TORONTO - Brian Burke redefined the free agent day war room on Friday.
But not everyone appreciated the Maple Leaf general manager’s surprise trip to Kandahar air base with defenceman Luke Schenn to visit Canadian forces personnel on what some consider the most vital off-season date on the NHL calendar.
Telling no one but his family and closest staff, Burke arrived in Afghanistan a few days ago. Many club personnel didn’t know he was there until he appeared on television Friday morning.
It was Burke who first suggested to Schenn after his rookie season that he establish a charitable effort as part of the young man’s rising profile in the community. Luke’s Troops sees a member of the forces honoured at every home game and this was to be the last Canada Day the soldiers are supposed to be spending in the war zone.
Burke, who is a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., made a trip there last season as well.
Senior vice-president David Nonis was at the Air Canada Centre as point man Friday, but insisted Burke was in constant communication despite the time difference and took a swipe at critics of his superior’s trip.
“There was no issue at all getting hold of Brian, whether it was by text or on his cell,” Nonis said. “In fact the cell service in Kandahar is better than it is in most parts of this city.
“I know there were some comments made that there was a handicap not having Brian here today. First of all, unless you guys reported he wasn’t here, there wasn’t an agent in the world who would have known. It had absolutely no bearing on what we did or didn’t do.
“I spoke with Brian maybe 15 times today. We (a staff that included Dave Poulin, Claude Loiselle and Cliff Fletcher) had full authority to do things in the event we couldn’t get a hold of him. There wasn’t a moment that having Brian outside of the country affected anything we did. There wasn’t one agent who asked ‘is Brian in the office?’ They couldn’t care less.
“He was out of town. I’ve been through it before. I have done it several times on my own.”
Former Leafs GM Pat Quinn supervised a couple of free agent opening sessions from his off-season home in Vancouver, though he caught some flak mostly because the Leafs did nothing of substance.
Nonis was tight-lipped about Burke’s return, given security issues, but did guess that Burke was expected home “shortly.”