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After all these years, still trying to understand Maple Leaf General Manager Brian Burke…

With hockey fans not paying much attention to the NHL,  people aren't visiting VLM as much these days.  But in case you're interested in recent posts, here are some links...
  • Reflections on former Maple Leaf coach Pat Quinn, and our Leaf Matters podcast interview
  • A chat with long-time Maple Leaf voice Joe Bowen  
  • A touching conversation with a member of the legendary Smythe family, Elizabeth Brinton


I’ve often posted here about my admiration for the good things Brian Burke has done as the President of the Maple Leaf organization.  His active involvement with a range of causes that support  important life values should be applauded.  In this way, albeit with a very different style, he reminds me somewhat of Ken Dryden.  Dryden was more academic, subtle and pensive in style, but in his tenure at the top of the Maple Leaf food chain, he tried to restore crucial values to an organization that had lost its way in the Harold Ballard era.  While not completely successful, the former Montreal Canadiens great was a calm, reasonable and thoughtful voice on the issues of the day around Maple Leaf Gardens and later, the Air Canada Center.

In the same breath, Burke has aggressively nudged the Leafs (and by extension the Marlie organization as well) toward being even more community-oriented, and has pushed them to embrace causes close to his heart.  This is all to the good.

Now, when it comes to how he runs the hockey aspect of his job and the public side of how he does that part of his job—now more than four years into his tenure here—I remain puzzled and not nearly as captivated by his work.

I’m not talking so much about the actual pros and cons of his hockey-making decisions here.  The short version of that, to most Leaf supporters, is that he has earned a high grade for his "trading" acumen (though the long-term impact of the Kessel deal, I’m afraid, is still to be felt…) while his free-agent selections have been, well, mediocre, at best.  Many see his draft record here as spotty (if too early to really analyze fairly), though Morgan Rielly has perhaps tilted the overall assessment in his favour—at least for now.  (Though I think you and I could have listened to the Leaf scouting staff and picked Rielly, eh?  Getting fifth pick overall means one thing:  you weren't close to being good enough the year before.  You should be able to select a keeper at that spot and Rielly was clearly the best guy left on the board at the time.  It is likely that any GM would have done the same.)

The bottom line is that the team, while younger and with more potential upside than when he arrived, has not made the playoffs even once in his time here.

But I’m talking about something beyond “results”, as important as those are.  I’m thinking about his approach to being a GM in this market.

His initial hubris was overwhelming.  He was absolutely vain in his repeated public declarations that, ”I have no patience for a 5-year re-build”.  He spoke constantly of his supposed “philosophy”, claiming   that he “always built his teams from the back end”.  (Which made me wonder what he was doing all those years in Vancouver, with goaltending issues that he never resolved…)

But mostly, I was and am still stunned by his non-stop need to be heard, and to speak always about “me”, “my”, “I” and “mine”.  As in, “My teams always…”, “I build my teams such and such a way…”, “When you play for me…”, or “I tell my players…”.

He comes across as though he feels he is more important, in his own mind, than the team, than the organization he works for, even.  Could this be why his tenure ended so abruptly years ago in Harford, and so badly in Vancouver?

I’m always a little surprised that so many Maple Leaf fans seem to embrace Burke and his public bravado.  Here is a guy that supports truly important causes, but his behavior with the media, for example, is off-putting.  If anyone dares question him in any way, he is notorious—and not in a good way.  He comes across as a bully.  He had celebrated verbal fights with hockey commentators during his years with the Canucks, and that has not changed one iota in his time with the Leafs.  We need only think back to last season when it was clear he was trying to have Don Cherry muzzled because of comments the Hockey Night in Canada legend had made during “Coach’s Corner” about Ron Wilson.

I know that many have written to me saying that they love that Burke “puts the media in its place” and doesn’t “take any crap”.  But is that his job? And is it even necessary?

He is the one who built up the Leaf faithful into believing we would be far more advanced than the team is now.  The current reality is that, for all the potential prospects and promise, this is a roster with little playoff savvy or experience, no recent history of consistent goaltending to speak of (that said, I still remain hopeful that Reimer will be what he can be), no real leadership, no overall team toughness and no first-line center.  It’s not the media who set the bar so high four years ago, or said the past several off-seasons that the Leafs should be a playoff team.

