By HOWARD BERGER
BOSTON (Mar. 19) – The anticipated result of a request I made on Twitter and Facebook over the weekend did not materialize.
When I asked fans of the Maple Leafs to email their rational opinions of general manager Brian Burke – no tantrums accepted – I figured submissions would be brimming with unconcealed frustration over the collapse of the team in February; that I would have to inject a modicum of balance into this blog.
Turns out my suspicion was premature.
Though disenchantment was clearly evident in most replies, fans seemed willing to accept that Burke needs more time to develop a winning combination. The next year (or less) will determine, a) whether such reflection was justified; b) whether new ownership maintains faith in Burke, or c) whether the tempered remarks were a knee-jerk reaction to Leafs winning successive games for the first time in nearly six weeks (yes, the word “playoffs” re-appeared in the vocabulary of the most dyed-in-the-wool supporters). Whatever the case, the torrent of vitriol I expected was not forthcoming.
Here, then, is a selection of the emails I received – edited only for spelling and reasonable grammar, not for content. After each submission, I offer my own view:
BRAD MITCHELL FROM CALGARY wrote: “Hi Howard. Here’s my opinion of Brian Burke. Having never met him, I can only go by his hundreds of TV appearances and his accomplishments in the NHL. I think he’s an admirable and strong man. The grief he’s dealing with, and the way he’s embraced Brendan’s legacy, confirms my perception of Brian as a man. I think he’s an excellent entertainer. No previous general manager in Toronto so commanded the attention of others. When Burke talks, I can’t wait to hear what he’ll say next. I think he’s an average GM and a bit over-rated, resulting from the ‘home runs’ he hit (drafting the Sedins and trading for Chris Pronger). I believe he is paid accordingly to deal with that burden. But, I do feel badly for him. I get the feeling his lack of success in Toronto is driving him to an early grave. And, that’s too bad.”
RESPONSE: Given your location, Brad (well-removed from the incessant hockey-mania of Toronto), I find you to be quite perceptive and I feel Burke would appreciate much of what you wrote. Let’s not get carried away with the “early-grave” talk. Yes, I wrote a blog in this corner from Tampa last week expressing concern over Burke’s appearance, but I have no clue as to his level of health, or his anxiety threshold. After winning a Stanley Cup in Anaheim, he strongly desired to ply his trade in a more hockey-centric environment and he picked a doozie of a spot. The concept of being over-rated is purely subjective. Brian has long been the master of the big move and it isn’t fair to minimize the “home runs” you suggested. I think you can appreciate the considerable guile it took to procure Henrik and Daniel Sedin in successive, first-round draft picks in 1999, and more than a dozen teams were drooling over the specter of landing Pronger when he suddenly became available from Edmonton in the summer of 2006. Burke also signed Scott Niedermayer and Jonas Hiller as free agents; drafted Bobby Ryan; traded with Columbus for Francois Beauchemin, who played well in the 2007 Cup run, and brought Teemu Selanne back to the Ducks [in 2005] when most others felt he was fading. Selanne responded with seasons of 48, 31 and 27 goals (twice), while contributing five goals and 15 points in the ’07 playoffs. So, Brian made some fairly decent moves. And, you are absolutely bang-on in your assessment of Burke as a tireless advocate of the causes dear to his late son.
BRIAN BURKE WITH SON, BRENDAN, THE NIGHT ANAHEIM WON THE 2007 STANLEY CUP. BRENDAN WAS KILLED IN AN AUTOMOBILE ACCIDENT NEARLY 14 MONTHS AGO, AFTER BRAVELY AND UNAPOLOGETICALLY ANNOUNCING HE WAS GAY.
KEN QUARRY FROM CAMBRIDGE, ONT. wrote: “Howard, I had a lot of confidence in Brian Burke when he was hired, but it’s fading. Burke has to start backing up what he says with action. He said he would build his team ‘from the goal, out’ and that hasn’t happened. Even a casual fan can see the Leafs goaltending is sub-standard. Why didn’t he take action at the trade deadline to find some goaltending insurance? The other obvious deficiency is the lack of a No. 1 centre. Surely, Burke could have found one in the past three years. Brian has also mis-managed the payroll, vastly overspending on under-performing assets. His trades have been excellent, for the most part, but his free agent signings have been duds. He (and new coach Randy Carlyle) expect a ‘truculent’ team, but the Sunday-night oldtimers I play with have more truculence than the Leafs. There is no identity; no leadership; no Gilmour or Clark. I used to think Leafs would win the Stanley Cup again in my lifetime. Now, I wonder if they’ll even make it to the playoffs.”
