TORONTO - What was Brian Burke thinking?
There is nothing wrong with the president and general manager of the Maple Leafs taking a public relations trip to Afghanistan. But there is everything wrong with his timing in this case.
You don’t, if you’re running the Leafs, if you’re struggling to make a lousy team better, if you haven’t been in the playoffs yet under your watch — even if it is a Canada Day trip for the Canadian troops — go to Kandahar on July 1. You just don’t.
You find another time to make the trip. You do it next week or next month. You do it when it doesn’t affect anything about the building of your hockey team.
And how do you explain to Leafs fans when you promise to be busy and active during free agency that you’re absent at precisely the same time. There is a certain contradiction in all that.
You can’t be both busy and absent when you’re another world apart. There isn’t regular cell phone coverage in Kandahar. The communication isn’t that easy.
I know Burke well enough to know he will say this is nothing, that his lieutenants are clearly capable of acting on his behalf, that the Leafs had their day of striking out well planned, but that’s hardly the point. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. didn’t pay millions of dollars to hire Dave Nonis and Claude Loiselle and Cliff Fletcher to run their hockey team. I will never discourage anyone of fame to make a visit to Canadian troops overseas. That’s not what’s being said here.
Burke will call this overreaction. But the optics for Leafs fans are terrible. The optics are disappointing. The optics say that Burke would rather engage in public relations than roll up his sleeves on a day of apparent frenzy.
MLSEL paid giant money to Burke, because of who he is, because of what he represents, and what he has been capable of in the past. They made him the highest paid executive in the sport because one of his greatest skills has been the ability to sell his team and his product.
So when the Leafs sat down with Brad Richards, the absolute prize of the free agent class on Friday, the only centre in the free-agent market who fits their absolute needs, Burke wasn’t in the meeting. He didn’t lead the presentation. He wasn’t there to answer the questions. He was busy posing for pictures with members of the Canadian Army.
He was putting his own self interests ahead of those of his team and their fan base.
When the Los Angeles Kings presented to Richards Friday, they had the club president, the general manager and the head coach and others present.
When the Leafs met with Richards, Burke was in Afghanistan and Ron Wilson was in the United States.
If you’re Brad Richards, which situation would impress you the most?
By 4 o’clock Friday afternoon, there had been 44 players transactions from the noon starting blocks. Thirty-two of those moves involved teams that finished ahead of the Leafs in the point-standings last year.
Should the New York Rangers end up with Richards, which seems likely at this time, that will also mean the seventh- and eighth-place teams in the East — Buffalo and New York — will have improved significantly since last season ended.
And the Leafs have done what? They’ve lost Tim Brent and J-S Giguere as free agents. That means they’re no better today, no worse today than they ended last season. July 1 isn’t a day for building teams. It’s a day and a period of enhancement. The Leafs are still waiting for their off-season surgery.
A longtime successful general manager wondered how Burke would do in Toronto when he took the job of leading the Maple Leafs. He explained it in two ways. He said, if Burke stuck to the business of hockey, his strength, he would do just fine. In fact, he predicted he would flourish.
But if he got too caught up in what he called “the business of being Brian Burke, being bigger than the franchise” then he would struggle.
One can interpret that his determination to go to Afghanistan on July 1 was less about hockey and more about being a figure of importance.
Or as another general manager texted me on Friday: “If I went to my owner and told him I was taking off on July 1st, he would turn to me and say — just keep on walking.”
On a day where nothing of consequence happened for the Leafs, Burke has some explaining to do.