But again, what I’m primarily talking about today is simply this:  why does a General Manager spend so much time talking about.....himself?  Should a GM really be the face of this franchise?  If he is, what does that say about the team that he has assembled?

I mean, it’s bad enough that we had long-time MLSE President (or CEO or whatever he was), Richard Peddie, talking out loud all those years—a guy who clearly knew nothing about the hockey side of the hockey operation.  Now we have Burke, certainly a knowledgeable hockey person (and not an inexperienced one at that) continuing to display the same hubris that has hurt him and the MLSE  organization in the past.

In my view he has the best job in hockey—other than perhaps coaching the blue and white.  But he rarely—if ever—allows himself to slide into the background and just focus on what he is paid so handsomely to do: produce a winner on the ice.

Is Burke a smart, shrewd hockey guy?  Absolutely.  Should he get credit for the Stanley Cup in Anaheim?  Of course.  That was a house built largely by Bryan Murray, but Burke added some key pieces to help make it happen.

Yet it grows wearisome for a fan, at least for one like me, to hear a guy talk like, as I’ve noted here before, he invented the position of General Manager. (As I've mentioned previously, though the point never seems to garner any traction, is that in his two re-build projects, Vancouver and Toronto, in 11 years at the helm his record is underwhelming- exactly one playoff round victory.)

Am I alone as a Leaf fan who finds this approach unnecessary and not at all helpful to the hockey club-  or the fan base?  I just don’t buy the theory/excuse that he does this to “take pressure’ off the players.  How does heaping attention on himself help the players? This has not been a team in the pressure-cooker of a playoff series, or even a serious playoff hunt in his time here. 

Has his "persona" lead to better results on the ice? 

I raise this because I sense, in fact I believe I know, that this guy cares immensely about building a great team in Toronto.  We all know he has made some eye-popping roster moves that have improved the club, though those additions have not propelled the Leafs as far as they need to get, to be to competitive in the East-  much less contend for a Cup.

He has changed his flight pattern (meaning how he claims to be going about building this team) too many times for my liking as a Leaf supporter, but that can happen.  I get that.  There are pressures in this market and his initial impatience has now morphed into a much longer-term vision, although the hiring of Carlyle versus, say, Dallas Eakins (given the young roster on hand) leaves me a bit befuddled.

In any event, I want to believe he cares more about the team than his own ego.  I’d like to feel that his hubris has not impeded his ability to actually do the job that needs to be done here.

The forum is now yours…


  1. well, first to address your initial point...I read almost every day, not commenting much because not a lot to say with no games ... having said that, I am 99% on the owners side of this dispute.

    now for burkey...I like burkey, but that does not eliminate him from criticism.
    generally I would say I consider his body of work to be okay, I like the overall direction and foundations he has put in place.

    his public persona means nothing to me, I care only of the team on the ice...I look at things I think he deserves some criticism for no particular order

    - centre...not addressing the #1 centre position has hurt the team the past 2 years
    - goaltending...not providing experienced nhl goaltending for the club, having said that I have followed james since he was drafted, I think he can be that guy and still have high hopes for him, whether he is ready now or not is a question still
    - coaching... as an old coach that has hung around rinks for a long time, I have not been happy with the coaching of either maurice or wilson...but wilson is all on burke as far as I am concerned, he was here 18 months too long in my view, and contributed to the goaltending issue with his lack of an appropriate defensive scheme.
    what I am not sure of is carlyle, not his ability, but rather his contract length, I do not want to lose eakins but he will leave in a year, 2 at the most if he does not see an opportunity here

    having said that, I am probably in the minority that the d will be better sans schenn season, a draft lottery win, mckinnon and things will definitely be looking up


  2. You raise some key issues, Anon. Coaching decisions, a first-line centre, goaltending- all relevant questions.

    As for Schenn, we will see over time if he will thrive in Philly and if Leaf fans will be happier with van Riemsdyk in the long run.