RESPONSE: Well, Ken, you haven’t unfairly summarized Burke to this point in his Leafs tenure. Much of what you say rings true – particularly his mis-firing on the open market (Mike Komisarek, Beauchemin, Colby Armstrong, Christian Hanson, Tim Connolly, Colton Orr, Philippe Dupuis), though the jury isn’t out yet on Armstrong and Connolly. And, other, less-heralded signings are contributing (or still may) – Tyler Bozak, Jonas Gustavsson, Clarke MacArthur, Joey Crabb, Marcel Mueller, Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens. Burke suggesting how he plans to structure the Leafs – and his ability to do so – aren’t one of the same. Most of the other 29 teams have similar requirements. Creating a problem is Brian’s unwillingness or inability to temper remarks. Everything he says, he says forcefully – with a tone of conviction and assurance. That isn’t necessarily a flaw, but it can become rather haunting when objectives aren’t met. You may be most accurate, Ken, when you question the club’s leadership. A trusted voice or two – either among coaches or players – should have been able to help arrest the Leafs’ February freefall. The club wasn’t nearly as horrific as it appeared, yet the spiral continued unabated, destroying playoff aspiration once again.
LONG-TIME LEAF SUPPORTERS STILL YEARN FOR THE GRIT AND DETERMINATION OF THE WENDEL CLARK-DOUG GILMOUR ERA, FEELING IT HAS NEVER BEEN REPLACED.
ED FROM SUDBURY, ONT. wrote: “Brian Burke’s resume speaks for itself. Look what he has done and accomplished. Winning a championship is not an easy task. The difference, as I see it, is he is now in the ‘eye of the storm’… the centre of the hockey universe as we know it. He inherited a culture of ‘get by with what you have’ – entrenched here in the Harold Ballard era – with no motivation to win in a city that accepts losing. Every move Mr. Burke makes is dissected for days, weeks and months across more [media] platforms than have ever been available. How could anyone, other than Superman, succeed under such scrutiny? Perhaps everyone should just back off and allow the man and his team to evolve. Yes, he has made mistakes: perhaps the most glaring involving his friendship with Ron Wilson. But, I would suggest nothing short of a complete media ban. The players know they aren’t playing well. Do they really need a constant reminder of their failing? Remember when you were 19-22? It’s a wonder these kids can get anything accomplished.”
RESPONSE: Oh, cry me a river, Ed. Yes, I remember when I first began to work, at age 20. My starting salary was $175 a week, not $850,000 a year. Your description of the effect Toronto’s hockey coverage has on players and management may be true. But, remember two things: a) it wasn’t created for Brian Burke or anyone else currently folding beneath its weight. Burke readily and knowingly stepped into a maelstrom that existed for many years before he arrived. Same with Wilson and all his moaning. No one put a gun to Ron’s head when Cliff Fletcher offered him the coaching job in 2008. He took it, barely four months after telling reporters at the NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta how he couldn’t imagine himself in such a suffocating hockey environment. And b) a media ban – which is not legal, by the way – would cause you a nervous breakdown. The escalating media monster in Toronto is there for one purpose: to “feed the beast” of which you are part. The appetite for news and opinion on the Leafs has no current boundary. I think you understand that. I know Burke does.
RON WILSON: CHOSE TO STEP INTO THE “UNIMAGINABLE.”
CHRIS McGUIRK IN APPLETON, WISC. wrote: “Mr. Burke promised a ‘truculent’ team when taking the job. I am hard-pressed to find a player on the current roster – aside from Mike Brown, a fourth-liner – that fits the description. Leafs are a very easy team to play against. There is no ‘fear-factor’ whatsoever, especially among the top six forwards. I commend Mr. Burke for his stance on ‘rats’ but let’s face it: they do become necessary at times. Would the Bruins, for example, have won the Cup last year without Brad Marchand? These are the frustrated ramblings of a former Thornhill resident now living in Wisconsin.”
RESPONSE: I wouldn’t be surprised, Chris, if Burke never-again wanted to hear or read the word “truculence”. I’m also convinced he would have hired a different speech-writer in November 2008 if he knew how the circumstance would evolve. With a fourth consecutive playoff absence staring him in the face, “truculence” has become almost a mocking term, hasn’t it? That said, there’s a significant point to be made: Though Burke strongly stated his desire to form a pugilistic team, he never promised anything. His words sounded like a promise, because Burke – as stated – cannot make a tempered claim. But, he never guaranteed he would assemble such a group; merely stating his clubs had historically been equal parts of all those ornate adjectives. The players he acquired to lead the way – Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill – were not skilled enough to play regularly on a shallow team. In the rare moments the Leafs are moved to perform aggressively, as with each trip into Ottawa, they appear closer to the team Burke covets. But, it is certainly not their nature.
“OLD-TIME HOCKEY”… BRIAN BURKE STILL ENVISIONS IT IN TORONTO.
