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Brian Burke looks back on Pronger trade and impossible Gretzky deal

Former NHL executive Brian Burke.
Former NHL executive Brian Burke.

In his book, Burke’s Law: A Life in Hockey , you can make a strong case former NHL manager Brian Burke courted the Edmonton Oilers more than he did any other team, landing the big fish Chris Pronger for the Anaheim Ducks and trying to hook Wayne Gretzky until realizing the price for the greatest of them all was too high.

And, of course, there was that almost fight Burke had with Kevin Lowe.

And, also finding out that Glen Sather went to bat for Burke with the NHL when they wanted proof Pavel Bure had played enough games in Russia in his draft year to get picked when he did in 1989 — because, quietly, the Oilers were going to take Bure a round after Burke’s Vancouver Canucks.

Burke had a history with Pronger as the Oilers were moving the defenceman due to family issues shortly after their 2006 Cup run. As Hartford general manager, Burke drafted Pronger in 1993, trading up from No. 6 to No. 2 after Ottawa took Alexandre Daigle first.

“We knew halfway through the (2005-06) season Pronger wasn’t happy, so we’d started in on our research (for a trade),” said Oilers former GM Lowe.

The Oilers weren’t just targeting Anaheim; if they were going for young players, other clubs, like Philadelphia and San Jose, had them too. The Leafs may have been the outlier, dangling two ready-made players, a defenceman and a forward.

“At the 2006 draft (then assistant GM) Scott Howson handed slips of paper to four teams with what Edmonton wanted. “It took us less than 45 seconds to say, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’’’ said Burke in a phone interview.

The Oilers got winger Joffrey Lupul, defenceman Ladislav Smid, a first-rounder in 2007 and one in 2008, along with a second-rounder that year. Lupul struggled mightily in Edmonton and was traded to Philadelphia for Joni Pitkanen, while Smid was a solid contributor until neck issues forced him out of the game.

“We weren’t giving up (Ryan) Getzlaf or (Corey) Perry, but we hated trading Lupul. He was our best forward in the playoffs that year and I thought we were sending an Edmonton boy back there and he would tear it up,” said Burke.

“And we loved Ladi Smid. I phoned Ladi at a noisy bar or restaurant (overseas) to tell him he’d been traded to Edmonton. He said, ‘That’s a good hockey town.’ He said, ‘For who?’ I told him Chris Pronger, and he held the phone out and yelled into the bar, ‘I just got traded for Chris Pronger.’ I told him, ‘Wait, Ladi, there’s other assets involved.”

Gretzky went to Los Angeles in 1988 for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas and three first-round picks, along with $15 million to owner Peter Pocklington.

The deal Sather wanted from Vancouver was forward Greg Adams and goalie Kirk McLean, two first-round picks, and Pocklington wanted $25 million. Burke, Pat Quinn’s assistant GM at the time, tried to make the dollars work from the business side but couldn’t.

“Saying no to Wayne Gretzky, does that seem insane? Yeah,” said Burke. “But do I look back on it with regret? Not really, because I’m a budget guy. I go into a restaurant, look into my wallet and know what I have to spend. I’m built that way because I’m one of 10 kids.”

Pocklington wanted the money, Sather wanted Adams and McLean, their starting goalie.

“They were stars on our team for 10 years. It wasn’t an outrageous proposal if the money had been different.”

Burke and Lowe became enemies over an offer sheet for Dustin Penner in 2007, when Burke felt Lowe’s five-year, $21.5 million contract was inflated and impacted his chances of signing Getzlaf and Perry. Burke was told Lowe had been on a radio show that reportedly said Lowe would be willing to duke it out with Burke.

They’re friends once again, but back then, the air was blue.

“My (late) son Brendan heard me ripping Kevin and said, ‘Dad I don’t get it, he used to be your friend, you took him on your fishing trips.’ He asked why I was carrying on the grudge. I told Brendan I expected him to carry it on after I’m gone. We’re Irish. Brendan thought it was silly,” said Burke. “We’ve mended the fence. Kevin’s a great guy.

“I was sour with what they wanted to pay Penner because of how it would affect my re-signing Getzlaf and Perry, who were superior players.”

But about that fight that never came?

“I called Slats (Sather) and said I’d rent a barn, and I’d kick his ass and drive him to the hospital,” said Burke. “(NHL commissioner Gary) Bettman called 10 minutes later and said we weren’t fighting.”

Lowe doesn’t remember the vitriol quite that way.

“He’s insinuated that I challenged him. Crissakes, why would I ever do that?”” he said. “The beauty with hockey players is he would have shown up and so would I. We’re not afraid on each other.”

The Bure draft was Cold War intrigue. If Bure had played fewer than 10 Russian games in their top league, he had to be drafted in the first three rounds in ’89. Most teams thought he had only played nine games, but Vancouver and Edmonton had documentation he actually played 11.

Vancouver got him in Round 6. The Oilers were taking him in Round 7.

“Glen had the same information we did and phoned the league. I never knew,” said Burke. “I told Glen later, ‘Thank you, there is some honour in the game.'”

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @jimmathesonnhl

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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