The ex-GM of the Maple Leafs is back in the NHL as the new President of Hockey Operations in Calgary. But whether he can truly accept a back seat role remains to be seen
Two months after being called into Richard Peddie’s office and told his services as Maple Leafs GM were no longer required, Brian Burke was in a typically combative mood. “You do all the work, you set the table, somebody else eats the meal,” he growled to a Toronto sports-celebrity dinner back in March. “I’m going to try and haunt this team.”
By the end, most Maple Leaf fans were glad to see the back of him. After four years of bluster, loose neckties and promises of a ‘pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence’ philosophy, the end result was the same: no playoffs.
That is the ultimate reason for people’s dislike of any sports management figure. If, during his tenure with the Leafs, Burke had been winning games and playing playoffs hockey, fans wouldn’t have given a single hoot about the bluster, about the cosy college-buddy relationship with the head coach or about the gruff, sarcastic demeanor that was borderline unprofessional for the most part.
But the act didn’t work. So now, back in an NHL front office, has Burke learned his lesson? Well, the tie was done up, for one thing.
“I know people think I need to be driving the bus all the time,” he said in his introductory press conference in Calgary. “I’m actually a pretty good teammate, too… it’s kind of a mentor, or guidance, or a direction, whatever you want to call it.” Conciliatory, to say the least.
But to use Burke’s analogy against him, the fact of the matter is that he has not been entrusted to drive the bus on his own. Calgary have kept faith in GM Jay Feaster… for now. The Flames clearly hope that the Burke will be the one with the map, screaming directions at Feaster. But unfortunately for the current GM, Brian Burke is not the type to take a back seat to anybody. His hiring shows at this point that the Flames, quite simply, do not trust Feaster to get the job done on his own.
And why should they, some will ask? The Flames are a mess, devoid of talent at both ends of the ice. They require the dreaded rebuild, the task with which Burke was entrusted in 2008 when he was hired by the Leafs. In Toronto Burke lacked patience, exemplified by the Kessel trade, which he still believes in. “Obviously we made a major acquisition, acquiring Phil Kessel,” he said. “The draft pick compensation that we paid turned out to be higher than we expected, we thought we’d finish higher, but I’d do that trade again tomorrow.”
“We thought we’d finish higher” could be viewed by many as admission that whilst the trade looked good at the time, it simply didn’t work. But lately, with Kessel’s goals and the slight regression of Tyler Seguin, that trade is looking a little better. And whatever your opinion on Dion Phaneuf, few could argue that the Leafs won that trade, dumping Matt Stajan, Jamal Meyers, Niklas Hagman and Ian White on Calgary, none of whom went on to achieve any success of note for the team.
But Burke’s time in Toronto was littered with mistakes: Mike Komisarek, forever weighed down by the enormous contract he couldn’t live up to, has been bought out. He and John-Michael Liles were signed for a combined $8 million a season, and the latter spent many, many games in the press box last year. Nik Kulemin and Mikael Grabovski’s stars have faded, with Grabovski being bought out and Kulemin facing his defining season as a secondary scorer.
At the same time Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and James Van Riemsdyk, all Burke additions, have been superb acquisitions, Lupul particularly emerging as the new face of the franchise. Nazem Kadri is developing into the player he promised to be and James Reimer is undoubtedly an NHL-calibre goaltender.
So where does this leave the Flames? For the neutral, it’s a fascinating prospect. At the helm of their club the team now has two men who won Stanley Cups three years apart at their former teams but who in recent years have had serious questions hanging over their management style. The questions that loom for the Flames are a little more simple. Can Brian Burke truly work as part of a tandem? How long will the Flames give the two of them to work together, before one of them feels the heat? And if one of them goes… which one will go first?
For Brian Burke, his appointment is a chance to prove that Toronto was just a blip. Don’t expect to see the necktie being loosened anytime soon.