TORONTO – Brian Burke believes he was made for this market.
After landing in the “centre of the hockey universe” on Saturday afternoon, the new president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t have looked any more at home.
He wants the attention. He welcomes the scrutiny. He’s ready to go.
“I like the pressure that’s put on the team,” said Burke. “The pressure that’s on the players and the coach and the general manager to me is a positive thing. I’m thrilled to be back in Canada working.”
While making it clear that he thoroughly enjoyed his three-plus years in Anaheim, Burke obviously coveted his new position. It brings him closer to his family while offering him the opportunity to accomplish something that nine different men have failed to do since 1967 – bring a Stanley Cup to Toronto.
None of his predecessors accepted the job with as much fanfare and curiosity. More than a dozen television cameras lined the back of a foyer in the Air Canada Centre as Burke was officially introduced to the media.
He showed flashes of his quick wit and intense passion while speaking for roughly eight straight minutes about what elements he believes a winning hockey team needs to have.
Burke’s first course of action will not be to scorch the earth. Instead, he’ll spend some time gaining a deeper knowledge of his roster and staff before charting a plan of attack.
He has a personal trade freeze of Dec. 9, meaning it will likely be a little while before any sort of dramatic changes are made.
“I don’t think players should get traded at Christmas time unless they ask to get traded,” said Burke. “So for me to evaluate this team, make some judgments and do something before Dec. 9, (it’s) probably going to be hard to do.
“So anyone who’s waiting with bated breath for that first deal, might wait past that deadline. Because I believe players deserve to spend the holidays with their families.”
That may calm the nerves of some jittery players, but a roster struggling with a reputation for not being tough enough should take note of his team-building philosophy.
Toughness will be in every player’s job description on a team that Burke expects to play “black and blue hockey.”
“We require as a team proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence,” he said. “That’s how our teams play.”
There were no timetables offered for turning around a club that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2004 or specifics on how he planned to give the city its first championship in more than 40 years.
Now that Burke has taken office, interim GM Cliff Fletcher will assume a consultant role. Burke says the veteran hockey executive will have a job with the team as long as he wants one.
The rest of the front office staff will also be kept on.
“Everyone’s going to get a chance here to show that they want to be part of things and do it my way,” said Burke.
His way or the highway – that’s the how the next chapter in Leafs history is going to play out. Burke phoned Toronto Raptors president and GM Bryan Colangelo before accepting the position to make sure he’s been given the proper autonomy by the board of governors and was satisfied with the response.
Richard Peddie, the CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, believes that Burke and Colangelo represent the best management tandem the company has ever had. He and respected lawyer Gord Kirke started searching for John Ferguson’s predecessor in January and identified Burke as one of the top candidates right from the beginning.
They believe that one of his best attributes is his strong personality.
“There are a lot of great, great hockey people and talent who probably wouldn’t shine in this market,” said Kirke. “Some of them withdrew from the candidacy because they knew this wasn’t the market for them.”
Added Peddie: “He’s a winner, he’s very experienced at the team level and league level, he’s media savvy to deal with you guys, he’s got a great network and great credibility. And again, I’ll just end the way I started – he’s a winner.”
Burke firmly believes that coach Ron Wilson can be an important asset in helping bring a 14th championship to Toronto. Normally, general managers don’t like inheriting their coach when accepting the job but that isn’t a problem in this situation.
The Maple Leafs are the fourth NHL team that Burke has run during his career and he’s developed a clearly defined hierarchy for his squads.
“We believe in a top-six forward group that has a high skill level, we believe in a bottom-six forward group that does the plumbers’ work, all the speciality jobs, the shot-blocking, penalty-killing, fighting,” he said. “Same with our defence.
“We shoot for a top-four group that has a high skill level, the bottom two guys we look to do the plumbers’ work, which are really important jobs.”
There will be plenty of time for Burke to forge his vision. His contract runs through this season plus five more at a reported $3 million annually.
His arrival comes after months of speculation about his future.
“You’re talking about the Vatican if you’re Catholic, you’re talking the centre of the hockey universe, you’re talking about one of the most important jobs in hockey running the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Burke said. “It’s a dream job.”
He’s well aware that the position will come with plenty of scrutiny but admits that he hasn’t found a camera or microphone that he doesn’t like to speak to.
Besides, Burke believes that dealing with the media is an important part of the job description of a general manager. And he’s not afraid to get into a good debate.
“The day you people stop asking questions about hockey, we’re all out of work anyway,” he said. “We can only get 19,000 people in our buildings and the way we communicate with everybody else is through the media. …
“Now, that being said, do I object to certain lines of questions from the media and am I going to react accordingly? Yes, that’s not going to change. That’s never going to change.”
The first day on the job gave Burke a chance to dream a little.
For all that he’s accomplished during two decades as a hockey executive, this new position gives him a chance to add something pretty unique to his resume.
“The guy that turns this team around and wins a championship here, they’re going to name schools after him,” said Burke. “That’s how it works.”