    And people have mentioned the notion of the lottery and getting the number-one pick in June. I haven't thought seriously about that, but I guess it's possible...

    Thanks for chiming in, Anon.

  3. Hey Mike,

    We've discussed this before. And I'm with you, the bravado and the comments have done nothing to help the team, and it seems Brian is fond of playing by different rules then everybody else (see contract length's, structuring and Offer Sheets) and then boasting about it. That's frustrating as hell, especially when you see the Carolina's and Minnesota's of this world signing great players to deals Brian would never sign. I also agree that his results, at best, have been mixed. I will give him credit for Rielly, as I was one of the guys yelling at the TV for him to take a centre.

    I will say one thing. JFJ let himself be bullied by the media and the talking heads. How else can you explain some of the deals he gave out to guys like Tucker, McCabe, Belfour etc. Burke, like him or not, doesn't care what people think. I have 100% confidence that he won't be bullied into making a transaction that he doesn't find helpful to this club.

    I guess what I'm saying is that he's a blowhard, but he's our blowhard.

  4. "I’m always a little surprised that so many Maple Leaf fans seem to embrace Burke and his public bravado."

    Well, they embrace Don Cherry. It's just more of the same with a slightly different spin in a less outlandish suit and a loose tie.

    If Burke could generate even a little success, I'm quite sure he would be like a god in TO.

  5. I agree, Alex, there can certainly be good elements to one's approach when they are not intimidated by media pressure. (Though I'm not sure Burke has not been somewhat influenced by this market, thus certain decisions and statements that he made in his early days here...)

    The only aspect of your comment that I may differ with slightly is that I do believe that Burke cares what people think - at least some people, otherwise he wouldn't say it quite as much as he does. He seems to protest too much.

    All that said, the guy wants do build a really elite team. I just wish he could do it more quietly, like Holland in Detroit, or Poile in Nashville...

    Thanks for posting on this one, Alex!

  6. You're right DP. Cherry is a polarizing figure as well. Many love him, others not so much.

    I'm just not sure Burke's attitude has helped, though I know others disagree with me!

  7. On a happier note, our prospects did really well this weekend. Scrivens and Rynnas looked to be back in top form, so there's a little bit more wiggle room in the dealings for Luongo. Burke isn't desperate.

    Kadri had a two point game on sunday and is inching his way to the top of the AHL. he was also playing with an edge and leading the team.

    Our 235 lb goon in the OHL, David Broll had another goal so that's 26 points in 35 games. Not bad for goon...he could be a 7th round sleeper pick and nice on the 4th line in a few years.

  8. Very well put together article Michael, I definitely appreciated reading it.

    Personally, I can see how you could be put off by his "bigger-than-life" attitude but it doesn't bother. I feel that a large part of Burke's constant talk is to take the pressure off his players as much as possible. I can see where you're coming from when you don't think that's a legitimate reason but I respectfully disagree. After watching how Kessel gets hassled the last few years whenever he gets into a scoring slump just goes to prove my point. The star players here are always under the microscope. I believe it's even worse when the team isn't experiencing any success. Burke blurting stuff off during the season allows the reporters to have their headlines without invading upon the players. Remember the whole calling Reimer's mother shenanigans? Ohhh god...I believe Burke does what he does for the team and not because of his ego. I strongly believe that if it was a decision between making a desperate move to save his job or doing what's best for the long-term success of the franchise, I believe he'd do what's best for the franchise and leave his ego at the door. Call me naive, but that's how I feel. Hopefully if it comes to that, Burke proves me right. Regardless, I hope he gets this ship headed in the right direction already. These last 7-8 years have been TORTURE.

  9. That's a tremendous post, Sasko. And while I may not fully agree, I absolutely respect your perspective. Well said. Thanks for visiting.

  10. A Tale of Two Brian's. One in New England, one in Toronto.

    I don't really care about a GM's public persona. I do give points for great community work as Burke has willingly undertaken.However, if they treat the media as bottom feeders, well how can one argue. Besides could he be anymore brusque and dismissive than old Hoodie on the Patriots sideline is? And who wouldn't kill for that kind of success?

