Hockey fans have fond memories of Brian Burke’s feud with Kevin Lowe, and now it seems we have a sequel. Burke and former Bruins GM Mike O’Connell are in a war of words over alleged Joe Thornton trade talks. The biggest winners? Us.
Consider it a very short three act play or … boxing match, maybe more appropriately?
Round 1: Burke recalls trying to bring Thornton to the Ducks, “babysitting” O’Connell
Burke provided refreshingly candid answers to fan questions during an April 2 Twitter Q&A. The thread is worth your time, as Burke discusses the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Phil Kessel, Roberto Luongo, and Gary Bettman.
But it was a two-part bit about Burke trying to bring Thornton to the Ducks that got the ball rolling.
Burke explained that he’s “still bitter” that the Ducks didn’t land Thornton, and believes he offered O’Connell a better deal than the Bruins ultimately received from the Sharks.
I tried desperately to get Joe Thornton to Anaheim. I thought we beat the offer that got accepted. Mike O’Connell was the GM and we were babysitting him, checking in once a day, sometimes more (cont) https://t.co/zkLzbwLll9
— Brian Burke (@Burkie2020) April 2, 2020
Most fascinatingly, Burke even gave specifics about what he was willing to offer. Now, one can speculate about who would have been in the Ducks top five in 2005. Would Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry possibly been available for Thornton?
But either way … wow.
I told OC that I would protect 5 players on my roster and he could take whoever he had ranked 6th. No restrictions. Then I’d add another roster player, a prospect, and a first. I’m still bitter we didn’t get him. #askburkie https://t.co/zkLzbwLll9
— Brian Burke (@Burkie2020) April 2, 2020
As a reminder, the Bruins ended up receiving Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau, and Brad Stuart for Thornton. As Bruins fans would like to forget, Thornton continued to be a star for the Sharks, including winning the 2005-06 Hart Trophy.
[PHT Time Machine: The Eric Lindros trade that didn’t happen.]
Round 2: O’Connell says Burke’s Thornton claims were a “fabrication”
Things got juicier between O’Connell and Burke on Tuesday.
O’Connell told The Athletic’s Joe McDonald (sub required) that Burke’s hypothetical offer didn’t happen, and that the details were a “fabrication.”
“The details surrounding this story are fabricated and I can confirm that no such offer was made to me as I never informed Anaheim of my intentions to trade Joe Thornton,” O’Connell said. “Unfortunately, certain personalities never let the truth get in the way of their ultimate goal, self-promotion.”
Whew! (Shakes hand to indicate serious heat emanating from this rivalry.)
Round 3: Feud sizzles to a new level as Burke counters
Not to be outdone, Burke responded to O’Connell’s claims in a fiery appearance on ESPN on Ice with Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski. Burke made a key point by noting that current Ducks GM Bob Murray was in Burke’s office when he made the offer(s).
Burke also revived memories of wanting to battle Kevin Lowe in a fabled barn over the Dustin Penner offer sheet, saying “I wish we were in the same room, if you’re calling me a liar.” You really need to hear the entire clip, which Wyshynski posted:
Brian Burke said his @AnaheimDucks made the @NHLBruins a better trade offer for Joe Thornton than what they got from San Jose in 2005.
Ex-Bruins GM Mike O'Connell told @TheAthletic that Burke "fabricated" this and "no offer was made."
Burke candidly responded on ESPN ON ICE: pic.twitter.com/57rwvCF7DC
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) April 7, 2020
*Ponders putting on oven mitts, this is all too hot to handle*
So obviously, this is a he-said, Burkie-said situation. We can only take each hockey executive’s word for it, and one could even argue that Murray might feel loyal to Burke.
But, considering the specifics of Burke’s claims, it seems feasible that the Ducks made some sort of offer for Thornton.
Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle.
It’s also crucial to realize how much a person’s memory can be altered by time. This happened in 2005, and sometimes the seeds of trades are planted far before a deal is consummated. It’s possible that O’Connell flat-out doesn’t remember Burke’s offer(s).
Not only has time passed, but O’Connell also took a ton of heat for the trade. McDonald notes this anonymous reaction from a Bruins player at the time of the trade:
“Are you kidding me? We traded Joe Thornton for three guys who can’t tie their skates.”
The Bruins fired O’Connell in March of 2006, and the Thornton trade undoubtedly served as a catalyst. Such events can leave you a bit scarred, and maybe even prompt you to forget certain details. Maybe phrasing like “babysitting” bothered O’Connell, even if I took it to mean that Burke was checking up on the situation quite often.
Or maybe O’Connell is right in claiming that Burke is making those Thornton trade claims with the “ultimate goal” of “self-promotion?”
One thing’s clear: this is fun
We can only really guess, and perhaps spend this coronavirus quarantine time imagining “What if?” scenarios. Could Thornton have pushed the Ducks into mini-dynasty status, as this was during their Chris Pronger – Scott Niedermayer era? Would the Bruins have landed blue chips rather than “guys who can’t tie their skates?”
(That’s totally unfair to Primeau, Sturm, and Stuart, as they all had lengthy NHL careers. Though I admit I have not received definitive proof of how adept they are with laces.)
The one thing we do know is that Thornton landed with the Sharks and had a great run. And that O’Connell (currently director of pro development for the Los Angeles Kings) and Burke (Sportsnet personality) probably aren’t best buds.
Hey, it’s a lot more fun than talking about escrow though, right?
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.