Burke once told the media that: “The private side of Brian Burke is private. My family sees that, my friends see that. But I'm not interested in you guys understanding me.”
The public side of Burke, on the other hand, is there for all to measure. He has become, like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a polarizing figure: enemies on one side, admirers on the other, with mostly barren ground between. He certainly has strong opinions, but so, too, do most hockey fans on him.
“I don't pay any attention to that,” he says. “You can't. It was like this in Vancouver, too, only on a smaller scale.”
Burke was GM of the Canucks from 1998-2004 and GM of the Stanley-Cup winning Anaheim Ducks until he joined the Leafs in late fall of 2008. He concedes he has never experienced anything even remotely comparable to this ride.
“The place that hockey occupies in the universe that is Toronto, the place that the Leafs occupy is that it's No. 1,” he says. “And there's no analogies for it in other sports. I was talking to Theo Epstein one time when he was still running the Boston Red Sox and he said, ‘Is your job like mine?' and I said, ‘Theo, the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs is like the GM of the Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox and Bruins combined.' There's five million Leaf fans in Toronto and millions all over Canada. Wherever we go, we see blue. And they all know more about running this hockey team than I do.”
The fan base remains strong, despite the growing realization that the team seems destined to miss the playoffs for the seventh successive season. Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. is in flux, majority ownership transferring from the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan to Rogers Communications Inc. and BCE Inc., and yet he continues to act as though in total control, firing and hiring a coach, spending millions on a new player extension.
“My contract is very specific,” he says. “Board approval is required for hiring a new coach. It was sought and obtained.” There was no interference coming from new owners and, he says, the new ownership will not affect his contractual powers.
The true owners of a sports franchise, however, are always said to be the fans, and their disappointment has been palpable lately as a promising young team simply collapsed in a string of a dozen games or so.
“What happened this year is something I have never had happen in my career, to be in eighth place and playing well and then the bus just went off the cliff,” he says. “That is bewildering to us all. And I know the progress hasn't been nearly as fast as our fans would like it. I know they get frustrated – but no one is more frustrated than I am.”
With Burke's Leafs preparing to play host to the fifth-place Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night, that frustration was bubbling over in Toronto on Friday. No longer able to blame Wilson for every sparrow that falls, fans calling into talk radio were raking Burke over the coals for his hockey moves, such as signing Mike Komisarek and Tim Connolly to huge contracts with small returns. Nearly four years ago he promised fans he would deliver on a “Brian-Burke team” featuring “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.”
(Burke was raised in a large Irish-Catholic family in Edina, Minn., where the 10 Burke children took turns bringing new words to the dinner table and using them properly in a full sentence.)
Beyond the angry callers, he believes, lies more rational fans who know that it will take time and there will be unexpected setbacks, never so dramatically illustrated as in the team's February collapse.
“When I go to Starbucks or if I'm walking around town, the fans that stop me are all supportive,” he says. “They see the plan, they see the skill going up – we've basically turned the team over – and they like the coaching change. I think our fan base understands the process.”