The offer was simple and sincere: a chance to have his say and an adult discussion in a column about Brian Burke’s absence from Toronto on the first day of NHL free agency.
But Burke did not want to talk about his trip to visit Canadian forces in Afghanistan. He had been roundly skewered for it in the Toronto Sun – taken to task for not slipping into his French stockings and stilettos and standing under the lamp post in the pursuit and eventual overpayment by the New York Rangers for concussion-prone, free-agent forward Brad Richards. Burke had already been quoted in response in another publication, appearing only slightly miffed that his remarks were intended to be off the record. It was, Burke assured me, “nothing personal.” Twice, in fact.
Fair play to the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager. There is no reason to think otherwise. But what continues to alternately intrigue and infuriate Leafs Nation is how much of the game seems to be taken personally by Burke.
It is no surprise that he has managed to use his position as a bully pulpit. One of the reasons he was so attractive to this market was he did big picture really well; the Leafs didn’t need a mechanic, they needed an architect. He sold vision, and the understanding was that this would be the flip side: a guy unafraid to throw his weight around when it comes to the state of the game. Need a GM to caution against the notion that NHL hockey in Winnipeg is a sure-fire, can’t-miss proposition? Need a GM to remind you that adult competitors assume risks when they play hockey and that those risks include brain injuries? Operators are standing by.
“Let me worry about the balance,” Burke told reporters on Wednesday at a media session at the Leafs rookie camp. The topic was his involvement in issues – taking part in the gay Pride parade in Toronto, for example, as well as going over to be with the troops – that did not seem to jibe with nuts and bolt hockey matters. Burke dominates a setting, even if it’s full of people other than nick-namey puckheads.
Burke no doubt sees these criticisms as code for people believing he is not fully focused on the task at hand, and without question that rankles. What he must also understand is the underlying hockey reason for the questions: the notion that he somehow has not used the full economic might of team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to the betterment of the franchise. Sentiment is growing – including in this corner – that it’s time for Burke to stop upbraiding his peers about circumventing the salary cap and using offer sheets as little more than a threat and commence throwing around his team’s financial weight.
It’s true nobody uses offer sheets – the owners’ drunken spending in other areas is for this reason a good thing, otherwise the National Hockey League Players’ Association might start musing publicly about collusion – and there are restricted free agents such as Steven Stamkos whose teams would likely match offers. But why not push those teams to the brink? Since when did the Leafs modus operandi become being thy brother’s keeper?
Burke’s presence in Afghanistan is a non-starter. It’s not tawdry as much as silly. Agents and GMs don’t operate in a vacuum; they are an incestuous group and most of them will tell you they have a pretty good idea going into any negotiation where each side stands. These people golf and fish together and they’re not dealing with state secrets. You don’t think they have back-channel discussions long before July 1? Please.
Burke likely figured out a while back that Richards was not going to sign with the Leafs. That realization, coupled with principles that are equal parts laudable and maddening, have given Burke a clear conscience. And if Burke’s tenure here ultimately fails, and those of us who write the final chapter of his time keep saying that a failure to use the full, nuclear financial might of MLSE was part of the reason, the guess is his conscience will be okay with that, too.