Fighting words

And just when the free-agent frenzy starts to fizzle, we bring you Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe, Part Deux.

Those lovable Western Conference rival general managers have renewed their war of words, and it’s getting hard to tell who is being serious and who is pulling our chains.

Hey, no complaints here. There’s plenty of trash talk on the ice, it just rarely finds its way into print. So to have a pair of respected NHL executives popping off makes for great fodder. It brings the league attention in a different light, and that’s OK, too.

The spat is traced to last summer when Lowe tendered an offer sheet to then-Ducks restricted free-agent Dustin Penner, a blossoming power forward who capped a 25-goal rookie season with eight points during Anaheim’s run to its first Stanley Cup.

Approaching vulnerable teams with this tactic had been taboo for a number of years – though it’s another avenue GM’s can use to try to strengthen their teams. And when Lowe’s attempts to lure Buffalo’s Tomas Vanek with a similar tactic failed once the Sabres matched a $50-million offer sheet, the Oilers’ GM turned his attention to Burke’s tight-salaried Ducks.

The loudest criticism for Lowe’s successful five-year, $21.25-million offer to Penner came from Burke, who was basically handcuffed by the salary cap and the number of other significant, core Ducks he needed to keep. As he later explained, Burke didn’t have as much of a problem with attempting to steal the restricted free agent as much as how large the offer was to Penner.

And Burke, who allowed the seven days to retain Penner at the offer-sheet value to pass, was upset that he was initially notified of Lowe’s move via fax from Penner’s agent, instead of with a call from the rival GM himself. For that Burke referred to Lowe as “gutless.”

Fast forward to Tuesday, when on the opening of the free-agent period the only move made by the Ducks on Day 1 was to announce a contract extension for young restricted free-agent forward Corey Perry, a five-year deal worth $26.63 million.

Burke took the opportunity to stoke the flickering embers of his feud, tracing the salary climate of inflation for a player’s second contract to Lowe’s snatch of Penner.

“You go right now from entry-level to what used to be the third contract, thanks to two offer sheets from Kevin Lowe,” Burke said during a conference call, comments that were printed in the Los Angeles Times.

Burke prefaced comments about inflated salaries with “Most (general) managers don’t like starting fights with any other managers.” Well, Burke seems to have definitely started one.

During a radio interview Friday with Edmonton’s Team 1260, Lowe lashed back, and he came hard and strong.

“He’s a moron, first of all,” Lowe said of Burke, in quotes that appeared on TSN.ca “Secondly, he really believes that any news for the NHL is good news. Thirdly, he loves the limelight and I don’t think anyone in hockey will dispute that. Lastly, he’s in a pathetic hockey market where they can’t get on any page of the newspaper let alone the front page of the sports, so any of this stuff carries on.”

The first three points fall under the category of Lowe being entitled to his opinion. The fourth point, which refers to Anaheim’s market, lacks any factual basis and results in Lowe losing a bit of credibility.

While the Ducks can’t claim the ravenous support and lavish media attention the Oilers enjoy, Anaheim has a streak of 77 straight sellouts going into next season. And the Orange County Register, the region’s largest newspaper, displays stories about the Ducks as prominently as in any U.S. market that has a hockey team. In addition, the Los Angeles Times has a traveling beat writer covering the team.

That’s not a “pathetic hockey market.” The NHL is certainly not first and foremost amongst the sun-loving Orange County crowd, but as a market it certainly ranks with or ahead of at least half of the current U.S. markets.

But we’re not going to bash Lowe for his lack of knowledge of markets and media. For someone in his position, who cares anyhow? A common thread in his follow-up comments Friday was a personal attack on Burke, which at times was more comical than biting.

“This guy is an absolute media junkie and I guess he’s achieving what he wants because he gets his name in the headlines,” Lowe told the Team 1260. “But the reality is, I hate the fact that my name is linked to his. He’s an underachieving wanna-be in terms of success in the NHL. He won a Stanley Cup? Great. I’ve won six Stanley Cups, you want to count rings? Who cares, it’s just a little pathetic that he carries on.”

How classic is that, Lowe flaunting his hardware. Lowe toiled 19 seasons in the NHL, scoring as many as 10 goals once, and never eclipsing 46 points in a season. He appeared in 1,254 games, was durable, dependable and showed leadership skills. But without playing with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, etc., in Edmonton, and Mark Messier in New York, Lowe probably wouldn’t be boasting six rings. To say the least, he had plenty of help along the way.

The irony of Burke winning his first Cup two years ago is that one of the key pieces – veteran defenseman Chris Pronger – came via trade from Edmonton. Lowe struck the best deal he could once Pronger insisted on a trade, and it just so happened Burke and Anaheim were willing to offer more than the other teams in the bidding including San Jose, Philadelphia, Florida and Los Angeles.

I would disagree that Burke seeks out media attention. He’s passionate about hockey, just like everyone else in his position, and he loves to talk about it in an intelligent manner with anyone who asks him a question. And he has opinions he’s not afraid to share – couldn’t the game use a few more people like that?

Lowe recanted a conversation he had with Dean Lombardi in which the Kings’ GM needed to be convinced that the feud wasn’t just a charade. Not only did Lowe set Lombardi straight, but he dragged Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish into the mud-slinging.

“Mac T said it best – he’s (Burke) like the Wizard of Oz, you pull the curtains away and there’s not much substance.”

Lowe and MacTavish are ex-teammates and lifelong friends, but talk about putting your coach in an awkward position. Lowe defended the money he threw at Penner by suggesting previous contracts awarded to Columbus’ Rick Nash, Boston’s Patrice Bergeron and Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk were the ones responsible for driving up salaries of young stars. Truth is, virtually every contract – unless it’s signed in New Jersey or Detroit – seems to top the last one.

General managers have always struggled with holding the bottom line. It’s the nature of the business. If you see something you want, you are inclined to offer more than the next guy. And what rarely comes out during negotiations is how teams are played against each other in a bidding war for a player.

Lowe supplied plenty of other juicy quotes with regards to Burke’s work as GM in Vancouver, his pursuit of Scott Niedermayer and the Perry negotiations. In a time when no one wants to ruffle any feathers, it’s actually good, if not entertaining, to see these two go at it. Stay tuned, it doesn’t look like this one is going to fizzle out any time soon.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Jul 5, 2008