TORONTO - Are there enough hours in a day for Brian Burke to make the world and the Maple Leafs a better place?
Burke hit the ground running in November of 2008, determined to restore the Leafs’ faltering reputation on the ice. And part of his plan was an image makeover for a logo that had come to be loathed in many quarters for a widely perceived goal of putting dollar signs ahead of all else.
Until Burke arrived, the highbrow management of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment wasn’t concerned with a lightning rod for the hockey team. But as MLSE’s premier property, and more importantly, a public trust for four generations of fans, there had to be a face to the franchise, in good times and bad.
Pat Quinn was a long-time general manager, but concerned with nothing beyond the 200 by 85 feet of the rink. Ken Dryden was club president for a time, but lacked street smarts. Richard Peddie was CEO and a well-qualified businessman who made MLSE millions, but was ill-equipped to make hockey-related decisions.
Enter Burke, a builder, baker and candlestick maker from his past as a player, sports agent, TV analyst and NHL exec. Under him, Toronto’s front office, coaching staff and scouting department bred like rabbits and the team also christened a multi-million dollar practice rink. Burke has blown up the roster the past couple of years, to the point of dumping his own players and has now started hacking Ron Wilson’s coaching staff.
Burke runs the public and media relations staff as hard as the hockey team. One day he’s giving blood at the ACC donor’s clinic, next he’s speaking at a seminar on concussions or junior hockey development, then wearing an apron at the Have A Heart dinner or changing drill bits to refurbish a rink. He can jump from a phone interview with the press, to a call from a GM on a trade, to dialing up a season ticket holder who might be wavering on renewal.
With hundreds of Canadians serving in Afghanistan, Burke hit on the idea of Luke’s Troops, where young defenceman Luke Schenn would sponsor the recognition of one returning or departing forces personnel on game night. The tradition has been one of the most successful in the team’s hit and miss game presentation (something else Burke is always tweaking) and led him to making two trips to Kandahar to cheer up the hockey homesick.
It was his second visit, on Canada Day, that struck a nerve with some fans and media, taking him away from the office on the first day of free agent shopping. Many thought the GM of a team with zero playoff appearances in six years should be at his post on such a vital off-season day. Burke thought he could accept the invite and function efficiently with his lieutenants in Toronto. His heart was in the right place, if not the rest of his body, given the other 29 GMs stayed home. But that’s Burke.
A dual citizen, he has also heeded the call of USA Hockey, managing some of its national teams. That included the 2010 Olympics with Wilson as coach. Burke was able to keep the two jobs separate during the Leafs’ season to everyone’s satisfaction, though an American gold medal might have made it a harder sell here.
At the time, Burke was still reeling from the loss of his son Brendan in a car accident. Father and son had just weathered the media storm after Brendan’s revelation he was gay, a situation the two had been at peace with for a couple of years after Brendan first worked up the courage to tell his macho father.
Burke has marched in Toronto’s Pride Parade in Brendan’s memory and spoken against homophobia and bullying. When he met Toronto Mayor Rob Ford last month there was speculation he’d use his clout to talk Ford out of snubbing 2011 pride events. Ford did not attend and Burke has not commented.
Burke should be saluted for trying to make a difference, yet he’ll be ultimately judged by his day job — making the Leafs a Cup contender. That remains his biggest project and his most daunting to manage in the course of a day.
“If I don’t, I’ll get fired,” he snapped on Thursday during a state of the union exchange with the media. “Let me worry about (keeping) the balance.”