UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Brian Burke's bigger battle

Brian Burke on Saturday will be introduced to all of Canada as the new general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. That's no small thing if you follow hockey in Canada or the northern United States. Saturday night has been the traditional hockey night in Canada for longer than almost anyone who is reading this has been alive, and making it big on Hockey Night In Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Company's really big show, is the Canadian equivalent of a successful debut on Broadway in New York City.

You can bet that fans will be talking coast to coast about Burke's rumored six-year, $18 million salary. They will surely go deep into the speculation regarding exactly how much control he received from the historically meddlesome management there. There will be debate as to what kind of moves the 53-year old will make and when he will make them. There will be a through examination of his management record in Hartford, Vancouver and Anaheim.

Me, I'll be wondering how all of Canada will deal with the fact that Canada's team -- and love or hate the Leafs, that's what they are -- is now being managed and coached by a pair of Americans.

I know we're dancing around a touchy issue here, but my intent is not to deal in cultural stereotyping and bigotry. I've spent more than half my working life in Canada. I love the country and its people. The only point I'm making here is that hockey -- at least from a Canadian perspective -- is Canada's game. That doesn't mean Americans aren't welcome, respected and even appreciated. It just means...well, we're talking about the Maple Leafs, the team that sports a legendary logo that seemingly half its fans have tattooed somewhere on their bodies. Some even claim they use it for their heart.

This isn't quite the same as attempting to sell the U.S. ports to Dubai, but it's close. Burke is as American as Providence, Rhode Island, his place of birth and where he played his college hockey. Ron Wilson, Burke's inherited coach, also happens to be a friend and former Providence teammate with dual citizenship. Wilson cut his hockey teeth at an American college and coached Team USA to a noteworthy win over Canada in the World Cup that, though it's over a decade old, still stings in the collective Canadian psyche. Mix that with the fact that both men aren't shy, especially when it comes to telling you exactly how much they know about Canada's game, and -- let's put it this way -- there could be fireworks, and not just on the fourth of July.

"I wouldn't equate it with Barack Obama being elected president in the States," said a source familiar with the inner workings of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Leafs, "but it's likely to have the same kind of seismic impact up here."

Hockey in Canada isn't just a sport, or even just a source of national pride. Fairly or unfairly, hockey is on many levels how Canadiens identify themselves on the world stage. Buffalo? Oh, it snows there. Dallas? How about them Cowboys? England: tea. France: food. Canada: hockey.

Canadians tend to like almost everything American and are often consumed by American culture, especially movies, pop trends, street fashion and the like. They are also among the warmest, most accommodating people in the world, a kind of "Minnesota nice" but at a coast-to-coast level. It's just that when it comes to hockey, things are different. No one understands that better than Commissioner Gary Bettman. A native New Yorker, Bettman was looked upon as an inferior choice for the post the day he got it some 15 years ago. Though he has done many things that have been good for the game in its homeland, he was vilified from the outset for not being "born to the game." His pro sports roots were developed in the NBA. In Canada, he still is portrayed as a basketball guy.

As an example, when Maurice "Rocket" Richard passed away a few years back, Bettman dutifully attended the funeral in Montreal and later led the creation of the Rocket Richard Trophy, awarded to the league's leading goal-scorer each season. Instead of giving a modicum of respect for that gesture, much of Canada used it as a platform to suggest that by being in Montreal for the service and seeing first-hand the outpouring of affection for the departed hero of the famed Canadiens, Bettman might finally come to understand how important hockey is to Canadians.

It was a similar affair when George Gillet of Racine, Wisconsin bought a majority interest in the fabled Canadiens in 2001, at a time when no Canadian interests had the cash or the initiative. Gillet was not warmly welcomed and has had to tread carefully to avoid alienating a fan base that is among the most passionate and loyal in sports. Even having rebuilt the team to at least within sight of its first Stanley Cup since 1993, Gillet is still perceived as simply holding the franchise until it is restored to "proper" ownership. When a story appeared last month to the effect that the team might be for sale, Gillet had to launch a media blitz to distance himself from it lest Canadiens fans take up arms out of fear that their team would be sold on the anniversary of its 100th season.

While Gillet walks softly and Bettman chooses, for the most part at least, to ignore the slings and arrows, Burke and Wilson are different characters.

Wilson, upon his arrival, was seen as a brash-talking defender of American interests in the game and a man who will regularly spar with Canadian media types regarding how much he knows about the game compared to how little he thinks his regular media following knows. Wilson tempered that perception somewhat upon his arrival, going as far as flashing his Canadian passport at his introductory press conference, but the prevailing feeling is that the honeymoon can't last.

If Wilson ratcheted up the Canadian-American debate, at least he can say that he was born above the 48th parallel even if he went south at a tender age. Burke, who is often even more bombastic with media, is another story altogether.

Burke waged some tremendous battles with certain members of the Canadian media when he was Bettman's right-hand man in the league's New York offices. He also angered more than a few fans during his time as GM in Vancouver and a great many more with his defense of Todd Bertuzzi -- then one of his Canucks -- after the now-infamous attack that left Colorado's Steve Moore out of the game with a broken bone in his neck and a major lawsuit against the Canucks and the NHL that may well put the game on trial.

Even Burke's friends would admit that he is argumentative, opinionated and not the least bit intimidated by anything or anyone in the game. His teams tend to play a tough, physical brand of hockey (which should win him a great many supporters in Toronto). He also plays the GM role as a bigger than life character, a persona that's not likely to sit well across the country, especially if he tries to define the Leafs in an American context.

What Burke and Wilson do have going for them, however, is intelligence. Wilson is a brilliant Xs and Os guy, and Burke is a savvy judge of talent and clever at bending the rules of the game and the restrictions of the salary cap. Having won a Stanley Cup with the Ducks, he gets some respect, but many Canadians are quick to point out that the Ducks were largely built by his predecessor, Canadian-born Bryan Murray.

Still, Burke made all the right moves to finish the job in Anaheim and now he's being viewed as Toronto's savior, a role that has crippled many a man before him, what with the city's insatiable appetite for all things hockey -- especially winning hockey.

Burke and Willson have their work cut out for them as the Leafs haven't won the Cup since 1967 and will be hard pressed to even make the playoffs this season. If the duo succeeds in coming years -- the window of opportunity will be exceptionally small given the city's never-ending unrealistic expectations -- they will be crowned with Canada's highest unofficial honor: "Almost Canadian." If they fail, the "what did you expect from Americans?" argument will quickly come into play. Don't expect either man to ignore that one, which will be, as they say in Canada, "interesting, eh"?

Interesting to say the least. But if Burke's new venture doesn't go well, explosive might well be the better word.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.