I guess when you talk a lot, you’re bound to eventually say things that make people scratch their head. Brian Burke, for me, falls into the category of someone who simply likes to hear himself talk. He particularly likes to speak of his teams while using the term “I” and “my” a lot (as in, “when I build my teams…”).
To some he’s a hockey genius who can do precious little wrong as he runs the Leafs. They love his bravado, how he supposedly “tells it like it is” and takes no guff from the media. And, how he is building a better team that will, someday, compete for the Stanley Cup.
For others he is a blow-hard who failed badly in Vancouver, caught a break with a good team in Anaheim and is all about pumping his own tires as often as he can. (It was revealing to follow his Carlyle-hiring press conference in Montreal while simultaneously tracking Twitter commentary. Some loved him. Others were obviously just shaking their heads at some of the statements Burke was making.)
Stepping away from hockey for a moment, the Burke family is doing tremendously significant work in a cause that meant a lot to the son and brother they lost far too soon. That takes courage, which they all clearly have in abundance. And, as the Maple Leaf President and General Manager, Burke certainly supports activities (around the troops, community things, etc.) that are thoughtful and important. That should always be part of the perspective when we discuss the Burke. He is more than a "hockey guy".
But when it comes to how he conducts himself as an NHL executive, criticism comes with the territory.
In this forum, I always enjoy hearing how others see things. I’m well aware we won't—and don’t—always agree on Leaf-related and other hockey subjects here, but I think those who visit here regularly know I always appreciate and respect differing views.
When it comes to Burke, it’s difficult not to point out certain public comments that just don’t connect (at least for me). Maybe it’s because I see so many inconsistencies, so much blather and a lot of public obfuscation and a change in philosophical direction. He would, of course, defend his actions as being anything but any of the above, I’m sure. And he would be certain to add that he “didn’t care” what I—or anyone else—thought.
That said, what are some examples of what I perceive as talking for the sake of it, or of his inconsistency, or a distinct change in direction from earlier strongly-stated positions?
- He say he doesn’t watch Coach’s Corner, yet he was furious about Cherry’s comment about Ron Wilson not applauding during the salute to the troops night a few weeks ago (something I highlighted in a story here the night it happened…). I have no idea if he actually tried to get Cherry fired, but it wouldn’t be, by various accounts, the first time Burke has used his “influence” to try to silence his “media” critics.
- Burke says he doesn’t want to escalate things with Cherry, which is an interesting statement to make once you’ve reportedly already tried to have someone change the way they do their job, because you don’t like them being critical of your team.
- He told a reporter, at least as reported in a QMI story that I have read, that he went about his criticism of Cherry and Ron MacLean “professionally” and “quietly”. He was seemingly upset that his talk with the Board of Governors was “leaked”. (A talk where he reportedly spoke in terms of the CBC silencing Cherry and MacLean, if the Corporation wanted to retain the future rights to Hockey Night in Canada…)
- It at the very least ironic that he is concerned with leaks, when he clearly has a well-oiled internal media machine that lets out precisely the information he wants to get out about his hockey club, and when he wants to get it out. (The local media always dutifully complies.)
- He had not patience for a “five-year re-build”, but that is the minimum we are looking at for the Leafs to be in the hunt.
- He didn’t want to “blow up the team” to make the playoffs this year (Nash) or blow it up just to get (supposedly up to four) future first-round draft choices. Instead, the team is seemingly left hanging for a fourth year in a row with him at the helm, perhaps yet again looking at the playoffs from the outside—and a team still missing hugely important pieces to be an elite squad. (We have to remember that it’s not about building a fast team that can beat a good team once in a while during the regular-season; we’re supposedly building a team that can win four consecutive best-of-seven playoff series. Call me when we’re there…)
- He has long claimed to “always” build “my” teams from the goal out. Yet in Vancouver, he won, what was it, one playoff round in six seasons? And he never, ever dealt with the elephant in the room: the goaltending issue.
- Burke has long claimed a philosophy of “no complaints, no excuses”. Yet, there have been no end of excuses for why the Leafs have under-performed under his watch. Most recently, we heard that other teams have lots of local guys who like to play hard in Toronto? So what? (It’s been that way for decades.) The trade deadline upsets the players? He’ll create his own deadline, even if it makes no sense when he should be trying to improve the team every opportunity he gets.
- Fans booed, so he fired the coach. (I of course realize that was not the reason.) But the notion that he was “saving” Wilson from having to be behind the bench again at the ACC was, at the very least, a laugh. The fans weren’t just booing Wilson, obviously. They were booing the team that Burke had on the ice. Should ownership have fired Burke to save him further embarrassment?
- He claims the Leafs were “the best team” in the East earlier in the season. I guess for a period or two, maybe, but c’mon.
- He recently walked out of a radio interview because the host dared to ask a question about Burke's status with the club. (I missed the announcement that we weren’t supposed to raise questions about anything Burke says or does…is that in his MLSE contract?)
- He did what all self-preserving GM’s do when the team they built doesn’t play well—they blame the coach. Oh, never publicly. But a firing equals blame. Such moves generally mean: “It can’t be me, so it must be his fault…” (We should not be fooled by Burke’s earlier public assertions that he had not given Wilson good enough players previously to make a determination as to whether or not Wilson was doing a good job. Clearly, Burke began to realize that if he kept saying that, people would, three and a half years into his term, rightly begin to question what he has been doing as General Manager…)
- He says he doesn’t like coaches who are “warm and fuzzy”. Does he mean Mike Babcock, the former Ducks coach he let go to Detroit, where Babcock has done not too badly, eh?
- And on that note, are we to believe that Wilson fell into that category? After he fired Wilson, Burke admitted they weren’t on the same page when it came to how rough a team they wanted. So on this fundamental Burke “platform”, we now have to believe that he kept a guy for three and a half years when they did not see eye to eye on this crucial philosophy of how you play the game? Wow.
- He says he doesn’t give a damn about what the media says, but he will try to get you fired, or silence you, by going to the bosses of the guys he doesn’t like.
I noticed a National Post tweet the other day, where one of his sons said “He takes a lot of heat for himself, in order to save his team, or coach the hassle…”. That just leaves me shaking my head. I guess we all see what we choose to see, and believe what we choose to believe—and portray.
When you live by big promises, big talk, act the bully, fans have a right to expect a few basic things: not to be treated like fools; to hear your GM acknowledge mistakes, and not just in a “passing it off” kind of manner for which Burke is famous. Fans also have the right to expect a guy who “doesn’t care” can and will accept that performance criticism—just as it is with players—is fair game, and always has been.
As I said to someone the other day, I never knew that Burke invented the position of General Manager. He sure makes it sound like he did.
If people like him, his approach, whatever—great. We all like what we like.
But I pointed out here recently that he has won a grand total (as an NHL General Manager, in 13 seasons) of 7 playoff rounds. So I’ll save the Lemieux-like statue for a later time.
As always, I would enjoy hearing your thoughts. I realize many won't see things the way I have today, but by all means share your perspective.