Thursday, 7 July 2011

Burke's Trip to Desert a Measured Risk

TORONTO (July 7) – Opinions about whether Brian Burke did something “wrong” by visiting our troops in Afghanistan on Canada Day – free agent  day in the National Hockey League – are predictably widespread and diverse. Any such decision by the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs is going to be scrutinized in today’s expanding, competitive media climate, as Burke understands. What I believe Burke struggles with is the notion that his absence last Friday somehow compromised the hockey club in its pursuit of the best player on the market: Dallas Stars centre Brad Richards. And that’s where I contend the accent is on the wrong syllable.
My opinion, though reflective, is not governed by hindsight. I wrote in this space more than a week ago that Richards had neither a craving, nor any particular reason, to sign with the Maple Leafs, and that he was – as widely speculated – the New York Rangers’ player to “lose”. If Richards wanted badly enough to play in Manhattan (which proved correct), there was essentially nothing the Leafs could offer him that the Rangers couldn’t. Even such a team as Los Angeles had an edge over the Leafs, given the southern-California climate during the hockey season, and the Kings upward mobility in the standings; L.A. did provide Richards reason to pause.
The misplaced anxiety in this market involved the potential that Burke may have blown an opportunity to land Richards by being in Kandahar. My friend Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun – among the most widely-read sports columnists in North America – wrote a pointed article that offered such a notion but was more specifically concerned with the optics of the Burke visit; Steve did not question the GM’s nobility, just his timing (many others pondered the same).

Such inclination, however, might have been avoided, or allayed, by considering Burke’s modus operandi.
This is the same hockey manager, for example, that traveled to Sweden on three occasions in pursuit of goalie Jonas Gusatvsson; offered to attend the funeral of the young player’s mother, and made certain to be in Stockholm at noon Eastern Time on July 1, 2009, just in case the Vancouver Canucks took leave of their senses. Had that occurred, Burke would have flown back to Toronto with Henrik and Daniel Sedin under contract. So, we’re not talking about a guy that doesn’t understand proactivity.

In the late-summer of 2009, Burke would have moved in temporarily with Phil Kessel in order to assure the Boston forward of his trade plans and soothe any apprehension. Unfortunately for Brian, NHL tampering regulations discouraged such intent. His free agent acquisitions from the U.S. college system were made in a competitive environment.

Therefore, as it pertains to Burke’s Afghanistan trip, I have to think that if the Leafs’ GM, a) wanted Richards without reservation; b) felt he could comfortably structure a contract with the player’s agent, Pat Morris, and c) had any legitimate belief that Richards yearned to live and perform in Toronto, he would have visited the troops on July 3rd or 4th… not the 1st or 2nd. Say what you want about Burke, but the guy does know how to close a deal.
In this circumstance – mapped out weeks beforehand – Burke chose to make a cursory (though genuine) offer to Richards, undoubtedly with the knowledge he had almost no chance to land the player in the absence of a decade-long commitment. Sensibly or otherwise, Burke refuses to front-load multiple-year deals; preferring to offer uniform sums over a shorter period (if I’m a player, I’d be happy making big money for three or four years, then determining if I wished to play somewhere else).

Today’s mega-stars are content, it seems, to lock themselves into one location for “life” – perhaps as a safeguard against injury. The concept of a nine or ten-year deal appeared to be on the ropes after the legal brouhaha over Ilya Kovalchuk’s arrangement with New Jersey last summer, and Burke claims the Richards deal similarly contravenes the salary cap.


Given his lack of conviction involving the PEI native, Burke felt more than comfortable leaving the club’s open-market negotiation with his trusted lieutenant, David Nonis, who handles the nuts-and-bolts of a contract the way Bill Watters once did for Cliff Fletcher and Pat Quinn. Clearly, Burke surmised his absence would have no ill bearing on the Leafs more reasonable pursuit of centre Tim Connolly from Buffalo.
This doesn’t invalidate the question Simmons posed in his column last week. But neither – in my mind – did Brian’s goodwill journey to the desert have any significant impact on Richards' choice of team.

END-NOTE: My "baby" sister, Cori, was born on July 7, 1961. Happy 50th Coco!


  1. Some things are bigger than hockey, and I commend Brian Burke for visiting Canadian troops on Canada Day.. not the 3rd or 4th..
    Steve Simmons has become nothing more than Al Strachen; jaded and out of touch. He should've been fired for his borderline offensive article. I wonder if the families of those we've lost overseas care that Brad Richards isn't a leaf?

  2. Burke's arrogance and principles will get the better of him on this job. And that's fine, if he thinks the job is the second or third most important thing to do on a given day, more power to him.

    But never must he express surprise when the day comes that MLSE realizes he is *not* doing everything within his power to turn the Leafs into a winner.

    And if that means breaking "code" like presenting a significant RFA offer sheet,or front-loading a contract, or at least giving the perception that he cares about making the team a winner, then so be it.

    He knew he would get called-out by the likes of Simmons, and decided that he didn't care. But others at MLSE do care. He's only got a few lives left, and if the 2011 Leafs look as they do now by Oct 6, (where's the improvement?) a few more of his lives will get eaten up.

  3. I liked what Burked did and I also like the article. In management not only in sports but everwhere and politics even more. Good managers surround themselves with talent. Burke has done this. Now and then you have to let this talent take off the training wheels and ride the bike or you are either anal or a micro manager. I don;t think Mr Burke picked the time for the trip he was asked to go on. But he decided to help Canadian troops and go, he had his team behind looking after things and he had as you say a cell phone. NOw what about the other 25 teams in the states with GM's that live in the US? Are they better guys cause they were around on that day in the USA!!! OUr guy went abroad to help Canadian troops and he has a super group of staff helping at home! So who do you support? I support the guy helping the troops!!!!!! no brainer!!!! ( this guy also took part in a certain not popular parade with hockey players, and with a sweater with his son;s name on it!)