The Life and Times of Brian Burke (Part 1)

He arrived in the hockey Mecca of Toronto, Canada in November 2008 to unprecedented fanfare. It was a highly publicized welcome fitting for a tried and true sports icon. An icon known not for a blazing shot or supreme playmaking skills (both painfully absent from the Leaf team he would inherit), but for his uncanny ability to systematically engineer a champion. He came with a proven pedigree, having successfully led his former club to the championship versus the Ottawa senators in 2007, whom the Ducks of Anaheim made quick work of to win the series. 

To become winners, MLSE rationalized, the Leafs needed to start with a winner at the helm, and upon the release of hard-luck rookie GM John Ferguson Jr., MLSE president Richard Peddie and leading sports attorney Gordon Kirke set out to land a big-ticket, battle-hardened hockey executive to restore the original six franchise to glory once and for all.

Ferguson was little more than a 'straw-boss', with limited authority and even less latitude to roll out any kind of a long-term gameplan of his own design. It didn't help matters that MLSE president Richard Peddie seemingly fancied himself as something of a budding hockey executive, basking in daily media attention despite the fact that his professional background would not remotely suggest anything of the sort was warranted.

...“Stick to selling condos”, the oft-echoed refrain could be heard throughout Leaf Nation. Fans had grown tired of the bumbling, and the collective incompetence of a bean-counter fronting as the franchise figurehead. It was high-time a bona fide hard-core hockey man with both the moxy and the track record of a winner took over in Toronto.

Speculation ran rampant as to who the Leafs would land to fill the roles of both General Manager and President; and whether the successful candidate would enjoy autonomy, or if Peddie would continue to meddle in team affairs as he has been wont to do. Scotty Bowman, the legendary NHL coach, general manager and special consultant was interviewed, and the hopes of Leaf Nation were momentarily restored. A hockey genius like Bowman with his eleven Stanley cups all but guaranteed success for the fallen franchise. The bubble burst as negotiations ceased as quickly as they began. Peddie decided that Bowman wasn't the right fit, to the dismay of a restless horde of Leaf loyalists.

The very thought of the name Brian Burke kept popping up in the media and once It would soon fall to Burke to redeem the fading, tattered image of a once dominant brand; an age-old Canadian icon now a perennial loser, a frequent dumping ground for also-rans and aging athletes looking for a last go-round before hanging up the blades. In the interim, former Leaf GM Cliff Fletcher 'the Silver Fox', was brought in on an interim basis. Fletcher would set the table as much as possible for his eventual successor, a task he managed quite successfully, by moving out salary cap space, and landing stalwart defender Luke Schenn at fifth overall in the 2008 rookie draft, a player many believe could one day become captain.

Burke had no way of knowing what lied ahead as he took to the podium November 29 to accept the appointment as President, and thirteenth General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The trials, the personal tragedy, and the test of will that would require more pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence than he ever encountered before would soon endear him to a divided Leaf Nation as much as it would incite its ire. Leaf fans had grown impatient with an organization marked by repeated underachievement and gross mismanagement, leading to both a seriously depleted prospect pool and several consecutive years without a postseason appearance.

Despite the team's 'brand power' and deep pockets, the roster boasted no real top end offensive talent after the departure of Mats Sundin, a concern Burke would have to address in fairly short order. It was the transaction that landed enigmatic 30 goal scorer Phil Kessel that polarized Leaf Nation, some declaring the trade a much-needed, very timely acquisition, while others, more inclined to 'tank', and load up on high picks accused Burke of robbing the Blue and White of desperately needed potential acquisitions they believed would reverse the club's sad fortunes.Yet Burke would soldier on with the resolve and unyielding clarity of purpose that has marked his entire professional, and personal life.


George Prax's picture

Great stuff Owen. Burke is definitely a good GM. Both the teams he's built have turned out to be winners and although I like to poke fun, the Leafs could very well go down that route as well. The problem is Burke can't outwardly rebuild the Leafs, he has to try and keep the the customers satisfied while restocking their shelves so it's been interesting to see the Leafs go that way for their rebuild.