Burke sounds like a broken record
With his reputation seemingly in tatters and his team not far behind him, a rather contrite and humbled Brian Burke was not about to make himself the show on Tuesday morning.
His face may have been a bright crimson that television didn’t properly show and his tie uncharacteristically and symbolically was tied almost directly to his collar, but Burke wasn’t combative in his annual ‘State of the Leafs Out of the Playoffs’ address. This was Year 4 for him in this growing dance of discomfort, but this one was the quietest, the most discouraging and probably least newsworthy. Burke wasn’t rude, argumentative, loud, aggressive, intolerant, abrasive, truculent — any of what we’ve come to expect from him — but mostly he avoided the very qualities that have made him a hockey headline waiting to happen.
Questions that might have set him off in the past, didn’t set him off on Tuesday. The absolute confidence — the I-know-how-to-do-this mantra and don’t challenge me attitude — has been trampled more than a little by circumstance, time and frankly, too many defeats.
Make no mistake, this is the worst time of Burke’s professional career. With each passing year, the Stanley Cup win in Anaheim seems farther and farther away. His record is what it is in Toronto and that isn’t good. But he was never doubted in Hartford, in Vancouver, in Anaheim, not the way he is doubted now.
Even he knew his past practice of focussing on the good first half — last year it was the good second half — wouldn’t sell anymore. “If somehow we can convince the league to meld two seasons into one, we’ll be fine,” he joked. Sort of. Because you have to grasp on to what is left to hold onto. And that’s about all Burke has at this point, with his finger nails losing grip on his professional slippery slope.
The timing of Tuesday’s end of season press conference could not have been worse for Burke, really. In the previous 24 hours, Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of the board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had written an open letter to Leaf fans, apologizing for the past season. In the same time period, the chief operating officer, Tom Anselmi, had sent an email to all Leafs’ season ticket holders, essentially echoing Tanenbaum’s remarks.
The public relations moves were both historic and cryptic. It isn’t often that the rather smug MLSE has apologized for anything, let along their hockey team. But more than that, it also represented the wrong kind of first for Burke. For the first time in his career, the people he works for, the owner and the COO, were apologizing for his club, essentially for his work. When asked about the public apologies, Burke said he echoed Tanenbaum’s sentiments. But he didn’t come right out and say he was sorry.
That was said Tuesday in conciliatory tones, and much more in body language than with any specific words.
With an absence of bluster and bravado, two of his normal signature qualities, Burke went on to abstractly detail where his Leafs go from here. In that, his words of this year, sounded like his words of last year. The Leafs still need a goaltender. That’s not new. They still need a No. 1 centre. That’s not new. They still need bigger players. That’s not new. They still need more leadership. That’s not new. And they are handcuffed by a weak free agent class, with Burke unwilling to go long term on contracts. That’s not new.
We’ve heard all this before. A lot of talk, just a different tone. And not one with a lot of tangible answers for a 14th place team in need of them.
Burke believes in James Reimer, in Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel, in his second line, in his captain Dion Phaneuf. That he calls his corps going forward. The same corps found wanting when crisis time hit this season. The same people he wants to build a championship team around.
He is still not interested in any five year plans but guess what? Next year is five years on the job for Burke. We have seen him angry, loud, mad, accusing, losing over the past four years and now a step back, at least from public fighting. In the end, he didn’t have to apologize for this disastrous Maple Leafs team he’s given us. Everybody else did it for him.