Longtime NHL executives Brian Burke and Mike O’Connell are in a public, you-callin’-me-a-liar spat concerning the 2005 blockbuster trade that sent Joe Thornton out of Boston.
It centers on an enticing trade offer supposedly made by Burke, then the Anaheim general manager. Burke, the Ducks general manager from 2005-08, recalled when he learned O’Connell was shopping Thornton in the fall of 2005, he was determined to win the bidding.
“I tried desperately to get Joe Thornton to Anaheim,” wrote Burke, now a commentator for Sportsnet in Canada, during a Twitter Q&A last Thursday. “I thought we beat the offer that got accepted.”
Burke proposed to O’Connell, the Bruins’ GM from 2000-06, a deal that would protect five players on Anaheim’s roster. O’Connell “could take whoever he had ranked 6th,” Burke wrote. “No restrictions. Then I’d add another roster player, a prospect, and a first [-round pick]. I’m still bitter we didn’t get him.”
O’Connell disputed Burke’s account. In a story posted Tuesday on The Athletic, O’Connell said Burke’s story was “fabricated … No such offer was made to me as I never informed Anaheim of my intentions to trade Joe Thornton,” said O’Connell, who has led the Kings’ player development sector since he was fired by the Bruins in March 2006.
“Unfortunately,” O’Connell added, “certain personalities never let the truth get in the way of their ultimate goal, self-promotion.”
Burke, appearing Tuesday on ESPN’s Ice podcast, said O’Connell’s comments were “unfortunate, because Mike and I were friends once.”
Burke said O’Connell was “quite upset” when he called him last Friday to claim the exchange never happened.
“I said, ‘Hang on a second. I can see if you’re saying I got a detail wrong. Maybe it was six players I’d protect,’ ” recalled Burke, growing incredulous. ‘You’re telling me this never happened? That’s your answer?’
“And he said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You fabricated this.’ I said, ‘First off, I wish we were in the same room. If you’re calling me a liar, I wish we were in the same room. I’ve been accused of many things, but certainly not being untruthful.’
“I said, ‘Second problem you have, Mike, is that I wasn’t alone when I made this offer. [Then-assistant GM] Bob Murray was sitting right there at my desk. In fact, it was Bob who came in and said, ‘I heard they’re trading him to San Jose. We’ve got to hijack this trade.’ I said, ‘Let’s protect six,’ and he said, ‘Let’s make it better than that, we’ll protect five.’ I called and made the offer with Bob sitting three feet away.
Murray, now the Ducks GM, did not immediately return a message from the Globe on Tuesday.
“So I think it’s a bizarre defense,” said Burke, a product of Providence College and Harvard Law. “He knows he made a bad deal. He got a lot of heat afterwards for not shopping him properly. You’re going to trade a player of that caliber, you’ve got to offer him to every team that might have an interest and get the best offer you can. He tried to move him quietly. Didn’t make a good deal. And I guess he’s taking it out on me.”
In hindsight: considering the strength of Burke’s roster, it's quite possible O’Connell would have found a better deal with the Ducks.
The 2005-06 Ducks, who won the Stanley Cup the following season, had future Hall of Famers (Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer), standouts in their mid-20s (Chris Kunitz, who went on to win four Stanley Cups, and 85-point center Andy McDonald) and future stars (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, both 20 at the time, and 22-year-old Joffrey Lupul). Anaheim surely would have kept starting goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere. It’s unclear if 25-year-old defenseman Francois Beauchemin, who arrived that Nov. 15, was in the mix when Burke and O’Connell were supposedly talking.
The Bruins instead got 75 cents on the dollar — or Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau — when they dealt Thornton that Nov. 30.
The speedy Sturm spent five years in Boston, producing 193 points in 302 games before knee injuries took their toll. Stuart and Primeau lasted two seasons before they were shipped to Calgary in a deal for Andrew Ference and Chuck Kobasew.
Thornton, won the Hart Trophy that season (29 goals, 96 assists, 125 points), has been a Shark ever since. Nearing age 41, he remains in search of his first Stanley Cup.