There will be no shelter for the Toronto Maple Leafs, not with a head coach who made clear on Sunday that much of this week will involve looking for people “who can step out of their comfort zone.”
Not that there’s a great deal of that commodity in these parts, anyhow. Seven seasons out of the playoffs and with the polarizing shadow of Brian Burke hanging over the team on this first day of formal practices, despite the fact Burke and his family were in Foxboro watching the New England Patriots AFC playoff game, it is time once again to begin battle with those old ghosts ... 1967, and all that.
Burke yielded his commanding role on the local sports stage Saturday at high noon at the Air Canada Centre, and only fed the notion that the board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd. looks about as misfit as some of the teams he foisted on the paying public in his four years as general manager. It was one last stir of the pot.
For head coach Randy Carlyle, who may want to photocopy sheets with the statement “this is the hand we’re dealt,” further indication that he’ll be flying by the seat of his pants for much of the season came at 9 p.m. Saturday, when it was revealed that new collective agreement does not allow physical testing and practising on the same day. Scratch that Sunday schedule, then.
“We’ll pick a day here – when we get a day – and there will be some form of testing done on the ice,” Carlyle said. “Before it was done off ice – bikes, treadmills and what not – this time some tests will pertain to skating and exertion on the ice.”
Already miffed that rosters were not expanded beyond 23 players at least initially, Carlyle also said he wanted the Leafs to get some practice time at the Air Canada Centre before going to the Bell Centre in Montreal for Saturday’s opener, reasoning that practising in an environment that replicates the heat and feel of an NHL arena would better acclimate his players than the Mastercard Centre for Hockey Excellence in a Toronto suburb.
But now the focus has shifted. At his news conference, Burke said he still believed in James Reimer (“I believe I’ll be borne out on that one,” he said,) thanked his captain, Dion Phaneuf, and all that did was call into focus two of the players with the smallest comfort zone.
Phaneuf now wears the ‘C’ like some kind of scarlet letter. He was Burke’s hand-picked captain, and it has not always been a cozy fit, has it? If you’re Reimer and Phaneuf, you probably wished that Burke wouldn’t have mentioned your name. Still, Phaneuf said Sunday that “I feel comfortable in this role.”
Burke sounded more like a politician resigning from a race on Saturday, stating unequivocally that he still wants to be a GM – you have all been warned – but that after being fired from his last two jobs after an ownership change he needs to do a better job of picking teams. He said that had the Leafs won more games, “I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today,” and then gently fed into the perception created by his media allies that he was a man wronged by the new board of MLSE.
Burke’s news conference at the Air Canada Centre was a stringing together of “yeah, buts.” He was not given a satisfactory reason for the timing of the announcement, he said, while reacting strongly to suggestions he was fired because of off-ice personal issues or issues with new members of the board, amid continuing suggestions that he and George Cope, the chief executive officer of BCE Inc., who now sits on the board of MLSE, had severe stylistic differences. If personality was an issue, it was an issue because of his record, he said. In Burke’s words: “You can be as obnoxious as you want if you are in first place.”
Burke was effusive in his praise of board chairman Larry Tanenbaum and Dale Lastman – holdovers from the board that hired him – while suggesting he had been misled about his role as a senior adviser. “I was informed Friday that the adviser’s role was to the board and Tom (Anselmi, MLSE’s chief operating officer) and not to hockey operations. That was not my understanding (on Wednesday.) My understanding is the board wants a little more distance, and that’s fine. They’re entitled to it. I asked Tom [Anselmi, on Saturday] morning, and he said we’ll work through it.”
Burke acknowledged that he needs to fit a fit for his “brand.” Join the club, then. Across the NHL, the process of determining round pegs and square holes has started in earnest.