Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke had the following reaction when asked yesterday about Toronto fans booing captain Dion Phaneuf:
"Are they entitled to do it? Sure, they are. And I honestly don't believe it was a lot of them. It doesn't take many fans booing to be heard so I think we're talking about a very small number, but my opinion is that it's disgraceful to boo Dion Phaneuf for everything he has done for this franchise, on and off the ice, in a very short period of time."
Are you okay with management chiding the paying public for voicing their displeasure with the way a team is playing?
Booing is an art form, as Philadelphia has shown time and time again. It's the price of the price -- if you're going to charge people to come, they have the right to approve or disapprove what they have purchased, especially given that professional sport does not give money back when goods prove unsatisfactory. But just as fans can boo as they wish, Brian Burke is perfectly within his rights to boo the booers. As a GM, he should and does stick up for his players. As the one who chose to trade for Phaneuf, he has a right, even an obligation, to defend his own actions. I have no problem whatsoever with what he has said. Is he entitled to do it? Sure, he is.
No. Fans are paying customers. They're entitled to opinions, and allowed to voice them. If you are the GM, they may not sign your cheques, but they are ultimately your master. Burke was wise to mention some of this in his statement, but "disgraceful" was too strong a word. It may have been "harsh," but it was not "disgraceful."
It's an old story - a general manager sticking up for his guy, especially one he traded for and helped anoint as captain.
But really, Brian Burke can't be calling the fans' booing of Toronto Maple Leafs' defenceman Dion Phaneuf disgraceful. That's a big step over the line.
If Phaneuf is playing poorly and the Leafs are losing, he should be booed. He was in Calgary in his days with the Flames. For the money NHLers make, for the way they're coddled and protected from the media, they need to be held accountable. And who better to do that then the folks paying the bills?
Burke can protect his guy all he wants but his primary responsibility should be answering to his bosses. Ultimately, that's Mr. and Mrs. Fan sitting in those high-priced seats at the ACC.
Brian Burke is entitled to his opinion and we all know he never hesitates to express one, often at full volume.
But lord love a duck, hockey people are mighty touchy about booing, even the faint lowing of disapproval that passes for it at the Air Canada Centre. I have long believed they all have a fundamental misunderstanding of the boo.
Most hockey people, and sports people for that matter, regard boos as the worst sort of fundamental insult, as if the fans en masse have shouted the athlete in question is not worthy to breathe the same air as them.
But the boo is not that at all, at least not for sensible people (okay, I know but bear with me). The boo is the last refuge of civilized fans.
Outside of individual criminal acts like jumping on the field of play to assault a player, it is almost the only form left for fans to express their unhappiness as a group. Even the clever insult hurled from the leather-lunged among the masses is practically extinct because the NHL has gone the way of the NBA and ensured that any nano-second of silence is filled with the worst music ever composed cranked up to sonic-boom levels.
Boos are not the fans telling a player they hate him. To me, boos tell a player, "We are angry because we believe you are a much better player than you are showing at present. We expect more from you so shape up."
Look how often boos turn to cheers when the subject does something even passably well. The boo is just another expression of the fans' passion for their team, albeit a negative one.
This is not to say all cases do not turn out well. Relations between some players and fans do get so bad the player is figuratively booed out of town.
But managers and players need to take a sensible view of the practice and worry more about improvement.
Wow Dave, of the things I wouldn't expect to read on a hockey blog, a Foucault-ian deconstruction of booing has to be near the top! Bravo. Seems to me fans should be free to jeer as much as they want, as long as they don't get surprised of miffed when the likes of Burke (or Bob Gainey) rips in to them, free speech applies all around.
Yeah, it betrays an over-sensitivity, but I think Burke has a point to the extent that he argues sophisticated, loyal fans will seek to support a team rather than undermine it by singling out players. And in cases like Phaneuf's, there are plenty of other things for fans to get upset about, like abysmal offence (Phaneuf's not even the worst offender on defence, on current form Mike Komisarek is barely a top-4 guy in the AHL, never mind the NHL).
Booing can also take on a nasty tinge - as it regularly has in Montreal, ask Patrice Brisebois - and fans shouldn't expect players to just shrug it off and immediately play better. There's pride at stake, and these are rich, spoiled men who are used to being adored.
It doesn't mean fans who pay through the nose to watch a sucky team aren't entitled to voice their displeasure, just that there's no such thing as instant gratification.
I understand where Leafs' GM Brian Burke is coming from, when he rushed to the defence of captain Dion Phaneuf's play the other day. After all, Burke made a significant commitment to Phaneuf last year, wheeling him and his $6.5-million contract in from Calgary to quote-unquote "help change the culture of the team."
Burke's words in support of Phaneuf - and his criticism of the fans that singled him out for attention - stems from exactly the same motivation that has the Leaf manager defending the Phil Kessel trade every time that comes up too. These are the signature pieces of the puzzle Burke is trying to assemble in Toronto, and cannot be blamed on the unwieldy mess he inherited when he arrived almost two years ago now as the Leafs' fresh-faced new GM.
Anybody who watched Phaneuf play all those years in Calgary will understand why the Flames were prepared to trade him in the first place. He is the classic example of a player that helps you in some areas and hurts you in others. Phaneuf can really shoot; and Phaneuf can really hit. But Phaneuf is also prone to the odd bonehead play defensively - and no matter who happens to coach him; how much video he reviews; or how often positioning on the penalty kill is stressed to him, Phaneuf continues to make the kind of egregious defensive errors that sometimes cost a team a game.
And when fans see that, they don't pause for a moment to ponder, 'hmmm, wonder if I'm damaging the psyche of our new captain by voicing my displeasure?' They boo. Generally speaking, they do not boo to the extent that they did the other night if it were just an isolated case either. They booed because they are seeing now what their counterparts in Calgary did for years - that with Phaneuf, what you see is what you get, wildly inconsistent play.
It isn't all bad with Phaneuf. Some of it can actually very good. But the notion that Phaneuf might one day be in the Chris Pronger/Scott Niedermayer/Nicklas Lidstrom perennial Norris Trophy candidate category is becoming a bit fanciful these days. He's just too up-and-down. And when he's had a week or more of up-and-down play - and the team is going rapidly off the rails after a fast start - it's OK for the fans to express their disenchantment with what they see. For Burke to come to his employee's defence makes perfect sense from his perspective and the grand scheme of his things. But be fair. Hockey fans in Toronto pay a small fortune to support their team, such as it is. That gives them permission to react viscerally when it plays as badly as it has in the last fortnight.