TORONTO – If nothing else, Brian Burke will bring a pretty distinct personality to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Some of the people that know the veteran hockey executive best think his no-nonsense approach is perfectly suited to one of the NHL’s most intense markets. With Burke set to officially be unveiled as the Leafs president and general manager on Saturday, many around the league will be watching his moves closely.
It should be interesting.
“He’ll handle it well but he won’t be hesitant to stick up for what he believes in,” said Calgary Flames part-owner Harley Hotchkiss. “He’ll do a good job there. He’ll stir things up and he likes to win.
“I think that Brian will really make things happen in Toronto. Will they all be good? Well, we’ll see. Life isn’t usually that simple.”
Burke’s arrival in the city has been speculated about since John Ferguson was fired in January. Cliff Fletcher ran the team in the interim but it seemed as though Burke was destined to assume the job eventually.
He has a solid hockey background but arrives as a somewhat divisive figure. While some fans are hailing him as the saviour of the franchise, others worry that he’s not capable of rebuilding a team that hasn’t appeared in a playoff game since 2004.
That won’t concern Burke, who employs a classic take-it-or-leave-it style. He’s always done things his own way and isn’t likely to bow to public pressure.
Hotchkiss is the former chairman of the NHL’s board of governors and has known Burke for more than 15 years. The two men hunt together and enjoy each other’s company, but have had the odd heated exchange over the years.
“I know him well, he’s a friend of mine,” said Hotchkiss. “But he’s in your face. If there’s something that I said or did or didn’t do that he didn’t like, he’d tell me.
“It hasn’t happened a lot because we’re not offside on many issues. But sure, it happens, that’s just the way Brian is and that’s OK – you know where you stand with him. If he’s your friend, he’s loyal.”
That intense loyalty has been a source for some of the criticism levied against him.
Two summers ago, Burke brought Todd Bertuzzi to Anaheim on a two-year contract worth US$8 million. However, it turned out that Bertuzzi wasn’t the same player who had starred for Burke’s teams in Vancouver and the organization ended up buying him out in June.
Of course, there’s also a flipside to that kind of story – Burke tends to earn the loyalty of the players he puts his faith in. To this day, Bertuzzi expresses admiration for him.
“They’re getting a good-quality man and a guy who can deal with the pressure and can build a good team,” said Bertuzzi, now enjoying a bit of a renaissance in Calgary. “I think his past speaks for itself and what he’s done in Vancouver and Anaheim. I’m sure he can accomplish something similar to that in Toronto.”
Burke has been building towards this kind of role since his college days at Providence College, where he played under New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamiorello on a team with Leafs coach Ron Wilson and Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson.
Lamiorello refuses to accept much credit for helping develop those three successful hockey men, but does think the professional atmosphere at Providence must have helped a little.
“I think they would have all had success no matter what field they chose,” said Lamiorello. “They were those type of students, those type of personalities. …
“It is not surprising the success that they’ve had. All three have not changed as far as their qualities.”
After winning the Calder Cup during his only year in the Amercian Hockey League, Burke enrolled at Harvard and earned a law degree.
His strong academic background was something that is believed to have made him an even more attractive candidate to the Leafs.
“If you’re looking for just raw intelligence, he’s got it,” said one industry insider.
For his part, Wilson went on to have a modest NHL career before eventually getting into coaching. The two men crossed paths repeatedly over the past couple decades and always believed a day like this one was coming.
“This is something that we’ve always kiddingly (talked about) when we’ve been around each other,” said Wilson. “Actually, it was Brian who said it to me: ‘Someday we’ll work together.’ And you never know where it’s going to be.
“From that point of view, this couldn’t be a better situation.”
Many have suggested that Burke will start tearing the Leafs apart also immediately after assuming the job, but Wilson doesn’t think that assumption is accurate. He says his friend won’t be coming to Toronto with an “axe.”
In fact, Wilson expects there to be a seamless transition from the classy Fletcher to the passionate Burke.
Even though Burke is often associated with a strong-willed personality, he is also known as an executive that is willing to listen to the opinions of those around them.
“I know Brian a lot better than anyone else probably except for his wives to be honest with you,” said Wilson. “(We) go back 35 years. I know that’s how Brian is – very open to discussion, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
After three seasons and a Stanley Cup win in Anaheim, Burke stepped down from his job two weeks ago. He cited a desire to be closer to the four children from his first marriage who all live on the East Coast.
The Ducks had offered him a lucrative and lengthy contract extension but supported his decision to leave.
“On behalf of the entire Anaheim Ducks family, we would once again like to thank Brian for his tremendous contributions over the last three-plus seasons,” Anaheim CEO Michael Schulman said in a statement. “Brian stated on many occasions his desire to be closer to his family, which we support.
“We congratulate and wish him the best of luck with the Maple Leafs.”
The traits that ultimately landed Burke the job are his aggressiveness and willingness to fight for what he believes in. Ferguson’s tenure as the Leafs GM from 2003 to 2008 is believed to have been hindered by interference from the team’s board of governors.
Burke shouldn’t have similar problems.
“He’s a tough guy,” said a league insider. “He can stand up to tough questioning and he can stand up to ownership. I think that’s very important with this role.”
After previous management stops in Hartford, Vancouver and Anaheim, this might be his stiffest challenge yet.
Burke became the first GM ever to bring a Stanley Cup to California in 2007 and now hopes to be the first man to lead the Maple Leafs to a championship since 1967.
His track record is littered with bold moves and tough talk. Expect to see a bit of both after he takes office at the Air Canada Centre.
“Brian’s been through the wars,” said Hotchkiss. “He’ll have his heart and soul into it, I’ll tell you that.”
With files from Canadian Press sportswriter Donna Spencer