‘Thanks for having me on, Dan’: Brian Burke as Sportstalk’s best guest ever

An excerpt from Dan Russell’s memoir, which recounts the highs and lows of hosting a call-in radio sports show in Vancouver for three decades.

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In Pleasant Good Evening — A Memoir: My 30 Wild and Turbulent Years of Sportstalk, host Dan Russell recounts the highs and lows of hosting a call-in radio sports program in Vancouver for three decades. Here is an excerpt:

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Show me any successful venture and I’ll find you a turning point.

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Sportstalk is no exception.

Ours occurred on June 3, 1987, the day Vancouver Canucks general manager Pat Quinn hired Brian Burke to be his director of hockey operations. That night we sent the Sportstalk limo to the Burnaby Villa to deliver us the man who would become our greatest guest.

I’m not kidding about the limo. For a few years we had a “contra deal” with a limo company to fetch our guests and transport them to and from our studio. That is until a B.C. Lions player — whom I won’t name — gathered a couple of his buddies and took our limo for an extra-long post-show joyride through Stanley Park, ran up a huge long-distance cellphone bill, and neither paid nor tipped the driver. Sadly, that was the end of our great limo deal.

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Burke may have liked his nice ride, but he was blown away by the forum we offered and the phone response. Before sending him back in the limo, I said something along the lines of, “It’d sure be cool if you could come on regularly.”

“I’ll come on every week,” he quickly said.

“Really?” I said, not yet knowing how much Burke was going to adore media attention.

I wasn’t convinced he meant every week. But he did. And it was ground-breaking. Every week of the year, no matter where he was, he wouldn’t miss. He could be on a Hawaiian vacation with his wife, a ski trip with his kids, fishing with his pals or wherever his hockey business took him. He never missed. Wednesday nights meant the “Weekly Canucks Update with Brian Burke,” and it wasn’t long before that became appointment radio. According to Burke, it was the first time any executive from a major sports team had done a weekly call-in radio show. Smart, outspoken, funny, quick, passionate and loyal. As a host you look for a couple of those traits in a potential guest. Burke checked all six boxes.

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“Thanks for having me on, Dan” was the comforting way he began and ended every show.

When Irish eyes were smiling, St. Patrick’s Day 1989: Canucks staff (clockwise from bottom) Mike Murphy, Bob McCammon, Brian Burke, president and GM Pat Quinn and Jack McIlhargey.
When Irish eyes were smiling, St. Patrick’s Day 1989: Canucks staff (clockwise from bottom) Mike Murphy, Bob McCammon, Brian Burke, president and GM Pat Quinn and Jack McIlhargey. Photo by Ralph Bower /PNG files

On occasion, when Burke was somewhere in Europe, we’d have to wake him because of the time difference. While he was on the air, producer Scott Woodgate would call back the hotel and order breakfast to his room. It was always amusing to hear Burke stop talking on air in mid-thought to tell us someone was knocking on the door.

“If this is breakfast again, I’m going to ring Woodgate’s neck,” he’d say with fake anger.

It was good radio fun to hear Burke put down the phone, prompting me to do a play-by-play of him opening the door, predicting he’d stiff the room service waiter of a tip, hearing him mumble as he brought his breakfast tray back to the phone, and then asking him to describe to our listeners what Woodgate had ordered. Burke always played along so well. He was a natural for our medium, and it totally endeared him to our growing number of listeners. He loved those kinds of moments as much as we did. Also, he never asked us to pay the room service charge.

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“What started off as a professional relationship turned very quickly into a very close personal relationship,” Burke recalled years later. “I think he’s a tremendous radio personality, and I consider Dan to be one of my closest and best friends.”

Too close as it would turn out. But not yet.

Burke didn’t invent our show, no matter how many times I reminded him of that. However, he greatly accelerated our growth. I was in my mid-twenties and beginning to enjoy what Sportstalk was becoming. Burke offered tremendous access, including allowing me to hang out at his office and overhear some of his hockey calls. He also helped secure guests from around the NHL and was always suggesting ways to further boost the show’s impact.

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Unquestionably the first phase of our relationship was a win-win, even though I was occasionally uncomfortable when he would overstep his bounds, not so much by guest suggestions, but when he tried to alter my opinions. Our relationship being what it was, I’d usually tell him something along the lines of, “Why don’t you concern yourself with your last-place hockey club and let me worry about the content of my first-place show.” Burke’s usual response would be something like “F— you.”

Make no mistake — Burke loved Sportstalk’s bully pulpit where he was able to spread the word according to the Canucks or himself (most often that word was the same), but there were times when Quinn would get angry over something Burke had said. For example, there was the time when Burke created this national headline: “Burke threatens to fight own defenceman Doug Lidster.” Well, that’s how it was reported. But to put it in proper context, Burke was frustrated with Lidster’s contract negotiations and how Lidster talked about his options in the media. That’s when Burke said, “If I’m his teammate, we probably have a fight the next day in practice.”

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Even though the media chose to omit “If I’m his teammate” and “probably,” I was OK with this as it again raised Sportstalk’s profile by a couple of notches.


Read more excerpts from Pleasant Good Evening — A Memoir: My 30 Wild and Turbulent Years of Sportstalk:

• Excerpt 1: ‘Sportstalk, go ahead’: Starting a Vancouver radio talk show juggernaut
• Excerpt: 2: ‘Thanks for having me on, Dan’: Brian Burke as Sportstalk’s best guest ever
• Excerpt 3: With ‘McKeachie-isms … you never know’: A dear, maddening friend to Sportstalk
• Excerpt 4: ‘Critique so stinging, so biting, so brilliant’: ‘The Pauser’ called some shots on air, and off, at Sportstalk
• Excerpt 5: ‘We connected’: Recalling Sportstalk’s night in ’94 riven by Rangers and riots

For more information, visit danrussellsportstalk.com.

Cover of Pleasant Good Evening — A Memoir: My 30 Wild and Turbulent Years of Sportstalk.
Cover of Pleasant Good Evening — A Memoir: My 30 Wild and Turbulent Years of Sportstalk. Photo by Tellwell

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