Friday, January 11, 2013

In Burke We Bust

Oh, how good it feels to write about hockey again.

About three-quarters of the way through the lockout, with hope for a season all but evaporated, I wrote on Facebook that the NHL could go puck itself, that if and when it came back I'd be damned if I'd come flocking back to it.

Guess I'll be damned. There's no doubt Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr have conspired to punish me, a hockey fan, over the past four months. But now that the NHL's coming back, I can't remember why I should continue to punish myself.

There are several people I have talked to who have discovered, or re-discovered, junior hockey, college hockey, the AHL, or what have you. They've resolved never to watch another NHL game. That's perfectly fine, but it's not for me. The National Hockey League is chock-full of the most talented hockey players on the planet. Hockey at any level is an interesting game, in my opinion; at the top level it's a hyperkinetic ballet on ice. I admire the principles behind depriving yourself of such a display, but I'd argue you're missing out.

So. To business.


I wrote about ten paragraphs of a blog defending the recently deposed general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, then deleted all of it and ran away in confusion.

That doesn't happen very often. My last blog entry was written almost without pause and published almost exactly as it was written, which is more typical of my output. But the more I wrote about Brian Burke, the more my righteous indignation at his dismissal turned to weary resignation. Because as much as I like and respect the man, and as much as I appreciate what he was building in Toronto, the fact is he deserved the axe he got.

There have been several excellent analyses published on Maple Leafs Hot Stove, which is to my mind the best Leaf site on the net. Burke was and is a polarizing figure. People tend to either love him or hate him. The ones who love him would go through a wall for him; the ones who hate him want to shove him through a wall themselves. Love or hate the man, most people have been questioning the timing.

It's not as if the Burke record is bulletproof. After all, the Leafs have not made the playoffs during his tenure. It's hard to see where they have improved since he came. (Team record in his first season: 34-35-13, 81 points; team record last season: 35-37-10, 80 points.) After four years, in a league where too many teams can get into the playoffs and you get points even when you lose games, this is not a record to be proud of. And yet...

You have to look beyond the stats to see the many good things Burke has done for the franchise. Let's start with the culture. When he arrived in 2008, the Toronto Maple Leafs were, almost to a man, afflicted with what became known as "Blue and White Disease". The chief symptom of this disease was a massive sense of entitlement. Players suffering from this ailment would go through the motions of playing hockey, feeling they had nothing to prove to themselves, their coaches, or the fans.

Burke changed all that. It took him some time, but there is exactly one player on the Leaf roster who predates Burke's arrival, and several players Burked traded for or drafted have since been dealt themselves. Building a championship team is a slow process and it usually involves some missteps (see: Versteeg, Beauchemin, and Gustavsson). You start with a young team (the Leafs are the second-youngest in the league), acquire talent by hook or by crook (they have more first round draft picks playing in their organization than any other NHL team). You instill a culture of winning from top to bottom in your organization...and then you wait and let your team develop. That's how it's done. There are other ways to do it, but slow and sure is the best way, especially in a league with a salary cap.

The winning may not have percolated up to the top level yet, but it's coming. Look at the Toronto Marlies, the Leaf farm team. They have progressively improved over Burke's tenure. Last year they made the championship and might have won it were it not for a string of freakish injuries. History shows that AHL success translates, over two to three years, into NHL success for the parent team. It's coming. And that, too, is Burke's doing.

If it sounds like I'm defending him even now, that's because there really is something worth defending there. However...

Burke is cursed with a mouth that won't stay shut. It's great entertainment to listen to him, but he tells tales and some of them are rather tall. For instance, he famously sent reporters scrambling for their dictionaries when he promised HIS Toronto Maple Leafs would "require, as a team, the proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence". That hasn't really translated to the ice. Much more damning, he told the world that a Brian Burke team is built "from the net out". You'd think that after four years, that philosophy would mean the team would at minimum have a goaltender who could stop a beach ball. Yes, there are promising 'tenders coming up (Scrivens and Rynnas most particularly), but I'd have thought a top-flight netminder would be priority one.

So the failure to advance the plan can be the public reason for Burke's dismissal. It wasn't the real reason. If it was, Dave Nonis would be on the unemployment line today as well, along with the rest of the team Burke assembled. To fire the head of a management team, yet leave the rest of the team fully intact, suggests the motive was personal and political, not professional.

Brian Burke is more of an ass-kicker than he is an ass-kisser. And that, in the end, is why he was fired, and why, much as it pains to me to say it, he deserved to be.

I've seen it several times: highly qualified people, who excel in their position and achieve excellent results, are summarily dismissed and occasionally blackballed because they mouthed off to the wrong person. It doesn't matter if the person they mouthed off to is a grade-A prick who never should have been promoted once, let alone seven or eight times; such people have egos and they react swiftly and furiously when those egos are bruised.

In an ideal world, ass-kissing would give both the kisser and especially the kissee some kind of sexually transmitted disease. The real world, unfortunately, is chock-full of people bent over with their ass-lips puckered. Burke couldn't possibly have gotten as far as he has without knowing this. He probably didn't care. His first interview with the suits who now run the Maple Leafs, by all accounts, did not go well. I can't say for certain -- I wasn't there -- but I strongly suspect Burke had some questions of his own in that interview, such as what the hell do you know about hockey and how many effing Cups have YOU won. Because Burke has a ego too, and he has a plan, and his plan is bearing fruit...just not as fast as some would like it to. He also signed a contract guaranteeing him autonomy over hockey operations, which is critical in a market like Toronto that has been repeatedly plagued by blatant ownership meddling.

My great fear as a Leaf fan is that the ownership meddling is back with a vengeance. I truly hope this is not the case. Because if it is, the Leafs will be right up there with the Chicago Cubs in terms of championship droughts.

The tipping point, we are hearing, concerns one Roberto Luongo, of Vancouver and his availability on the trade market. Now, Luongo is a very good goalie. It is my contention he's the wrong very good goalie for this team, largely because he has a history of cracking under pressure, and there's no pressure like Toronto pressure. Reports have surfaced that Burke was lukewarm on trading for Luongo, believing the price to be too high, while most of the rest of the management team was and is ready to hand Vancouver most of the Leafs' farm system in exchange. This, too, is simply media conjecture. I hope. There's no doubt the Leafs need a capable, veteran goaltender first and foremost. What they don't need is Luongo's albatross of a contract, in exchange for multiple young players who will be benefitting the Canucks long after Roberto has retired.

Brian Burke will land on his feet. I have great respect for the man, the fatherand the GM--it is tremendously refreshing to see a man who doesn't kiss ass and doesn't demand his ass be kissed.

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