Burke Packs A Punch… As Expected

TORONTO (Oct. 30) — True confession: I enjoyed Brian Burke’s autobiography. In fact, at times, I couldn’t tear myself away from it. Neither, apparently, am I alone. According to the Chapters/Indigo website, BURKE’S LAW is the best–selling sports book in the country; several big lengths ahead of RAPTURE, the memoir of Nick Nurse, who coached the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 National Basketball Association title.

This doesn’t surprise me. Hockey is still the number–one sport in Canada and Brian Burke is a far–more polarizing figure than Nick Nurse. He has also presided over three National Hockey League teams in our country: the Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames. Had Brian worked only for the Leafs, chances are the book would be flying off the shelves, as it is today. His life story is rather fascinating.

While reading, I did, occasionally, have to remind myself about the definition of a memoir… “a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation.” The latter is the key. An autobiography is the sole domain of the story teller. Even more so, as in this example, when the subject is naturally opinionated. Memoirs, by their very nature, are decidedly unbalanced. The age–old and irrefutable maxim of there being two sides to every story does not apply. As such, Burke could write at length about his former college friend, Ron Wilson, who he “inherited” as coach of the Maple Leafs in November 2008… and fired as coach of the Maple Leafs in March 2012. Some notable examples:

On one level, I knew that Ronnie wasn’t the right guy for the way I wanted my team to play. As much as I like him, our philosophies on how to play are completely different. He didn’t value toughness the way I do… I told Ron he had to play Colton Orr every night — and added that I was embarrassed I had to have a meeting so I could order him to do something I thought was obvious. It was the only time I had to go to one of my coaches and tell him who to play. Orr was a fighter with very limited hockey skill.

By the time I got to Toronto, Ronnie had already been beaten up pretty badly by the media. He had become jaded and sarcastic. I talked to him about it — I told him that sarcasm doesn’t work in Toronto. But, he’d been chewed up so much that he was already a shell. Wilson, and I say this endearingly, did not “become” sarcastic in Toronto. He brought with him an abrasive, at times disparaging comportment that did him no favors when the Leafs were struggling. I was among the reporters with whom he sparred. As with any coach, however, Wilson could merely deploy the players provided him by management.

The first thing I asked Ronnie Wilson was whether we needed a goalie. He was convinced that Vesa Toskala could do the job. I was skeptical about that and, as it turned out, I was right. Burke may have been correct, but it was goaltending that ultimately led to his demise with the Leafs. As it did so many before him… and continued after him. Interestingly, there is not a single mention, in the book, of Jonas Gustavsson, who Burke moved heaven and earth to obtain from Sweden in his first summer as Leafs GM. “The Monster”, as Gustavsson was known, arrived with much fanfare. “We are extremely pleased to have signed Jonas to a new two-year deal,” Burke said in a statement on July 7, 2009. “He made very good progress as the season went along and we are really looking forward to seeing him reach his full potential with us.” It never happened.

Hounded by an irregular heartbeat that required a pair of cardiac ablations, Gustavsson did not rise above middling. In parts of three seasons with the Leafs, he compiled a 39–45–15 record with a 2.98 goals–against average. In nearly four seasons at the helm, Burke primarily deployed, in goal, Gustavsson, Toskala, Martin Gerber, Jean–Sebastien Giguere and James Reimer. Giguere had won the 2007 Stanley Cup with Burke in Anaheim, but was on the downslope when acquired by the Leafs (Jan. 30, 2010). Reimer, drafted by the John Ferguson regime in 2006, flashed occasional brilliance and nudged the Maple Leafs into the playoffs in the 48–game, lockout–shortened season of 2012–13. By then, Burke had been fired. Ultimately, Brian could not provide his Toronto teams playoff–caliber goaltending. No general manager, or coach, can win without it.

On firing Wilson: That was the winter the 18–wheeler went off the cliff. We were 11–15–3 after Christmas and 1–9–1 in that awful, 11–game stretch that convinced me Ronnie had to go… It was a really tough, sad day for me, having to fire my friend. It broke my heart. It still bothers me, but I knew it was the right thing to do. And, the truth is, staying loyal to Ron as long as I did was part of what ended up costing me my job.

I have remained in touch with Wilson since he suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2016. I always liked Ron, even when we were battling as reporter and coach. He hasn’t fully recovered, yet he continues to enjoy life with his children and grandchildren in Hilton Head, S.C. After reading Burke’s book, I emailed Ron and asked if he wished to respond to anything Brian wrote about him. Wilson’s reply: “I haven’t read the book nor do I intend to. You can write anything you want but I haven’t spoken to Brian since he canned me!”

