By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (July 7) – Opinions about whether Brian Burke did something “wrong” by visiting our troops in Afghanistan on Canada Day – free agent day in the National Hockey League – are predictably widespread and diverse. Any such decision by the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs is going to be scrutinized in today’s expanding, competitive media climate, as Burke understands. What I believe Burke struggles with is the notion that his absence last Friday somehow compromised the hockey club in its pursuit of the best player on the market: Dallas Stars centre Brad Richards. And that’s where I contend the accent is on the wrong syllable.
My opinion, though reflective, is not governed by hindsight. I wrote in this space more than a week ago that Richards had neither a craving, nor any particular reason, to sign with the Maple Leafs, and that he was – as widely speculated – the New York Rangers’ player to “lose”. If Richards wanted badly enough to play in Manhattan (which proved correct), there was essentially nothing the Leafs could offer him that the Rangers couldn’t. Even such a team as Los Angeles had an edge over the Leafs, given the southern-California climate during the hockey season, and the Kings upward mobility in the standings; L.A. did provide Richards reason to pause.
The misplaced anxiety in this market involved the potential that Burke may have blown an opportunity to land Richards by being in Kandahar. My friend Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun – among the most widely-read sports columnists in North America – wrote a pointed article that offered such a notion but was more specifically concerned with the optics of the Burke visit; Steve did not question the GM’s nobility, just his timing (many others pondered the same).
MAPLE LEAFS GM BRIAN BURKE WITH CANADIAN TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN.
Such inclination, however, might have been avoided, or allayed, by considering Burke’s modus operandi.
This is the same hockey manager, for example, that traveled to Sweden on three occasions in pursuit of goalie Jonas Gusatvsson; offered to attend the funeral of the young player’s mother, and made certain to be in Stockholm at noon Eastern Time on July 1, 2009, just in case the Vancouver Canucks took leave of their senses. Had that occurred, Burke would have flown back to Toronto with Henrik and Daniel Sedin under contract. So, we’re not talking about a guy that doesn’t understand proactivity.
In the late-summer of 2009, Burke would have moved in temporarily with Phil Kessel in order to assure the Boston forward of his trade plans and soothe any apprehension. Unfortunately for Brian, NHL tampering regulations discouraged such intent. His free agent acquisitions from the U.S. college system were made in a competitive environment.
Therefore, as it pertains to Burke’s Afghanistan trip, I have to think that if the Leafs’ GM, a) wanted Richards without reservation; b) felt he could comfortably structure a contract with the player’s agent, Pat Morris, and c) had any legitimate belief that Richards yearned to live and perform in Toronto, he would have visited the troops on July 3rd or 4th… not the 1st or 2nd. Say what you want about Burke, but the guy does know how to close a deal.
In this circumstance – mapped out weeks beforehand – Burke chose to make a cursory (though genuine) offer to Richards, undoubtedly with the knowledge he had almost no chance to land the player in the absence of a decade-long commitment. Sensibly or otherwise, Burke refuses to front-load multiple-year deals; preferring to offer uniform sums over a shorter period (if I’m a player, I’d be happy making big money for three or four years, then determining if I wished to play somewhere else).
Today’s mega-stars are content, it seems, to lock themselves into one location for “life” – perhaps as a safeguard against injury. The concept of a nine or ten-year deal appeared to be on the ropes after the legal brouhaha over Ilya Kovalchuk’s arrangement with New Jersey last summer, and Burke claims the Richards deal similarly contravenes the salary cap.
BURKE UNDERSTOOD THAT BRAD RICHARDS (ABOVE) ONLY HAD EYES FOR NEW YORK.
Given his lack of conviction involving the PEI native, Burke felt more than comfortable leaving the club’s open-market negotiation with his trusted lieutenant, David Nonis, who handles the nuts-and-bolts of a contract the way Bill Watters once did for Cliff Fletcher and Pat Quinn. Clearly, Burke surmised his absence would have no ill bearing on the Leafs more reasonable pursuit of centre Tim Connolly from Buffalo.
This doesn’t invalidate the question Simmons posed in his column last week. But neither – in my mind – did Brian’s goodwill journey to the desert have any significant impact on Richards’ choice of team.
END-NOTE: My “baby” sister, Cori, was born on July 7, 1961. Happy 50th Coco!