DAVID SLOTNICK OF WILLOWDALE, ONT. wrote: “My comment on Brian Burke is simple… he was hired to get the Leafs into the playoffs and he’s failed. His job was to acquire players his coach can win with. Burke has failed to do that and the club has failed, as a result. He just fired a coach. If Leafs are not in the playoffs this April, he should be next to go.”
RESPONSE: Your sentiment – fairly or otherwise – is gaining momentum among Leaf fans, David, though I cannot see any significant managerial moves being made until the ownership transfer is complete. Even at that, Burke’s major fault is talking a bigger game than he’s been able to deliver. Though he was hoping to affect a quick turnaround, no one reasonably anticipated he would have the Leafs on a Stanley Cup path 3 1/2 years into his tenure. But, I do think ownership believed the club would have minimally appeared in the playoffs by now, and reaped its financial benefit. That Burke hasn’t yet delivered on that part of the job, and all of its economic implications, may be a point of contention with new ownership.
MAY 4, 2004: BECOMING A DATE OF INFAMY, AS JEREMY ROENICK’S OVERTIME GOAL SIGNIFIED THE LAST PLAYOFF MOMENT FOR THE LEAFS.
BRENT IN BURLINGTON, ONT. wrote: “My only thought on Brian Burke is that he talks too much. The more he says, the harder it is to be a Leafs fan. We are angry because of all the B.S. he spews in interviews. Enough! I am 44 years old and this is one of the most frustrating seasons. This team had a chance to make the playoffs. Burke says winning is the only thing. Now what? I don’t see a realistic shot at winning for a long time.”
RESPONSE: Fair enough, Brent, but if it’s true – as stated above – that Burke and Wilson came into an existing environment, the Leafs and their fans could not have expected Burke to suddenly reverse his nature. It’s like hoping our wives will one day enjoy watching the Three Stooges. Some things just aren’t meant to be. Burke has abundant confidence in his ability as a hockey man and he isn’t afraid to say so. He also has a Stanley Cup ring as evidence he can (or could) back up his claims. I think people concentrate too much on what is said, while still adhering to the notion that action speaks louder than words. My sense is you would be just as disappointed in the Leafs right now if they were managed by an individual without media savvy.
NO, BRIAN BURKE WILL NOT COVER HIS MOUTH. WHY WOULD ANYONE EXPECT THAT?
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I flew from Toronto to Boston on a beautiful, late-afternoon Sunday. My photo-log:
JUST BEFORE TAKING OFF ON RUNWAY 24-R AT PEARSON AIRPORT, A LUFTHANSA AIRLINES AIRBUS-340 LANDED IN FRONT OF US (ABOVE). WE THEN PASSED IT (BELOW) SECONDS AFTER LEAVING THE GROUND.
TURNING SOUTH, WE PASSED A BAND OF RAIN SHOWERS (ABOVE) BEFORE HEADING OUT OVER LAKE ONTARIO, WHERE PUFFY CLOUD-FORMATIONS (BELOW) WERE INDICATIVE OF THE UNUSUALLY WARM WEATHER AT THIS TIME OF YEAR.
A SKI RESORT (ABOVE) IN THE OTHERWISE-SNOWLESS ADIRONACK MOUNTAINS NORTHWEST OF BOSTON.
PASSING BY DOWNTOWN BOSTON (ABOVE). TD GARDEN, HOME OF THE BRUINS AND CELTICS, IS NEAR BOTTOM-RIGHT OF PHOTO WITH WHITE ROOF.
ALL OF LOGAN AIRPORT CAN BE SEEN IN THE ABOVE PHOTO AND BELOW-LEFT. AFTER BARRELING OUT 15 MILES OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN, WE TURNED BACK TOWARD THE CITY.
LATE-AFTERNOON SUN CASTS A GOLDEN GLOW ON THE RIPPLING OCEAN (ABOVE).
VIEWS ABOVE AND BELOW OUT RIGHT-SIDE WINDOW ON FINAL APPROACH TO AIRPORT.
SUN WAS LOW IN THE WESTERN SKY (ABOVE) AS WE LANDED IN BOSTON.
ENTERING THE “BIG DIG” (ABOVE) AS IT’S KNOWN HERE IN BOSTON – THE UNDERGROUND PASSAGEWAY (BELOW) CONSTRUCTED IN THE EARLY PART OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM.
DRIVING THROUGH THE “BIG DIG” (ABOVE-LEFT) – AS SEEN WITH “FIREWORKS” FUNCTION ON MY CAMERA. THE UNION OYSTER HOUSE HAS BEEN A DOWNTOWN MAINSTAY FOR YEARS.
PULLING UP AT MY HOTEL (ABOVE) – TWO BLOCKS FROM TD GARDEN.
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