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Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke has been under fire after a difficult season with the struggling NHL club. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke has been under fire after a difficult season with the struggling NHL club. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Roy MacGregor

The polarizing world of Toronto Maple Leafs boss Brian Burke Add to ...

Ah, the Joy of Truculence.

He is walking down Rue de la Montagne in Montreal. When the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Canadiens, he always walks the five blocks to the rink. He admires the flaming passion of Habs fans – French blood easily reaching the natural boiling point of his own Irish blood – and he enjoys the shouts and taunts and even the fingers.

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A car skids to a halt by him. He sees the driver put the vehicle into park. Then the driver steps out and just stands there screaming profanely at him while other cars twist and turn past the outraged fan.

“It was great,” Brian Burke remembers. “Absolutely great.”

But it was not so great this past week and a half for the 56-year-old general manager of the Maple Leafs. He fired head coach Ron Wilson, his close friend of nearly 40 years. He hired a new coach, Randy Carlyle, who won his first game only to lose the next two. He got eviscerated on Hockey Night in Canada's Coach's Corner for allegedly trying to get Don Cherry fired, torn apart again by the CBC's controversial broadcaster for having no Ontario players on Ontario's marquee team. He was ripped on radio for having a team headed for the playoffs in January and headed for the basement in February. When he was asked in one live radio interview if the GM should also go, he told the interviewer he did not appreciate such “an ignorant question, and a gutless one, too” – before slamming down the phone.

And somewhere in the midst of all that sound and fury he signed forward Mikhail Grabovski to an eye-popping five-year $27-million deal. And with his son Patrick, a scout with the NHL Philadelphia Flyers, he helped launch “You Can Play,” a courageous initiative that will use NHL stars to work toward ending homophobia in hockey – a tribute to brother and son Brendan Burke, who died two years ago at age 21 in a tragic car accident shortly after coming out as gay himself.

It has been said in hockey circles that this year, Brian Burke's fourth as GM of the Leafs, the signs of stress are showing, the tie and hair more askew, the hurricane-lamp face burning a bit brighter.

“It's part of the job,” he counters. “You can't take the job as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs unless you're prepared to accept the pressures and the lack of privacy. I have no privacy in

Ontario.”

“In some of the junior rinks when I sit in the crowd, I have to have a security guard with me, because of people wanting autographs and to take pictures. They're all positive, but it's an endless stream of people saying ‘Can I take a photo?' or ‘Will you sign this?' and I hate to say ‘No.' So I have to have a security guard – not for security but because I have to watch the game.”

He knows the security guard story will be misinterpreted by some. He knows there are those out there who see him as a bully and a publicity lover and someone quite capable of doing what Cherry has accused him of – though he is adamant that the story about going behind Cherry's back is wrong and will be proved so.

This is a complicated human being: part hockey player, part lawyer, part executive, part hunter, belligerent one moment, soft the next. Following his lengthy news conference in Montreal concerning the firing of Wilson, reporters who had not known him seemed stunned at the revealing detail,

“I know people see this big gruff guy,” he says, “but I place great value on my friendships. That broke my heart to fire Ron Wilson. We've been friends for 39 years this fall. I met him in the fall of '73. We played together. He is a good coach. That was hard. It's not a business where you take those things lightly. It's the first time I've fired a coach in midseason other than Mike Keenan [Vancouver in 1999]and Mike and I didn't get along, so that wasn't a surprise to anybody.”

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