    Give me results. Any sensible hockey fan knew it would be a good five years before one could assess Burke given the unimaginable mess he inherited. Here in Ottawa Murray inherited a young Stanley Cup finalist team , he has been at it longer than Burke(5 years) yet the Sens have not won a playoff series under Murray's stewardship. You just don't know how long it will take to build a cup winner and that is the only thing that counts. I'd live with missing the playoffs 10 straight years if a Grail followed. (I have some Hawks-fan blood in me)

    I never took Burke's hubris as meaning he would achieve sustainable results any sooner than five years.

    So the 5 year clock is ticking on Bri. For 60 games last season it seemed as though the tide had turned. Then came the February/March tsunami.

    Ultimately one's patience with hubris and bravado rises and falls in direct relation to the number in the W column. Based on that, it is no surprise Leaf followers tire of Burke's bluster but Patriots fans find their Brian to be an odd but humourous guy who keeps the media in their place.

  11. Michael,

    Is the lockout over yet? Sadly, I believe the children are still bickering. We have always been on the same page with Burke. His antics would play a lot better if he had built anything other than the mediocre team of also rans that he has put together. I personally am willing to listen to a lot of big talk from people who are capable of backing it up with results. The problem as I have come to understand it is, the most successful people are often willing to at least share the spotlight. What we are generally left with are those who are moderately successful, but long to be more than they are. I will add Trump and Kevin O'Leary, to the list of Cherry and Burke. Great at talking about what they do, and how they do it. Not so good at actually doing it. Maybe when Cherry retires Burke can forgo that job in the League office and take over Coaches corner. Rename it blowhards bench, or whatever.

    Does anyone really think that the team he has built is a playoff team? Or better yet a team that has what it takes to challenge for the Stanley Cup? The expectations in Toronto have fallen so far down the hill of embarrassment it is shameful. Opinions I have heard this off-season. They are going to compete for the 7th or 8th spot. Pie in the sky lottery ticket cashing thoughts, in my opinion. To the Leafs are a 12th or 13th place team in the conference. Maybe a little harsh, but I can't give this team credit based on their past record. To something more in between these two places. Likely to be the case if they ever play hockey again. IMO.

    Is everyone on the same page that if the season is cancelled it is a good thing for the Leafs? More development time for everyone. No rushing to be on the big club. The only downside I see is two fold. One, I don't think Reimer is getting better this season, he may be getting more healthy and that would be good. He needs NHL competition I think, at this point. And secondly, no games mean Burke won't get shown the door. His record is awful. Just as bad as Wilsons.

  12. Bmaximus- There is little question Belichick in New England pulls the media's stings, and "gets away" with it largely because he has been successful, as you mention. (He was nowhere near as popular or "accepted" during his time in Cleveland!) I would suggest his manner of public bravado is much more understated than Burke's.

    If and when a season ever arrives, we will be into Burke's fifth year here. So results - expected (or at least hoped for) earlier - will definitely be expected now.

    I wonder if Burke "supporters" will always remain such? Is anyone changing their view?

    Thanks Bmaximus.

  13. No season definitely means no rush and more development time for prospects, Jim. Sadly, relying on a lockout (and hoping for a lottery miracle) is no way to build a team, not that that is Burke's intent.

    It's funny, as much as I agree this team, as currently constituted, is not seemingly a high-end playoff team, the East still feels so up for grabs, as I posted here recently. So who knows?

    The lockout definitely means more time is guaranteed for Burke to continue with his efforts here. Thanks for posting Jim.

  14. I'll give you my latest spin on Brian Burke.

    I'm no baseball fan, but after what the Blue Jays have done in off season there will be allot more pressure on Burke. I can just see the questions from the people of Toronto and the media:

    The Jays traded for a Cy Young winner, where's the Leaf's first line center?

    The Jays can make that monster deal, why is Louongo still in Vancouver?

    Alex Anthopoulos just turned the heat up to scalding hot on Burke.

  15. I'm guessing, DP, that some would say Burke doesn't "care" what other teams in Toronto do. But there is little doubt the Jays have upped the ante in this market, in terms of local franchises being competitive- and news-worthy...