Despite an NHL-imposed gag order to cease and desist from public comments, Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke painted the rival Vancouver Canucks as whiners and tattletales yesterday.
Burke, the former Canucks GM who is returning to his former haunt for the first time since assuming leadership of the Maple Leafs in November, admitted yesterday that he erred in allowing a team-produced video - in which he floats inaccurate trade rumours about Vancouver players - to appear on the club's website. But Burke also insinuated the Canucks are responsible for the brouhaha, and that the whole incident could have been settled privately had Vancouver GM Mike Gillis called him and not the NHL head office.
"All the commentary on this has come out of Vancouver," Burke said on the eve of a showdown between the teams at GM Place tonight. "Not a word out of Toronto."
Gillis has said Leafs executives are intentionally trying to disrupt Vancouver players by expressing interest in their services and circulating false trade rumours.
"The league has asked us to let this go, and I would respect that except to say that it's absurd," Burke said. "And I'll leave it at that. It's an absurd allegation. You're talking about footage that was shot when I was talking to my scouting staff. And I passed along a rumour - and said it was a rumour - and I don't know how that got through the editing process. I saw the rough cut and I missed it."
In the video, filmed at the entry draft in June, Burke said his second-hand information was that the Canucks were pushing to acquire the second overall selection from the Tampa Bay Lightning and were offering first-line winger Alex Burrows, top-pair defenceman Kevin Bieksa and the 22nd overall draft choice.
After it was posted online, Gillis cried foul to the NHL and argued Burke was too smart and experienced in hockey matters to reasonably believe Vancouver would trade two of its best players going into a season in which it fancied itself a Stanley Cup contender. Because of that, Gillis concluded, Burke must have had an ulterior motive in mentioning the players by name.
The Canucks boss also said he was protecting the interests of his owners, the Aquilini family, which was an important clue in getting to the root of this feud.
"I said to the league right away that if the Vancouver Canucks had called us and said 'Look, there's something up on our website...'" Burke said yesterday. "Instead of Mike calling me, he went and talked to a bunch of reporters… I called the league and said: 'It's a legitimate beef and we'll take it down immediately.'"
Gillis would not comment yesterday, citing the league's request for silence.
Today, however, the tension in the press box could be thicker than Vancouver's fog as Burke, Gillis and Dave Nonis, Toronto's assistant general manager and a former Canucks GM, are expected to assemble in close quarters.
Awkward moments will be around every corner given that Burke and Nonis will have to walk past their former digs - the general manager's suite - to reach their assigned seats at GM Place, should they choose to use them.
The squabble between the Leafs and Canucks - two successful businesses operating in the country's two largest English-speaking markets - makes for good sports-fan fodder, but the real origins rest with Burke and Canucks chairman Francesco Aquilini and the corridors of power in B.C.
The Canucks owner and Burke haven't been on speaking terms for several years.
In 2005, Aquilini was sued by two prominent B.C. businessmen who were aligned with Burke and claimed Aquilini cut them out of a deal to jointly buy the Canucks. It ignited a prolonged court battle that polarized some of Vancouver's wealthiest citizens. Aquilini had reportedly never stepped into a courtroom before the trial, yet made a point of attending every torturous session, and listening to every discouraging word.
The case was thrown out in January, 2008 - a decision that amounted to total victory for Aquilini - but during the proceedings, it was revealed that had Tom Gaglardi and Ryan Beedie been awarded controlling interest in the Canucks, they were planning on hiring Burke as president and CEO.
Outside of the courtroom, Burke and Aquilini were waging battle in Vancouver social circles - where they had friends in common and where bad-mouthing occasionally got back to the source, as was the case with a high-ranking political official in Victoria who informed one of the other's comments.
Another person familiar with the Burke-Aquilini situation said there was even a meeting where one challenged the other to a physical confrontation, though cooler heads prevailed.
"That's none of your business," Burke said yesterday when asked to characterize his relationship with the Canucks chairman.
Nonis, Burke's protégé, was Vancouver's GM at the time, and given the distrust between his boss and mentor, it is now clear that he was on borrowed time. But when he was unceremoniously fired in April of 2008, it represented a huge indignity, because the Burnaby, B.C., native had already laid out his plan to Canucks fans under the assumption he would return for the 2008-09 campaign.
Instead, one week after the season, Aquilini returned from business in Italy and terminated Nonis, replacing him with Gillis, a player agent with no management experience. Gillis proceeded to disparage the organization's talent base, stating he had inherited a mess and that past managers had brainwashed fans with the idea the team was talented enough to compete for a championship.
"I don't think this team is close," Gillis said at the time. "I think this team needs to get faster. I think it needs more grit. I think it needs to be more competitive."
This summer, Burke's draft video became the second contretemps between the Leafs and Canucks.
In June, Toronto head coach Ron Wilson suggested his team was interested in signing the Sedin twins before the Swedish forwards were technically free agents. The NHL ultimately fined Wilson $25,000 U.S. for tampering, but only this month - nearly four months after the fact - and only after the Canucks complained about the draft video.
"He crossed the line and got fined," Burke said of his coach. "Does he owe anyone an apology? No."