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Brian Burke says Sedins wouldn’t have been Canucks with decentralized draft

"A lot of the work that goes into the draft is impossible to do remotely," said former Vancouver Canucks general manager Brian Burke.
A series of draft-day deals by general manager Brian Burke got the Vancouver Canucks both Henrik and Daniel Sedin in 1999. photo: Jeff McIntosh / CP

The NHL is reportedly planning to move to a decentralized draft format where each team would stay in their own home city for the draft rather than travel to a central location.

The draft has been centralized since 1963 apart from remote drafts conducted in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each NHL team sends a score of staff to the event, including the general manager, assistant general managers, and various scouts, as well as communications staff and other support staff.

According to a report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and echoed by other reporters with their own sources, a “vast majority” of teams voted in favour of decentralizing the draft.  

“Under the proposed decentralized model laid out in the Oct. 18 memo, the league would use a 5,000- to 10,000-seat venue and have one or two representatives from each club on hand,” reads a report from The Athletic. “Prospects would be greeted by commissioner Gary Bettman and a team rep on the draft stage for a brief photo opportunity after being selected and could later be flown with their family to the club’s home city after finishing broadcast and media responsibilities.”

Both the NBA and NFL run decentralized drafts and there are various reasons why the NHL is planning a similar format, including the travel and lodging costs, as well as privacy concerns with the teams’ tables so close together. 

But one former Vancouver Canucks general manager is staunchly opposed to the plan: Brian Burke.

"I think it's a really important place and a lot of business gets done there."

One of Burke’s signature moves as general manager of the Canucks was the wheeling and dealing at the 1999 NHL Entry Draft that gave the team the second and third-overall picks to select Daniel and Henrik Sedin. 

According to Burke, the trades that led to the Sedins becoming Canucks — as well as the blockbuster deal he made for Chris Pronger when he was general manager of the Anaheim Ducks — wouldn’t have happened with a decentralized draft.

“I made two big deals on the floor [of the draft] — two huge deals on the floor, two of the biggest in the history of the league on the floor,” said Burke on The Jeff Marek Show. “I think it’s a really important place and a lot of business gets done there.”

For Burke, there was a necessity of meeting face-to-face with the other general managers involved — Rick Dudley for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Don Waddell for the Atlanta Thrashers. 

The truly difficult deal was with Dudley and the Lightning, who owned the first-overall pick. Burke and the Canucks held picks three and four but needed to get the first-overall pick to ensure that Dudley or Waddell didn’t nab one of the Sedins, if not both of them, before the Canucks could pick. 

Further complicating the deal is that Dudley technically wasn’t in charge of the Lightning’s draft until the day of the draft because the Lightning were in the process of being sold and outgoing owner Art Williams was notoriously over-involved. The sale of the Lightning was finalized the night before the draft — if it didn’t, the trade for the first-overall pick might not have gone through.

“The finality of this came very quickly,” said Dudley at the time. “If we had to run this by Art, it would have been hard to get it done.”

The Canucks then traded the first-overall pick to Waddell and the Thrashers to get the second-overall pick — along with assurances the Thrashers would pick Patrik Stefan and not one of the Sedins — giving Burke and the Canucks the second and third-overall picks they needed.

I’ll be telling the whole story of how Burke got both Sedins in my upcoming book, On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Vancouver Canucks at the NHL Draft (shameless plug), but suffice it to say, it was a complicated series of deals with a lot of moving parts and it’s completely understandable that Burke might not have been able to get those deals done without meeting with Dudley and Waddell in person.

“The detail that goes into the draft where you’re on the floor, working on deals, talking to people on the side — a lot of the work that goes into the draft is impossible to do remotely,” said Burke. “So much of it was last minute and in-person and on the phone late at night. We actually got the deal done that morning on the floor.”

Then Marek asked Burke directly if the Sedins would have become Canucks with a decentralized draft.

“I would say no,” said Burke. “I would say…if they make the change and it had happened in the remote era, it would have been much more difficult and much more complicated.”

"They're going to ruin the greatest spectacle that exists in pro hockey."

Burke and Marek gave several other good reasons to keep the draft centralized.

“I keep coming back to the players and their families,” said Marek, “and saying to myself, if I’m in either position, either the father or the player, and I’m either walking up myself to shake the hand of the general manager who just drafted me or I’m watching my son do that and shake the hand of the team that’s about to help him take the next step in his hockey career, that’s really special. 

“To me, that handshake — I don’t know, maybe I’m too overly romantic about the whole thing, Burkie, but that handshake means a lot. I really love that moment of the draft. It’s not going to be anywhere close to the same.”

“I think the drama of being on the floor and having the kids’ families walk up after they’re picked and put on their hat and their sweater, I think the drama is great,” said Burke. “They’re going to ruin the greatest spectacle that exists in pro hockey…Our draft is special and unique and it’s amazing and we’re going to go away from it, I know that, but I think it’s really stupid.”

Burke laid the blame on a younger generation of general managers pushing for this change, though his ire might be misaimed.

“With these millennials, I think these idiots don’t know any better,” said Burke. “They’re going to all vote for this because it’s easier and it’s more NBA-like and more NFL-like and we don’t have to bring out whole staffs together and we can do this all in one room.”

For the record, just two NHL general managers qualify as being part of the “Millennial” generation: Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Kyle Dubas and Chicago Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson.

The generation that Boomer Brian Burke ought to be railing against is Gen X — around 23 of the NHL’s general managers fit into Gen X.