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Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke speaks to reporters during the NHL General Managers' annual fall meeting in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, November 9, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)
Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke speaks to reporters during the NHL General Managers' annual fall meeting in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, November 9, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)

Jeff Blair

Like it or not Leafs GM Brian Burke is in for the long haul Add to ...

Well, yeah, the team stinks and head coach Ron Wilson needs to be shown the door. Newsflashes? Don't think so.

The bigger question about the Toronto Maple Leafs is what happened to Brian Burke? When did the guy who was supposed to be the Master of the NHL Universe ™ turn into - I don't know - Rob Babcock?

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The all-star break is a time for reflection. In the NHL, it means commissioner Gary Bettman tells us the league has never been stronger, that director of hockey operations Colin Campbell's got this head-shot stuff well in hand, and that he don't need no stinkin' Sidney Crosby in the all-star game, anyhow.

And in Toronto, as of Thursday, the all-star break will now forever officially begin on January 27: Free Joe Robb Day in honour of the 31-year-old Oakville, Ont., native who was given five hours of community service for throwing a box of waffles on to the Air Canada Centre ice during a Dec. 20 game against the Atlanta Thrashers. Robb - whose job is listed as a stonemason, thereby giving lie to the notion that on most nights at the ACC it is Phil Kessel with the hands of stone - will be spared a criminal record. He must, however, live the rest of his life knowing he was described as "long-time Leafs fan," in Canada's National Newspaper.

Look: you sign Burke to run your team and you get the whole package. You get the loyalty and sentimentality and the requisite amount of blarney. You get the philosophical accoutrements: the "personal" Christmas trade freeze that supersedes the league's own mandated Dec. 19-27 roster freeze; the unwillingness to extend offer sheets to restricted free agents; and the willingness to stick his nose in his peers' business, such as when he testified on the NHL's behalf in its arbitration hearing against the New Jersey Devils regarding the signing of Ilya Kovalchuk.

Burke supported the league's case that Kovalchuk's contract was a deliberate circumvention of the league's salary cap, and when our own James Mirtle asked him, essentially, whether the general manager of the deep-pocketed Maple Leafs wasn't obligated to do some circumventing of his own, he replied:

"I don't mind being on an island … where I believe there's a principle involved. These deals constituted cap circumvention, and I have steadfastly refused to do them."

That is vintage Burke, and reveals why the perception that the Toronto media is somehow soft on him is a non-starter. First, Burke's culpability in putting together a toxic mix of marginal talents and timid, under-performing defencemen has been oft-referenced, as is his culpability in trading for Phil The Thrill and unleashing the three-headed goaltender dragon.

Thing is, Burke doesn't care what I think. Or anybody else in the media, as I might even find out on my BlackBerry this morning. Besides, everybody knows that Burke has three more years and about $10-million left on his contract, so he's not going anywhere. Pound your head against the wall for a couple of decades like some of the local opinion-makers have been doing, and after a while you just say screw it, you know?

Funny, when Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment was hiring people like John Ferguson, Jr., and Babcock as GMs, it was skewered for chintzing out and bringing in entry-level guys who would kowtow to the corporate suits. But neither Burke nor Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo came cheaply, and both were in fact hired to largely critical acclaim.

As recently as a week ago, Burke he was talking about adding players for some sort of playoff run, even as it's obvious the only course of action is recalibrating and beginning a new rebuilding job. Few GMs have ever arrived in a city with as big a carte blanche as Burke had when he took this job. He blew the first act. That he's getting another chance just reinforces the idea that when you hire Brian Burke to run your team, it's in for a penny, in for a pound. You thought Burke was hard to hire? Hah - wait until you try to get rid of him.

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