NHL senior director of player safety Patrick Burke talks process, criticism, All-Star skills


NHL senior director of player safety Patrick Burke joined the ESPN on Ice podcast this week. Here’s a transcript of the conversation with Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski, which spans a variety of topics, including Evander Kane‘s criticism of the NHL’s discipline process, why Nathan MacKinnon gets to pick and choose his events at the NHL All-Star skills competition, and the St. Louis Blues‘ decision not to have a Hockey is For Everyone Night at a home game this season.

ESPN: George Parros has been a man under fire for a lot of people who don’t believe that player safety has doled out as many suspensions or as many lengthy suspensions as they should to try to correct behavior or punish offending players. First off, think that’s fair to George? The second thing is there’s a prevailing theory that there’s too many guys that would be on the injurious side of plays that run player safety, and that player safety would be better if there were more guys, say, like a Paul Kariya-type in there who were the victims of such plays. What do you say to that?

Burke: I think George knows that when you take this job, you’re never going to be popular. You’re always going to get a ton of heat and a ton of criticism because it’s very rare that our department issues the suspension and all sides are happy. Usually the side with the offending player thinks we went too hard. The side with the victim thinks we went too light. Fans of both teams, media that cover both teams tend to pick a side and go the same way. So no matter what we do, it’s pretty rare that people are going to praise George and our department.

But I think overall, having been here for seven years now, worked for Brendan Shanahan, Stephane Quintal and now George. I think George has done a fantastic job. He’s a wonderful boss. And people inside the league who know him really have a ton of respect for him, whether that’s players, general managers, those of us who work for him. So I think George knows that heat is part of the gig. I don’t think he’s getting more heat than Shanny did, Q did go all the way back to the days of [Colin Campbell] or even my father [Brian Burke] doing it. He comes with it. I don’t think he’s getting more than than they ever did.

As to part two. First of all, has Paul Kariya ever expressed any interest in working for the league? His name keeps getting thrown out. I’ve heard that a lot. I know it’s not just your opinion. A few thoughts on that. First of all, I think it’s a misconception that you can predict how a player feels about supplemental discipline based on the style of play that they played. We’ve had a rotating group of directors since I’ve been here, as well as constantly talking to former players, GMs, current players. And one of the things that I found is a lot of skill players don’t want to take any physicality out of the game — whether that’s the notion that they had to fight through it so the current guys should have to as well, whether they just enjoy the physical aspects of the game. But I’ve worked with or am in communication with a lot of very highly skilled alums who don’t think that we should be increasing the amount of supplemental discipline and actually many of whom think we might have gone too far. So I’m not sure that these guys who played a skill game necessarily would be upping the number of suspensions.

To get to a couple examples without getting into how they view plays, currently on our staff is Ray Whitney, I would say a pretty highly skilled guy, over 1,000 points in the NHL. We also had Brian Leetch on staff my first year here. There’s a skill element in our department. There are guys giving advice, giving their input on plays in our departments who play that style of play. So do I think that we have to change the boss to make sure that it’s someone who got hit a lot or was particularly skilled? No. I think the things that you’re looking for in a senior vice president of player safety are intelligence, communication skills, hockey knowledge, the ability to connect with players and the ability to be thoughtful and think through players. And Howard disciplinary process is going to affect the league and how hockey is played on the ice in the big picture. And I definitely think we have that with the group we have between George, Stephane Quintal, Ray Whitney, Damian Echevarrieta and myself as the senior staff. I think we have a really good group, a really good balance and a nice mix that’s doing a good job keeping the game as safe as possible.

ESPN: You mention your department is no stranger to criticism, but there was some high-profile critique headed your way about a month ago from Evander Kane, who I will note is a repeat offender. He called out the department for “a completely flawed system.” He said “from the suspensions to the appeal rights, it’s baffling to me how we as players agreed to this.” He essentially called for an independent third party to make these decisions to “remove that bias that transpires in this department headed by George Parros.” So when you and the rest of the senior staff hear him say this, what’s going through your mind?

Burke: Not all that much, to be honest. We certainly saw it. We read it. We talked about it. But I don’t think that we saw it as anything more than a frustrated player who’s on a team that’s having a frustrating season and is looking to lash out a bit. The Sharks are not having the season they anticipated. I wonder if Evander is having the season he was hoping for, and he’s frustrated. And that’s understandable. So a little bit of that got directed at us, but there’s been no strong feedback from anyone that we talked to for a substantial amount of change.

