Give Toronto GM Brian Burke high marks, not just for rebuilding the Toronto Maple Leafs and giving Leafs Nation hope, but for stirring the pot across Canada as well. Like him or not, Burkie makes sure his franchise is big and bold, not just on the ice, but off as well.
From pointedly telling Ottawa GM Bryan Murray after the Sens had revealed interest in drafting Nazem Kadri, “We’re takin’ him” (and being wired for sound at the time so we could see and hear his smack-down); to getting under the skin of Vancouver GM Mike Gillis, when Burke’s coach, Ron Wilson, publicly commented on Toronto’s free agency plans vis-à-vis the Sedins; and, most recently, another draft day wired-for-sound snippet posted on the Leafs website regarding players Gillis was allegedly prepared to trade for Tampa’s pick at No. 2 overall, Burkie creates headlines.
Oh, and let’s not forget Montreal GM Bob Gainey and head coach Jacques Martin are already complaining about Burke’s muscling-up on the ice. Both Gainey and Martin question the strategy and note that 2009 Cup finalists, Pittsburgh and Detroit, advanced to compete for the Holy Grail on the basis of skill and not fisticuffs. That should add a little extra intrigue into the six games the Leafs and Habs will matchup for this season.
Let’s face it, to the extent the conversation out of Montreal is already focused on Burke and his fighters, even if Montreal is only trying to plant seeds with the referees and hockey operations department, the fact is that focusing on Burkie and his tough guys takes Montreal’s attention off the primary objective, even if only for a moment.
The same is true in Vancouver. While they don’t play the Leafs six times they do square off twice and Burkie is already in their heads. Plus, Gillis will have to answer questions about Burke and the Leafs on every stop in eastern Canada.
I do have sympathy for Gillis on the tampering issue. When I started as an assistant GM in Tampa in 1998, new GM Jacques Demers was sitting in his coaching office entertaining a scrum of reporters one day. One of them innocently asked what Demers thought of a certain NHL player and Jacques honestly answered he really liked him and would love to have that player on his team. The comment was made innocently and was offered as an honest answer to the writer’s question. No way was Jacques trying to tamper or send a message to the player in question or his agent.
Nonetheless, shortly after the quote was published in the local newspaper, Jacques received a formal written reprimand from the league, along with an admonishment not to opine or comment on players under contract with other teams. The NHL’s response was immediate and its tone harsh, particularly given the innocence of the situation. In this instance, Burke never commented on liking or wanting the players, only that they were allegedly dangled as trade bait, a fact Gillis vehemently denies.
Burke is one of the best managers in the game. The puck has barely dropped on a new campaign and he is already winning the mind games against his brethren across Canada. It should be a fun season.
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2009-10 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.