of that?' Those people are good to hang around with.

“What I've tried to do in sports is best practice. Not best in hockey – best in all sports. I've gone to training camp with four NFL teams, I've gone in and studied draft preparations with one NFL team start-to-finish, I've studied what Major League Baseball does with spring training with several teams, we did an exchange on the business side with New Orleans Saints when I was in Toronto and studied their entire operation – ticket sales, sponsorship and then they sent a team up to look at ours. A stolen idea has the same value to me as an original one if it makes me better. I'm going to a training camp with an NBA team this fall – they've got some medical advances that are interesting to me and I want to study them.

“So, down the road, maybe but right now the job I have is the one I want and the one I love. I'm having the best time of my life working with the Calgary Flames.”

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