An Elegy for Brian Burke

How great is Brian Burke? So great that he can use a formal portrait to telepathically tell us all to go fuck ourselves.

Brian Burke is gone.

It’s been a week now that Burke hasn’t been generally managing the Toronto Maple Leafs, and I’m still not over the loss. See, I loved Brian Burke. It was a shameful thing, the unrequited, star-crossed passion of a naïve young blogger (well, young in 2008 anyway) for the middle-aged general manager of her arch-rivals, but nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself. Whether he was harassing journalists, fantasizing about beating up Kevin Lowe, making fun of math, or advocating for compassion and social justice, the mere mention of his name was enough to make me stop whatever I was doing, kick up my internet, and swoon a little. In my years writing about hockey, which very nearly overlap with Burke’s tenure in Toronto, no one else provided fodder for both serious debates and snarky jokes with such enthusiasm and regularity. He was amazing, and when the news came down that he’d been fired- not quit, not mutually-parted-ways-with, but fired- well, I didn’t cry, but I thought about it for a second.

When I say I loved him, that doesn’t mean I agreed with him. Not at all.  In fact, as concerns the proper management of hockey team, you could not find two people who agreed about fewer things than Brian Burke and myself. Me, I prefer a nefarious man in the front office, and when it comes to the tenets of the CBA, I say circumvent ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out. If I had a franchise of my very own, kittens, it would probably have the least testosterone per capita in the NHL. I would offer-sheet everyone and trade right up until the last second of the last minute of the deadline and hold press conferences just to openly mock any who complained. If Brian Burke and I were rival GMs, we would have barn-fought ten times over and probably one of us would have lost an eye by now.

I wouldn’t want him to GM my team, but… wait… Brian Burke… Montreal… history… tradition… crazy fans… crazier journalists… quixotic ideals… batshit obsessions… language politics… pressers… you know, if you think about it, this might just be… the perfect storm… hmmm… NO. NO, ELLEN. That way lies madness and also ten years in the draft lottery. It cannot be allowed, no matter the entertainment value. Brian Burke should never, ever come to Montreal. Possibly not even on vacation. Certainly not as a hockey executive.

Paradoxically, I love Burke for exactly the same reason I wouldn’t want him running my Habs: he believes things. He believes that truculence is useful, advanced stats are useless, and that there should be a place for Colton Orr in the NHL. He believes that there is an important distinction between what is permitted and what is right and that not every tool available to a GM should be used. He believes in the Way of Big: big bodies, big statements, and big moves. He doesn’t believe such things because they have been justified by some rigorous process of research, analysis, and experimentation. He believes them as a matter of faith. Brian Burke has always seemed to believe in Hockey-with-a-capital-H the way other people believe in God-with-a-capital-G. He’s not a “student of the game” type.  The way he talks about the game, it’s not a subject to be learnt but a truth to be uncovered.  It’s as if, somewhere up in the ether, perfectly formed, sits the Platonic ideal of Hockey, and the quality of a real-life hockey team is determined by how closely it cleaves to the ideal.  Brian Burke’s hockey isn’t just about winning and losing.  It’s about doing things the right way, win or lose.  It’s about having principles.

This game was not made for principles. It’s always had principles, sure, but they’re mostly a word veneer slapped over completely unprincipled behavior. Principles are what hockey guys talk about to the cameras while, silently, in the back room, a whole staff of people search for the next dirty, underhanded, illegal and unspeakable advantage. If we had forgotten, the lockout should have reminded us: this game isn’t made by men who believe in things. It’s made by men who would punch their grandmother for a dollar and shoot her for a Cup. The best coaches, managers, players, and owners all have more than a little rat in them. They’re willing to adjust their beliefs and practices on the fly in order to get what they want. Politely, you could call it flexibility, or moderation, or ingenuity. Impolitely, I might call it amorality.

Frequently invoked and rarely honored, ideals have a rough time in hockey, but nevertheless, the game needs people who have them. It’s easy to advocate for reasonable compromises and fluid standards, but before there can be flexibility, there have to be principles. You can’t take a little from column A and a little from column B if no one has defined what A or B is. There’s no middle ground for moderate people to shift around in without some blowhards anchoring the far ends of the spectrum, advocating for absolute values and uncompromising principles.

Burke was one of those people, one of the black-and-white types against whom the rest of us define our greyscale hockey views. And I suppose he still is, although pontificating doesn’t do much good without a pulpit. It’s good to have people like that- the big, broad guys with big, broad ideas- in positions that matter, where we can see how their grandiose philosophies fare in the real world, in competition with the wicked ways of the offer-sheeters and cap-circumventers. Because Burke had both principles and a team on which to work them, we learned a lot more about those principles than we would have if he was just some dude hectoring from the sidelines. With great power comes great responsibility, but also great relevance. It was good to have Brian Burke relevant.

And it was especially good to have him in Toronto. Speaking as a Habs fan, Leafs Nation has become entirely too full of dreary fatalism and hunched sorrow to make for much of a rivalry. I know the Canadiens are nothing to be overly proud of these days, but at least we played some postseason hockey between Lockout the Second and Lockout the Third, and when that’s all you need to feel comfortably superior to your supposed arch-nemesis,  that’s a tragic state of affairs, that is. For a long time now, the Leafs have not inspired hate or resentment or even contempt in opposing fan bases, but pity and maybe a little contagious embarrassment. The Leafs are the wealthiest franchise in the NHL. By rights, they should be simultaneously envied and reviled by every hockey fan on the continent save their own. Instead, mostly we just feel sorry for them.

But although he suffered terrible tragedy in his personal life, it was always tough to feel sorry for Brian Burke as a GM. He was too confident and too combative to look down on, either compassionately or contemptuously. You could argue with him, you could mock him, you might even hate him, but pity him? Never. Not when he got up in front of a room with the famous loosened tie and spat half a thesaurus at the press with so much venom you could hear the four-letter word implied in every four-syllable one. As much as it was obviously posturing, with all the talk of breaking reporter’s noses and fighting in barns, every word was spoken with deep feeling and defended with righteous faith. When he said the rats need to be kept out of the game and the so-called Pittsburgh model was bullshit, everyone listened, and everyone had an opinion. He may have failed at making the Leafs good, but he succeeded in making them interesting, and that’s not nothing . That the new owners did away with him over a personality conflict is both completely understandable and extremely depressing, for it suggests that, bad or good, their real preference is for bland.

What now? Maybe he’ll go into media, land of the failed GMs, with Milbury on one side and Maclean on the other, to shit on his still-employed counterparts and spin fantasies about the deals he might have done, if only…. But I hope not. Firstly, because he wasn’t that bad of a GM.  A lot of his moves were overly ambitious and some key ones didn’t pan out, but none of them were flat-out stupid. Secondly, and more importantly, though, being a media guy involves a lot of making nice with other media people, and Burke is more fun when he doesn’t play that game. Yet without playing that game, without participating in the network of mutual support that media share, he could easily end up (like another famously opinionated hockey guy) isolated and increasingly irrelevant, just another old man yelling at clouds.

There are plenty of media guys who snipe at GMs, coaches, and players already, but not nearly enough GMs or coaches or players who snipe back (God bless you, John Tortorella). Hockey needs Brian Burke giving press conferences for as long as he can formulate sentences and artfully disarrange his neckwear, ideally on behalf of a team with some talent and a lot of media.

Hopefully, somewhere, Daryl Katz is making a phone call.