George talks regularly with GMs, the NHLPA and with players to get feedback. A couple of years ago, we did a team tour where we visited every NHL team. George met with all 31 teams and gave them the chance to ask questions, raise complaints, left an anonymous survey to try and figure out if there were things that guys wanted to be done differently. And the response from GMs from the NHLPA, from those players is that things are good. While we may come under fire for individual decisions, the process itself is good. Everyone seems happy with overall the decisions we’re making. And, you know, when someone gets suspended, they’re not going to be happy. Their team is not going to be happy. But you know, Evander put those comments out there and then it kind of went away. There wasn’t a groundswell of support. There weren’t a flood of players calling the NHLPA or calling their general managers to agree with him and say that, you know, we have to use this and fix it. It just kind of went away. So we saw it for what it was, which is a frustrated player, upset with the decision, wanting to vent. And we all just moved on with our lives.

ESPN: Did you guys reach out to Evander at all because there is clearly a disconnect of what he believes you guys do and what your actual process is to do. Did you try to clear the air?

Burke: I don’t know if George did after the fact. I know he and Evander have talked a couple of different times this year about the legality of play is the way that Evander plays and trying to help him understand what to do to avoid being suspended. And this was before his suspension. So one of the things our department tries to do is to be proactive. If we see players who are playing on the edge or hitting a certain way or getting close to supplemental discipline, a lot of times we’ll have someone from the department call him and just say, “Hey, here’s what we’re seeing a lot of recently, just be aware that you haven’t crossed the line yet, but if that happens, you might be hearing from us.” So it’s a courtesy to the players to try and educate them on what they might be doing.

I know George said that with Evander earlier this year and gave them the time to reach out and talk about styles of hitting and how to safely avoid hitting a player in the head. I don’t know, I don’t believe that George has reached out since then, but I know he has talked to Sharks staff, Doug Wilson and other people in the organization, to discuss it. And I think everyone’s happy with where it’s landed since then.

ESPN: I think people are curious how you folks determine the punishments for some of these incidents and in particular what goes into the call to make something a fine rather than a suspension?

Burke: It’s just the degree of what we’re seeing to be honest. The things that we look at on every player first and foremost: Was a rule broken? We see a lot of hits that we might not like, maybe they’re unnecessary plays or maybe they’re scummy plays, and we might not like them. To use an easy example: If you throw a big hit at 19:59 of a period, there’s no need to throw that hit. It’s an unnecessary hit. There’s a second left in the period, but there’s no rule against that. The clock goes to 20 minutes for a reason. So we see that a lot with one second left in the game, somebody drills a guy in the corner and everyone is mad, and we’re looking at that.

Those are ones that former players Ray and George and Q are looking at go on like, “What do you have to do to just leave the guy alone? You don’t have to do that.” But no rule was broken. So first and foremost, on all these plays, we have to figure out, was a rule broken? Then we’re looking at things like, I would say force is probably the most important thing. And I think that’s where a lot of times there’s confusion around our decisions because people are looking at two plays and they’re going, “Oh, you know, this was an elbow to the face and this was an elbow to the face.” And one was a fine, one was a suspension, and it’s very hard to quantify. We think this guy hit him $5,000 worth of hard and this other guy hit him one game worth of hard.

But that’s kind of what we’re doing on a lot of these, is the force here different between the two? We look at things like the intent on a play. We talk a lot in our videos about a hockey play versus non-hockey play. Are you going in trying to throw a legal body check to separate the guy from the puck? Or are you doing something completely unnecessary after the whistle, using your stick in a way that is just completely unnecessary? Is it on an unsuspecting player, someone who’s not prepared for the contact, that type of thing? Those are all things that we’ll look at once we’ve established that a rule is broken. The fine limit is something that we’re not always happy about. I know fans see that a lot where a player cross-checks somebody up high and gets a $2,000 fine.

And we see tweets like, “That’s in his couch cushion!” Or everyone’s confused why there’s 16 cents tacked onto the end of a fine for a player. So to clarify that briefly: We are allowed to fine players up to one half of one day’s pay up to $5,000 without a hearing and up to $10,000 if we have a hearing. So for a lot of players in the league, the maximum we’re allowed to fine them is in that $2,000-$3,000 range. That’s a CBA-negotiated limit that we’re capped by. There are times when we think a play doesn’t quite merit a one-game suspension. So we do want to do something. So we know that a $2,000 fine might not be the most punitive thing we can do, but it gets the player on the record. He’s informed that he’s not supposed to do that. We can track the players who are doing those types of plays and that’s what we’re limited by the CBA.

ESPN: Something else that falls into your purview is the skills competition at All-Star. What is the hardest skill to convince players to want to participate in? And what is the easiest one?

Burke: Well, a slightly more fun topic than the supplemental discipline. The easiest skill to get a player to participate in is anything that doesn’t involve much movement. This year, even though there were some nerves with it being a new event, a lot of guys wanted to do shooting stars. There was a lot of demand to be in something that involves taking your skates off, being in jeans and just shooting pucks without having to move. Conversely, the hardest one is always fastest skater.

