The most talked-about employee of the Toronto Maple Leafs these days, as the team flails away hopelessly in pursuit of another playoff push that’s simply not to be, isn’t the goal-scoring savior who has just eight ginos since the start of February, or the Swedish goalie who’s putting up big-time stats but still getting no help from the team in front of him, or even the hard-ass new coach brought in when the ship was already listing sharply to one side and asked to right it again.
It is, instead, the beleaguered general manager who cannot — or perhaps will not — avoid the 10 billion-watt halogen bulbs shined on his every move.
This year, it seems, everything to do with the Maple Leafs is being filtered through Brian Burke. It’s not “Does Phil Kessel need more help than Joffrey Lupul?” or “Can Jonas Gustavsson improve?” It’s “When will Brian Burke swoop in and bail out this team by acquiring… well, someone who is good at hockey?”
It seems you can’t go more than a day or two without Burke’s name showing up at the center of some kind of discussion. Don Cherry blamed him for not having enough Ontario-born players on the team, he sparked that big debate over the role of the enforcer and the rise of the rats after he was gutted to cut a guy like Colton Orr, and has lately been seen complaining about the inherent unfairness of the trade deadline on players (and publicly mulling simply not observing it as an organization).
In much the way the Penguins are Sidney Crosby’s team and the Blackhawks are Jonathan Toews’ team, the Leafs are Brian Burke’s team moreso than anything else. And given the amount of attention being paid to him even prior to this season, the fact that Burke is jumping up and down waving a flare around trying to attract the attention of a giant, ravenous, primordial monster (the Toronto media) should tell you everything you need to know about what’s really going on here.
Brian Burke is very much trying to distract everyone from the fact that the Leafs have been hot garbage since November by turning up his Burkieness about 10-fold from previous years. The media is fascinated with Burke in a way that they are for few other people in the sport. He’s smart, candid, gruff, successful, and a great quote. All of these qualities make him the perfect media darling. And because he knows that, he plays it up big-time by making things harder on himself.
You may have noticed the increasing gruffness as the season has worn on. His trademark undone-tie is undone often before games even start these days, and one suspects he’ll be wearing around his head like a kid in Lord of the Flies by the end of the season; he’s hanging up on sports radio stations mid-interview (though to be fair those guys were real jerks); he’s once again doing in-depth interviews about himself in a way that he hasn’t in some time. Burke often talks at length about the effect the scrutiny has on his charges, and indeed has more or less said that’s the reason he cannot attract big-money, big-name players. Well, that and the no-trade clauses and combined $12.3 million being paid to Mike Komisarek, John-Michael Liles, and Luke Schenn through the end of 2013-14.
It’s kind of brilliant if you think about it. In a way, he’s doing a perfect job as a general manager. By drawing scrutiny away from his team — which he’s quick to remind you is in a hockey-mad market filled with jackals stalking the herd looking for the slightest sign of weakness — and toward himself, he is actually doing his team a service. Not, you’ll notice, on the ice or anything. But if they’re talking about Brian Burke, which they’ll do happily, they’re not talking about that disaster of a D corps. Any uncomfortable questions the team avoids are good ones in Burke’s book, and understandably so. Of course, because of all that, it’s also pretty much impossible to feel any kind of sympathy for the guy when we hear how hard all this has been on him, which was illustrated quite clearly, and very well, in the Globe and Mail over the weekend. (Congrats to the G&M, by the way, for writing the milestone 1,000th Intimate Profile of Brian Burke: The Man in the last two years.) It’s not easy being Brian Burke, to be sure. High-pressure job in which he’s as visible as anyone else in the organization — could most hockey fans have picked, say, Scott Howson before he bungled this season, out of a police lineup? — and is having pretty much no success at all in getting his team into the playoffs despite a massive payroll and a few very good players, plus he just had to fire one of his college buddies.
It’s hard to envy Brian Burke’s life and it’s really hard to think he’s lying when he says his job is at once awful and great, but at the same time, as the team he puts together slips farther out of a playoff spot, it would be nice to see attention shifted elsewhere. For, like, two days.