There are a lot of strange sights in Ufa, Russia – homemade plywood shovels digging out BMWs, handgun kiosks in the mall, runway fashion on unplowed streets – but the strangest of all might have been the appearance of Brian Burke, high in the corner stands behind the cheerleaders, leprechaun hats and thundersticks.
Tie draped about his shoulders like a thin shawl, arms folded over chest, the then general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs sat like an old Politburo member proudly watching a May Day military march.
He had reason to be proud. USA Hockey, of which he has been an integral force for years, was putting on a show. Gaining strength with every game, humiliating the Canadians 5-1 and then defeating favourite Sweden in the gold-medal game, Team USA had just won its second world junior championship in four years.
Burke was pumped.
He was happy for the American youngsters and, he said, “excited” about the prospects of the NHL lockout ending and his Maple Leafs getting back to proving he knows what he is doing in Toronto.
“There’s been a bunch of changes,” he said. “It will be Randy Carlyle’s first season behind the bench. We’ve added James van Riemsdyk. We’re going to work hard and make the playoffs.”
He made it sound so good. He was one of the few senior hockey executives to make the arduous trip to Ufa to check out his team’s prospects. He liked what he saw in young Morgan Rielly, the attacking defenceman of the Moose Jaw Warriors who played for Canada. He was delighted with the aggressive play of Tyler Biggs, the Oshawa Generals’ forward who won gold with the Americans.
“Really, really excited,” Burke said.
Three days later, he was really, really crushed, stunned by being fired as Leafs GM before the puck could even drop on a season that might have been the measure of Brian Burke, had not his new bosses decided a pre-emptive strike was in order.
He had been in charge of hockey’s only $1-billion club for four years. The Maple Leafs had not made the playoffs in that time but were supposedly rebuilding from many more years of bad decisions and a Stanley Cup drought that dates to black-and-white television.
He had been GM of the Hartford Whalers, Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks, with whom he had won a Cup in 2007. This, however, was his first firing – and friends say it was devastating and unexpected.
New ownership had also let him go in Vancouver by simply refusing to renew his contract. New ownership is like that in hockey: Very successful men in other fields become owners and find, for perhaps the first time, they are recognized and quoted and, being successful in previous enterprises, instantly decide they are experts in their new one. It is a familiar story and often a harmful one.
General managers in sport prefer to maintain control, to keep their own counsel. Perhaps the new owners of the team’s parent company, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., didn’t feel they were privy enough to Burke’s master plan. Perhaps they didn’t feel he respected them enough as hockey people. After all, they owned the team; they must know something.
It wasn’t as if he was unaware of criticism. Running hockey in Toronto is more scrutinized than running the country.
There was the trade that brought Phil Kessel and his goals to Toronto but gave the Boston Bruins a brilliant future in the likes of, so far, top draft picks Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. There was the contract extension and subsequent firing of head coach and friend Ron Wilson. But there is also van Riemsdyk and perhaps Carlyle and the unknown promise of the various prospects.
Friends who have talked to Burke say that he was caught 100-per-cent off-guard. He told one that on his way to meeting his new bosses, he thought something had gone wrong with one of his staff – he had some crazy idea that someone had been arrested for drunk driving – and all the way back to the office he was going through his list of close employees, worrying about them.
It never once occurred to him that it might involve him.
Fired, but hardly killed, the 57-year-old Burke accepted his fate, for the time being. He would serve as a senior adviser to new GM David Nonis, who is ironically a Burke creation from their Canucks days together.
He would stay in Toronto, cheer for the Leafs – and he would meet with the puzzled and polarized Toronto media Saturday morning.
It was in his first press conference that he used his oft-quoted phrase calling for “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence” in his team.
He still believes in it, even if in some ways it cost him his job.
And it will likely bring him his next one.