Something happened when the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Brian Burke on November 29, 2008, that went beyond the change in organizational philosophy that typically accompanies a new front-office regime in professional sports. Burke, whose abilities to articulate are well matched with his impulse to express himself, became the fabled face of the franchise.
The face of the franchise. It’s a funny phrase that’s probably more frequently used by sports talk radio shows than anyone with anything to do with a professional team, but it suggests that fans are prone to assigning someone from the ranks with the role as the representative of the entire club. This isn’t usually a conscious decision, and it’s exceedingly rare for a fan base to anoint a general manager with such a potentially hazardous oil. We’re far more likely to pick a player – someone on the field, court or rink of play – as the person through whom we live out our sports-based fantasies.
However, Burke’s justified extroverted tendencies combined with an exceedingly engaged group of supporters and a roster that – let’s be honest – didn’t have a lot of players with whom fans would naturally choose to identify, placed the head of the Maple Leafs front office in a position which few professional sports executives find themselves. Even after making notable acquisitions to that roster, it was largely thought of as Burke’s team. Even as fans mocked terms like truculence, there was an implicit understanding that Burke was the figurehead most closely identified with the organization that they supported through so many years in the wilderness.
After four more, even as a version of the promised land appeared on the horizon, Burke’s status as president, general manager and face of the franchise ceased to be.