What I admired most about the book is that Burke remained steadfastly himself. Though he claimed he doesn’t like to pick a fight, I was never exposed to a more combative hockey executive in my 17 seasons covering the Leafs, and the National Hockey League, for The FAN–590. No GM or coach of the hockey club, in my years, was more aware of everything written and said about him. That’s why I contend Brian told an outright lie when he wrote that he never read the newspaper, or anything else, during his years in Toronto.

I’ve told the story about writing a blog, during a game at Air Canada Centre, that was effusive with praise for Burke after his trade of defenseman Tomas Kaberle to Boston (Feb. 18, 2011). In only one of roughly 14 or 15 paragraphs did I question a remark he made prior to the deal. I neither told Brian I was writing the blog nor emailed him a link. Yet, 15 minutes after I hit the SEND button, an email from Burke arrived in my in–box: “Nice cheap shot.” Clearly, he’d read the column and saw only the one mildly critical paragraph.

Neither is Brian’s book one that parents will likely purchase for their children at Christmas. Again, I applaud Burke for remaining wholly in character. Which necessitated the F–word to appear in virtually every page of the manuscript. Times have changed in the past 50 years, but I still have the book (below) on the Maple Leafs that my mother — God rest her soul — bought and signed to me in March 1970. With nary a concern about her 11–year–old son reading profanity. Foster Hewitt was Foster Hewitt. Brian Burke is Brian Burke.

Brian’s quarrel with members of the media is highlighted in the book.

I didn’t warrant a mention, but he called my friend, Steve Simmons, a “dirt–bag.” He also had choice words for old–timers Tony Gallagher (Vancouver Province) and Al Strachan (Toronto Sun).

Burke wrote that he chose to leave Anaheim for Toronto primarily because of the commitment he made to his children, as a divorced father, to spend every other weekend with them… a clause in his custody arrangement. I understood that part, completely. It necessitated, initially, Brian to fly cross–continent (Vancouver to Boston) and back during his years running the Canucks. No one could maintain such a slog… and travel with his team to away games. I did, however, receive a pretty good tip more than 11 months before Burke came to Toronto. While having dinner with Detroit Red Wings executive Jimmy Devellano prior to a Leafs game against the Atlanta Thrashers on Oct. 23, 2007, I was apprised about the possibility that Brian may, eventually, migrate north. Jimmy D. made a fairly strong case. The next day, I flew to Pittsburgh for a Leafs game the following night. After checking into the Doubetree Suites across from the old Mellon Arena, I wrote this blog for the hockeybuzz.com website: https://bit.ly/2HMvqcV.

If there’s any difficulty in seeing the link, my primary rub was this:

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. People that know Brian far better than I do… have told me he is determined to work again in one of the NHL’s media capitals and that — yes — the thought of managing the Maple 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.”

More than 13 years later, I have revealed the “well–placed and well–known” NHL source. Devellano could not have been more spot on. John Ferguson was fired by the Leafs in January 2008. Cliff Fletcher stepped in as interim GM. Burke came east for a legitimate family reason. But, also to ply his trade in the NHL’s most–rabid market. After this blog, and others, speculation never ceased about Brian ultimately replacing Fletcher.

It happened on Nov. 29, 2008.

No chapter in the book was more poignant or moving than the one entitled “Brendan”.

I’ll never forget receiving word after a Leafs game in Ottawa — Feb. 5, 2010 — that Brendan Burke, 21, had died in an automobile mishap in Ohio. I couldn’t believe it. Only a few weeks earlier had I met Brendan in the press box at Air Canada Centre. Brian’s courageous son, manager of the Miami University men’s hockey team, had revealed he was gay. And, that nothing about his sexual persuasion was a factor in his role with the club. Honestly, I had never seen Brendan’s father quite so proud — not even after managing the Ducks to the 2007 Stanley Cup win. That Brian was somehow able to execute his role as GM of the United States men’s hockey team at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver — less than a week after Brendan’s death — remains the most gallant, heroic and selfless act during all of my 23 years in radio.

That chapter, alone, is worth the price of a splendidly written book.


You can order BURKE’S LAW from Amazon.com here: https://amzn.to/3jJHgBC.


2 comments on “Burke Packs A Punch… As Expected

  1. Damn You, Howard.

    I was going to skip this book as I read a book review that suggested Burke skimped on details about his surprise firing – However, you’ve changed my mind.

    I very much like the off-color comments and the lack of filter that Burke possesses. I find it truthful and by golly, the entertainment value is extremely high. I also admire Burke’s abhorrence to negative criticism. I recall a funny story where a Buffon/Troll figured out Burke MLSE email address and emailed him a piece of his mind. To the troll’s surprise, Burke responded.
    (There’s a famous story about Chip Kelly responding to a Troll’s email and mailing the disgruntled fan a cheque/refund).

    While Burke’s haphazard trading and questionable draft picks backfired I also give him full credit for drafting (stealing) Reilly.

  2. Total sour grapes by Wilson. His old buddy Burke gave him an extension a few months prior to the firing.

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