Farrell, Burke and Bountiful Deception

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 23) – In the public arena, there is nothing so humdrum as denial. Whether in sports, politics, entertainment – any community, in fact, with widespread acclaim – denial is almost always affirmation.

A stark reminder of this occurred over the weekend when the worst-kept secret in baseball unfolded. John Farrell, long rumored to be opting out of his agreement as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, took his act – and a chunk of reputation – to Boston. On the shock meter, out of 10, it failed to register a one. Carefully planted, a leak out of Red Sox Nation during the past year all but confirmed the club’s former pitching coach would jilt Toronto at the first reasonable opportunity. Denial abounded – in both cities.

So as to present an appearance of spontaneity, Farrell and his new/old team waited three weeks from end of season to enact the ploy.

Deception today, of course, is nourished by the blustery Internet. As pilot-author Patrick Smith wrote: “The Internet has become a sort of Dark Ages incubator of myth and misinformation – pseudo-truth spread by the tap of a SEND button.” As such, fact and fiction have merged in our society. 

The Boston charade, to be fair, was merely the latest in a deluge of mainstream blarney. Individuals and companies believe they can yank the wool over the public’s eye. Generally, they cannot and merit fades with persistence. It happened here in Toronto – though understandably – with Brian Burke, and I had slight involvement on the periphery.

As general manager of the Anaheim Ducks, a team buried in the Los Angeles sporting landscape, Burke adroitly acquired the final components of a Stanley Cup team. Adding Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer in consecutive summers put Anaheim over the top in 2006-07. Thereafter, nothing remained for Burke to accomplish in the anonymity of southern California. He began to seek a more conspicuous challenge.

Richard Peddie - Brian Burke Press Conference

AFTER MORE THAN A YEAR OF SPECULATION, BRIAN BURKE – SEATED NEXT TO FORMER CEO RICHARD PEDDIE – ASSUMES CONTROL OF THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS ON NOV. 29, 2008.

With absolutely no-such inkling, I parked myself at a table in the Air Canada Centre media lounge exactly five years ago tonight – Oct. 23, 2007. Atlanta Thrashers were in town to play the Maple Leafs. Across from me sat one of the most involved, recognizable figures in the National Hockey League.

Without prompting, the NHL executive said, “You know, Brian Burke wants out of Anaheim. It wouldn’t surprise me if he wound up in this city. Remember where you heard it.”

What a tantalizing morsel of information. Confident that my dinner companion would not lead me astray, I covered the Leafs-Atlanta game and got on a plane to Pittsburgh the following afternoon. While camped in the Doubletree Guest Suites across from old Mellon Arena – and with Leafs in town for a Thursday-night match with the Penguins – I carefully hammered out the following expose for The Fan-590 website:       

PITTSBURGH (Oct. 24) – Let me begin this column by stating facts. Brian Burke is general manager of the Anaheim Ducks and is contractually bound to the defending Stanley Cup champion until the end of the 2008-09 season. His signature bold moves – acquiring Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, two of the top three defencemen in the NHL (Nick Lidstrom being the other) – lifted Anaheim from middling rank to league titlist in the span of two summers. Granted complete autonomy in the Ducks’ operation, Burke has proven to be among the best GMs in the 30-team circuit.

John Ferguson is general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs – a previously storied franchise that hasn’t played in the Stanley Cup final since 1967. Unlike Burke, and virtually every other manager in the NHL, Ferguson has no contractual security, and is bound to the Leafs only by the option year of his current deal. During his five-year term in Toronto, he has never operated with a semblance of autonomy – the result of an unremitting quarrel over merit in the multi-tiered directorship that employs him. Many argue he has not made bold moves and has been extravagant in retaining players with limited pedigree. He is considered, by no person, among the best in his line of work, though my own opinion of the man has not changed. I simply do not know how good a hockey executive Ferguson can be, since he has never worked in an environment conducive to success. I therefore have not, and will not, advocate his demise.

