Call it Requiem For a Hockey Heavyweight. Brian Burke’s dismissal as president and general manager by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is the end of a brief episode in Toronto’s turbulent hockey history over the past 45 years.
It might also be remembered as the requiem for an old school style of hockey executive being squeezed out by the billion-dollar demands of running a modern team.
In his 16 years as an NHL GM, Burke has been a general manager in the traditional Harry Sinden/ Bob Pulford mold. Those GMs managed “down”. They dealt with the coach, players and staff. They scouted and evaluated talent. After giving them their payroll budget, owners tended to leave these GMs alone to run the hockey operation. These legends were often kings of the castle, and many played the role to the hilt.
Burke certainly did. He was cut from this top-down cloth, a garrulous high priest of the hockey culture, cursing out reporters who challenged him while wearing his Irish heart on his sleeve. He knows hockey and hockey players and talked passionately about “truculence” and “guts”.
His Stanley Cup in Anaheim was not an accident, but it may also have been a sign of shifting times.
As we’ve seen the past four months, the NHL has changed. With $100-million contracts, owners can no longer stand back and let their managers handle the money. Now, say former management figures, GMs manage “up”. Instead of haunting rinks and assessing talent, they spend their days in the executive suite, handling an apprehensive owner, the owner’s accountant and whoever has an opinion from the owner’s golf club.
It’s become a buttoned-down corporate job more than ever in the NHL. Nowhere is that more true than at MLSE, owned in equal measures by Bell and Rogers (who also happen to broadcast the games of the team). A team that hasn’t made the playoffs in seven years, four of them under Burke. A colourful character makes nice TV, but winning gets record ratings and advertising revenues.
Here, Burke’s theatrical public style didn’t fit as well. Whether it was siding with his old pal Gary Bettman about the lengthy terms on some player contracts (to the detriment of the Leafs’ playoff chances) or costing his bosses millions for six weeks of ex-coach Ron Wilson just to spite the media, it was always high opera with the American-born Burke.
Sometimes it was beyond his control. When his son Brendan outed himself as gay and then was tragically killed in a car crash. Other times the issues were self-imposed. When he chose to be in Afghanistan visiting the troops on July 1 instead of pitching to free agent Brad Richards. Or trading away his future to get Phil Kessel in a deal that cost budding superstars Tyler Segiun and Dougie Hamilton.
The flamboyance and independence defied the contemporary corporate style of spoon-feeding the guys who sign the cheques. Unlike Glen Sather, another larger-than-life figure who tempered his act to fit in at Madison Square Gardens, Burke was a take-it or leave-it guy. Kowtowing to the MLSE board or polishing the apple for the Rogers or Bell execs was not in his tool box.
Wednesday, the reality of managing up in the new hockey economy caught up with Burke’s tie-askew M.O. Frustrating (allegedly) his bosses’ wishes on acquiring goalie Roberto Luongo’s unwieldy contract from Vancouver was simply the final act in a tug-of-war for power that’s been unfolding since the sale of MLSE last July.
“This is more about tone and the voice of leadership than changing gears and going in a different direction,” admitted Tom Anselmi, MLSE’s executive vice-president and chief operating officer.
Once he was considered the champ. Now, Burke’s Toronto legacy is simply described as ‘an error has occurred'.
Luongo or bust for Nonis?
If the Maple Leafs truly are commanding new GM Dave Nonis to get Luongo from the Canucks, they haven’t helped Nonis’ leverage in extracting a good deal from Mike Gillis, who succeeded Nonis as GM in Vancouver. Gillis has been patiently sitting on Luongo since last spring like he was gold futures, waiting for the goalie’s stock to sky rocket.
If Nonis has been sent on a mission from above, it will be very expensive sell order on the 33-year-old goalie. The hockey world knows Nonis is over a barrel and, with his own concerns with Ryan Kesler and Alex Edler, Gillis is hardly the type to give him an even break. If an inflated price isn’t galling enough, Nonis will have to compete with other suitors if he’s to put a smile on the MLSE suits. Sources tell Daily Grind that the phone has gotten very busy at Canucks’ headquarters– and it’s not season-ticket holders checking their parking privileges.
Some are suggesting the NHL’s upset that the Burke news coincided with the BOG signing off on the new CBA. Don’t be so sure that Bettman isn’t secretly happy that attention’s been diverted from the labour mess and his apology.
Speaking of Bettman... Burke’s feisty style worked at NHL headquarters in the old days where he was risibly referred to as the head of “justice” from 1994-98. When someone had the temerity to question the four-game suspension Gary Suter received for breaking Paul Kariya’s face with a crosscheck (effectively ending Kariya’s days as an elite player), Burke called them out as know-nothings, interlopers in the sport.
Good theatre was his stock in trade at the league. Maybe that’s where we see him again. Judging by commissioner Bettman’s abject apology Wednesday, there’s lot of performing to do on 6th Avenue in Manhattan repairing the damage of the past 17 years of labour strife.
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