Brian Burke's bigger battle
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.
"I wouldn't equate it with
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
As an example, when
It was a similar affair when
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
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
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
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.