As of now, there has been no indication, publicly, that Burke is unfulfilled in Anaheim, or would be inclined to leave the Ducks when his contract expires. It is not beyond the realm that he could extend his deal with Henry and Susan Samueli, and finish his career on the west coast. And though speculation is boundless that Ferguson will not survive the current season in Toronto, there is nothing of substance to indicate that he is in imminent peril with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. In fact, the chairman of MLSE, Larry Tanenbaum, told me on Monday that the company is prepared to remain “patient” with the doddering Leafs, though the club bears a frightening resemblance to the collection that has missed the playoffs the past two springs.

It is behind the scenes, and well beyond the scope of admission right now, where Burke is forming the blueprint that would eventually return him to a hockey-first environment – the sort he thrived in as GM of the Vancouver Canucks.

A person that knows Burke far better than I do (I count myself a very casual media acquaintance) suggested he is determined to work in one of the NHL media capitals and that – yes – the thought of managing the Leafs has crossed both his mind and his lips.

“Brian’s a sharp cookie; he knows he’s accomplished the ultimate in a casual hockey market like Anaheim, and he senses, as do many of us, the instability of the situation in Toronto,” a very well-placed and well-known NHL source told me. “Burkie loves the spotlight and there is no brighter light than the one that shines on the Leafs. It is something to keep an eye on.”

It is also a scenario that can, in no way, be corroborated. Burke is a dogged and loyal employee with accountability in southern California (we think). Though his tenure in Vancouver came to a premature conclusion after a highly-charged clash with a member of the Canucks’ ownership group, there is nothing to indicate any disenchantment on his part in the land of Disney. And, I again stress, there is no current vacancy in the Leafs’ front office.

But, possibilities do exist among executives that can write their own ticket in just about any city in the NHL. Brian Burke is among the select few in that category. And, stability in the current Leafs’ management structure could only materialize with a complete reversal of the direction in which the club appears to be heading once again.

Two years is a relatively short period of time in hockey circles. The possibility clearly exists that a proven winner could be running the Leafs before that interval expires.

Compounding my position – as stated – was the undeniable cue that Ferguson was on tenterhooks with the Leafs: distasteful for me, as I liked the young GM immensely, and still do. But, consecutive seasons of playoff absence (a pittance, really, when compared to today) did not reflect well on the St. Louis Blues’ prodigy. A change at the top was very much in the air.

As is custom in the proprietary media business, my Burke rumor was widely discredited. But, the story soon began to build momentum and the veteran hockey executive claimed, in late-November, that any person suggesting he would abandon SoCal was under the influence.     

Unavoidably, Ferguson lost his job on Jan. 22, 2008 less than 48 hours after a 3-2 defeat in New Jersey and with Leafs struggling at 19-22-8. Cliff Fletcher, already inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame builder’s wing, was coaxed back from a Caribbean vacation to assume the interim GM’s role, having been in charge of Leafs from June 1991 to May 1997. Ferguson, with dignity acquired from his late father, attended the club announcement and professed no ill-will toward the Blue and White.

In the hockey world, it was commonly accepted that Fletcher would hold the fort until Burke could free himself from obligation in Anaheim. A coaching switch from Paul Maurice to long-time Burke friend Ron Wilson occurred in Detroit during the Stanley Cup final and Fletcher – aware of Burke’s inclination toward size – horded beefy prospects (starting with Luke Schenn) at the 2008 draft in Ottawa.

To the surprise of no one, Burke stepped down from his position with the Ducks and was anointed president/GM of the Maple Leafs on Nov. 29, 2008.

The Burke and Farrell examples, of course, are banal compared to such odious denial as a sitting American president (Bill Clinton) refuting sexual impropriety on nation-wide TV, or any of the myriad professional sporting cheats – Ben Johnson, Rafael Palmero, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong – combating allegation of substance abuse. Ultimately, character-annulling truth almost always prevails.

In the public realm, smoke and fire are inseparable.

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