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Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said he laments the disappearance of the NHL enforcer while announcing the demotion to the minors of Leafs tough guy Colton Orr. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press/Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said he laments the disappearance of the NHL enforcer while announcing the demotion to the minors of Leafs tough guy Colton Orr. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press/Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Jeff Blair

Brian Burke laments the eclipse of the NHL enforcer Add to ...

Brian Burke’s new owners might want to gently remind him that his first job is to make the playoffs instead of trying to prevent the extinction of the NHL’s dinosaurs.

Strange.

In Colton Orr, most people see a player of heavily disguised talent given $1-million (all currency U.S.) a year over four years by Burke to beat people up, but the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs sees a cause célèbre. Thursday, ahead of a game against the Winnipeg Jets, Burke contemplated the prospect of sending Orr down to the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies after Orr had cleared waivers. While most teams would have said adios with a one-paragraph press release, Burke said: “When a player the character of Colton Orr can’t contribute in this league, I’m not sure I like where the league is going.”

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It was less a rant than an expression of sadness.

So now on top of everything else – inventing his own moral code about player acquisition, commenting on how everybody else in the league conducts his business, worrying more about how teams are screwing each other with salary-cap machinations than jumping into the fray – Burke has added another cause to the list, and this time it’s the granddaddy of lost NHL causes.

Not that there isn’t reason to worry about Orr. He suffered a concussion on Jan. 20 in a staged fight against George Parros of the Anaheim Ducks and has taken several blows to the head en route to collecting 921 penalty minutes in 378 games. Knowing what we know now about the mental and physical toll taken on the hockey goon, who wouldn’t be worried?

Yet Burke’s concern was that no NHL team, including the Leafs, had a place for Orr.

“I’m not throwing stones,” Burke said, making it clear that if there were “no dance partners” for Orr on a given night, it made greater sense to dress players such as Darryl Boyce or Joey Crabb. Yes, the general manager of a team actually lamented that he had to dress more talented players with at least a modicum of hockey skills over a guy whose best asset is throwing punches. Wow.

“I know the Greenpeace folks will be happy with this,” Burke said, “but I wonder where we’re going when [NHL vice-president of discipline]Brendan Shanahan’s got six hearings every two days.”

If the Leafs were in the middle of a losing streak, this could be dismissed as Burke running interference for his good friend and head coach Ron Wilson. But apparently it was too much watching the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steve Downie try to sucker Dion Phaneuf and other Leafs into fights in Tuesday’s 7-3 Toronto win.

So even though game officials did their job and Downie spent 20 minutes in the penalty box to put his already short-handed team at a huge disadvantage, Burke worried that “if we don’t have the guys looking after each other, then the rats will take this game over.” There will be, in his words, “no checks and balances.”

He worried about “accountability,” and if anybody wondered whether the redundancy of Orr and fellow knuckleduster Jay Rosehill meant Burke was undergoing some kind of conversion and was no longer the Dark Lord of Truculence, wonder no more.

“It’s a dangerous turn in our game,” Burke said of the diminishing role of fighters.

Right.

God forbid that regular-season game No. 589 turn into one of those boring games played at a playoff pace absent the good fun of staged fights and line brawls, where a clean hit on a fourth-line player doesn’t mean somebody has to square up to somebody else.

You want a dangerous turn? A dangerous turn is giving ownership reason to question whether the game is passing you by at a time when you’ll be life and death to make the playoffs. Because when that happens, it is the messenger who gets old as well as the message.

On the other hand, at least Burke didn’t give Orr a contract extension. Been enough of those golden handshakes lately.

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