It feels like just yesterday that Brian Burke walked into the Air Canada Centre, seated behind a podium taking an onslaught of questions from a media group that represented the fans on the Toronto Maple Leafs. There was a newfound excitement, fueling belief that a changing of the guard unlike any one of the 21st century would achieve similar results to the magical 1993 season within five years.
Four years later, on January 9, 2013, Brian Burke was relieved of his duties as General Manager and President of the Maple Leafs. The sense of optimism had died long before.
An era that began with the likes of Matt Stajan, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Niklas Hagman ended with Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk, and Dion Phaneuf. Four years of bottom ten finishes were sprinkled with glimmers of hope and a sense of a potential playoff team. But in the spreadsheets, the standings, and the win column, the last four years can only be categorized as an immense failure.
Apologists could not spin their story to make it appear that Burke was completely victim to outlying circumstances and bad chance. A deal for superstar Phil Kessel landed Toronto a fantastic player, but the picks given without lottery protecting suggests that Burke misjudged the lack of talent and skill the original roster had. Moral codes including a longer trade freeze and a refusal to circumvent the cap put the team at a disadvantage to other large markets, and a goalie core that definitely hurt the Leafs are also issues that lie in the hands of Burke and those who supported him.
However, even the most aggressive of cynics could not pin the failures of this franchise entirely on the shoulders of the team’s architect. Through deals made with Anaheim, Colorado, and Calgary, Brian Burke brought in a multitude of players to create a respectable top six, solid depth, and a towering blue line. Coaching blunders and poor play were outliers, ones that Burke and the management team had no control over.
Ultimately, the only thing that secures a General Manager’s job is the record. Similar to grades in university or goal totals of a hockey player, sometimes skill does not translate into good numerical value. Brian Burke was, is, and will continue to be a fantastic General Manager that should be the influence for a new generation of new General Managers in the future. He, however, did not succeed during his time in Toronto. A groundwork has been created for a good team in the future, but there were no results on the ice while Brian Burke was sitting at the top of the Air Canada Centre, watching the losses and the heartbreak from above.
Firings in sports happen all of the time in big markets, especially in hockey. When Pierre Gauthier was let go in Montreal, there was no internal struggle for many fans to accept the loss. Neither was there in Edmonton regarding Tom Renney, or in Calgary with the Sutter brothers. In Toronto, fans and residents of the city were faced with a tough dichotomy between Brian Burke the General Manager, and Brian Burke the person. Because whether you thought Burke was a rotten GM or the cream of the crop, there was one thing that was basically impossible to deny: that Brian Burke is a great person. In fact, he is without a doubt the best front office executive in the history of the Maple Leafs in regards to his city, and quite possibly in the history of the National Hockey League.
First, his personality off of the camera is something to admire. I had the pleasure to meet Brian Burke a few months back. I was floored by my discussion with him, shocked by his personable actions and charisma, despite seeing the rigid and belligerent face on television. He was incredibly candid and open with any topics, ranging from his past teams to his time in university. He made public appearances and talked with strangers for hours on end every day in Toronto, still having the ability to make you feel worth his time. It is truly such a hard thing to do and he did it with ease, because he legitimately did care. He cared about every person that took the time to come talk to him, wait in line to meet him, or come see him talk. It’s very rare to find people that are so publicly prevalent to do that.
What was even more impressive was his charity work. I was told by an former Maple Leaf player that Brian Burke did ten times the appearances of any player on his teams. He also mentioned that only ten percent of Burke’s appearances were even picked up by the media. Everybody saw Brian sleep outside to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, and his contributions to charitable causes inside Toronto. What is not seen is the countless hospital visits, the school visits to discuss homophobia and bullying, and the fundraising he does for charities to increase donations. The reason those are never released is because that is the way Brian Burke does things. He doesn’t need recognition as an incentive to be a good human being. He understood the power he had as a figurehead of the Maple Leafs and used it to the city’s advantage, and not his own.
Finally, Brian Burke’s involvement in the fight against homophobia and his support of LGBT rights is unprecedented in sports. When you see Brian, you see a burly man who represents all of the testosterone and pugnacity that hockey has to offer. He’s an advocate of fighting and wants players to settle their own scores on the ice. He’s proposed barn fights and calls people out publicly. The image of that man going out publicly in support of gay rights is outstanding. The fact that he has not only helped kick-start the “You Can Play” initiative with son Patrick and has marched in the pride parade on multiple occasions is jaw-dropping. When (not if) a current pro-sports player reveals his sexual orientation to the world, credit will go to the Burke family. No members of the National Hockey League, and likely any other pro sports league will be able to say that.
So on January 19, 2013, the puck will drop to start the truncated 2013 NHL season. Brian Burke will not be in his usual seat, raising a fist to the air when a last second goal is scored. Instead, it will be Dave Nonis in that box and life will move on. Trades will be made, decisions will be criticized, and the bubble of insanity that is Toronto hockey will continue in all of its glory. However, long after his acquisitions move on and his draft picks develop, people will look at Brian Burke’s career into three different parts: He was the wheeling-and-dealing man with the nerve to draft both Sedin brothers in Vancouver, he was the GM that made the moves necessary to capture the Stanley Cup in Anaheim, and he was the humanitarian that attempted to change the social norms in sports while in Toronto. It’s a shame as a Leafs fan that his results will not be cherished, but sometimes real life surpasses the beautiful game of hockey. And while he most likely lost on the ice in Toronto, he certainly won off of it.