I will say the last couple of years we’ve had a great group. There are some young guys who have come into the league who were so excited to do fastest skater. I think Mat Barzal would do faster skater every day of the week if we allowed it. When he made his first All-Star Game, their PR guy called and it’s like he’ll do everything and he wants to win fastest skater. And I was like, I love Mat Barzal, great attitude. There’s been some young guys who come into the league who are enjoying it more. But generally, because that’s the only one where you get winded, that has been the least popular one to get guys to participate in.

ESPN: Who’s your white whale, the one player whom you’d love to cast in a skill competition, but he has always said no?

Burke: I mean, I wouldn’t say players have said no. The one thing that we talk about internally a lot is whether we should just be bringing the fastest skaters to All Star and the hardest shooters to All Star and actually do a league-wide testing.[Zdeno] Chara versus [Shea] Weber versus [Colton] Parayko versus [Ryan] Pulock for hardest shot and then, you know, name your 10 fastest guys for fastest skater.

Obviously, there’s a lot of reasons not to do that. But every guy’s been pretty good. We’ve had to cajole some guys and make some trades of if you do this for me this year, you never have to do it again. Which is why if you go back when Nathan MacKinnon did the hardest shot, it was because we ran out of people. And now Nate gets to choose what he does every year because he — despite his very famous line of “Burkey, I shoot muffins. I can’t do that.” — stepped up and did it for me anyway. So he gets to kind of take his event every year going forward because he really helped us out on that one. Yeah, I want to say he was concerned he wouldn’t break the 90s. And I want to say he and Drew Doughty both ended up at like 92, 93. So not our best hardest shot contests ever. But Nate is another one of those guys who’s like, “I’ll do whatever you want, whatever helps, whatever makes us a better experience for the fans.” And we love that attitude.

ESPN: What are you going to do with that top golf shooting stars competition next year to make it better?

Burke: I think we have to tweak a couple parts of that, obviously. I think that it was exactly what we were hoping for in that it was visually spectacular, it was like nothing we’ve ever seen at a hockey game, it was a built for TV and social media event. We need to change the scoring. Obviously, we didn’t anticipate players just only shooting at the one target over and over and over again. So we need to change the scoring up a little bit and change how the targets kind of look and function. But overall, I thought that that was a home run of an event. Steve Mayer is a big, big idea guy. He wants to do things big. He wants to do things differently. He wants to have a spectacle. And I love working for someone like that because no idea is off limits. No idea is too stupid. Let’s throw out all these ideas and see what we can get.

I knew we had a good event because every year while I’m on the bench, my father just texts me and it’s like, “This sucks, so and so is slow, this guy is not trying hard. You shouldn’t put him in this event.” And during shooting star, he didn’t text me anything. At the end of the night, I was like, “What did you think of that event? We’re getting some mixed reviews,” and he goes: “I really liked it actually.” I was like, “‘Oh, we got a grumpy 70-year-old on board with this, we must be doing something right.”

ESPN: You were instrumental in the You Can Play organization. You’ve always been a driving force behind the scenes on diversity of inclusion. Was curious about your thoughts with regards to the St. Louis Blues, who are the only team that did not have a Hockey is for Everyone celebration during a home game. They’re doing it during a viewing party and yet found time to have three different Boy Scout nights.

Burke: Well, because I left You Can Play a couple of years ago and I’m not involved in the day to day there, I don’t know what the process was behind that. I know that when I was there, the Blues were very supportive, very helpful. [Blues GM] Doug Armstrong has been a good friend of the Burke family for a long time and was incredibly helpful on a few different things with You Can Play over the years. So I don’t know what the decision-making process was there. I can’t speak to it. I know they have been incredibly helpful and supportive in the past on these initiatives and it might have just been a scheduling thing. They did just win the Stanley Cup, and there’s a lot going on.

Obviously, I hope that every team in the league recognizes the importance of diversity and inclusion nights, not because they sell tickets, which they do, but even if they didn’t, it would still be the right thing to do to make make sure that underrepresented groups in the hockey world feel welcomed and included in our arenas is something that the league takes very seriously. Kim Davis, who heads up all of our diversity and inclusion initiatives for the league, does such an amazing job of constantly advocating both publicly and behind the scenes to keep pushing things along, to keep encouraging everyone to take the next step. And I think we’ve seen that. I mean, when you look at what the first couple You Can Play nights were where it was, you know, you guys can get 20 tickets and maybe we’ll acknowledge you on the scoreboard at some point too, every year now Madison Square Garden is lit up with rainbow lights and the Carolina Hurricanes‘ Twitter account was phenomenal and aggressively advocating for why diversity and inclusion is important for the Carolina Hurricanes.

We’ve seen it move from “We’ll do this if you leave us alone” to “This is something that’s important to our organization.” We’re seeing a lot more work highlighting women’s hockey, highlighting things like sled hockey, autism nights, mental health and inclusion nights. It’s really been awesome to see the hockey community grow in the last 10 years. And what we’ve seen go from what used to be aggressive is now the bare minimum teams can do. And what used to be seen as a total pipe dream is now something very normal for our teams.