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Whyfall

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This feels like writing a eulogy. I hate it.

You win. Let’s start with that concession, up front. A straightforward address to every fan who wanted Burke gone. I anxiously and hopefully await confirmation that this still-vague, as-yet-in-progress, largely-similar-but-supposedly-slightly-new direction will provide the amazing results that you’ve been adamant it hypothetically will.

The proverbial sky has fallen in Leafland for the rest of us; those who believed that despite a few missteps (some of which were uncontrollable on the part of any general manager), the Brian Burke era rebuild was progressing at an expected and satisfactory, if disappointingly normal, pace.

To me, this is – superficially – a worst case scenario. Yet I’m old enough, and – thanks Gary! – jaded enough, to know that it’s not really the disaster I think it is. Even though I founded and designed an entire website dedicated to sort-of-lampooning one of the core pillars of Burke’s philosophy. I think I’ll just keep it like that in protest.

I’m perfectly aware that Brian Burke was not perfect, or a saviour, or even – sometimes – particularly awesome at his job. Let’s not pretend everybody wasn’t totally fine with the rebuild in early February 2012 when things were awesome and progressing exactly as planned that the rebuild has gone perfectly.

And make no mistake, this is a rebuild. It always was. Burke couldn’t verbally paint it that way; he has season tickets to sell and a corporate success story he wouldn’t dare jeopardize. He used the rhetoric of immediate winning to distract fans from the “real steel going up,” – though, admittedly, he himself only seemed committed to this plan after an initial failure of the phantom concept known as the quick NHL turnaround. Schematics for which are kept, I believe, in the Ark of the Covenant.

I’m a Burke defender, but not a blind Burke apologist. Here’s a convenient list of things we can all probably concede he brought to the table in a negative way:

  • A three year-long lack of proven and reliable goaltending in a heated market like Toronto where it’s absolutely necessary (aside from a brief J.S. Giguere-shaped experiment) and a puzzlingly bold assertion of belief in a select group of unproven keepers with fewer real-life NHL games to their collective names than I played on my Xbox last month.
  • An utter failure to capitalize on a promise of injecting truculence into a Toronto brand which so desperately needed it. Dion Phaneuf, Colton Orr, and the Michaels Brown and Komisarek seem to represent the sum total of this unfinished mandate.
  • A tendency to set himself up for public relations failures by making bold predictions and proclamations that a success-starved Toronto market would inevitably and unfortunately consider promises. He excited us in the beginning, but inadvertently made the pain hit harder in the end when things went bad, as standard deviation would suggest they sometimes do.
  • A sense of loyalty admirable in theory that became potentially detrimental to the organization in practice. (SEE: “Wilson, Ron”)
  • An inconsistent use of candor that was refreshingly honest in the beginning and accidentally damaging when it was conspicuously absent (mainly during conversations about the performances of individual players)(SEE: “Komisarek, Mike” and “Gustavsson, Jonas”).
  • A curious lack of respect for the time and effort required to properly tie a Windsor knot.

There. That was pretty thorough. Have we eliminated any fears that I’m not capable of seeing past bias in this discussion? Wonderful. Let’s contrast the above with a list of things he did well.

  • Led a complete reconstruction of overall organizational health, rebuilding prospect depth and a pipeline that was virtually non-existent prior to his arrival. (SEE: “Things required to win and/or perpetually contend.”)
  • Returned a sense of integrity, character, and operational legitimacy to a franchise that was previously broken at virtually every level, except the one where they keep the big machine that prints money.
  • For the most part, implemented and stuck to a desperately necessary rebuilding plan centered around the acquisition of youthful assets and player development. For the most part…oh, I already said that.
  • Added a level of theatricality and engagement to the media discourse in a city that, despite its repeated denials, absolutely [censored]ing craves it day in and day out.
  • Made several ridiculously lopsided trades (in the organization’s favour) which, in terms of asset value, probably offset a small handful of questionable ones by a significant margin.
  • Contributed tirelessly to community causes.

Ultimately, how do many people define success in Brian Burke’s job? Winning. His teams didn’t. Fair enough. I think that’s an oversimplification of what a general manager’s true mandate is, but hey, if we haven’t convinced you of that by now, we’re not going to.

But Brian Burke isn’t just an executive. He was a personality. And his greatest asset might be what ended up costing him the most.

Burke arrived in town amidst a storm of optimism and bold candor, one I’ll equally candidly admit hooked me completely. I was captivated by this man’s bravado and approach, and absolutely sold on his vision. I bought every word in every press conference. I even hung on as a defender through some of the toughest times, right up until the inexplicable swoon of 2012. I lasted that long not because it made any objective sense to do so, but because I was so engaged by Burke himself on what the organization was trying to constructive do.

Burke may have essentially been fired not because of a scuttled Luongo deal or a personal scuffle with one Bell Executive – but because he failed to meet expectations that he himself set, perhaps impetuously. A victim of his own rhetoric, you might say. He boldly proclaimed that he wasn’t operating under a five-year plan, for example, despite changing course rather significantly midway through his tenure to correspond to what approximated exactly that. His time in Toronto, in a nutshell:

“Let’s try this, but really quickly.”
“It’s not working.”
“Did we speed it up at all?”
“Maybe a little. But the results are really volatile. Inconsistent.”
“Alright. Let’s go back to doing it the normal way, but serious this time.”
“They want Frattin, Bozak, and a second for Luongo.”
“No. Tell them to piss off. That’s exactly what we’re not going to do now.”
“Brian, can you come in here for a minute?”

Let’s not pretend like our impatience didn’t subvert Burke’s efforts. (Despite the fact that, y’know, he started with basically nothing). The Burke-inspired analogy would be asking a baker to create you a chocolate soufflé from flour, sand, and stagnant pond water in 30 minutes. The contrarians would say, “Well, he could go out and get the proper ingredients,” to which I would reply, “Yeah, but doesn’t that mean we should give him some extra time?” To which they would say, “Alex Anthopoulos would have just stolen someone else’s soufflé. Screw Brian.”

I sort of eerily alluded to this whole possibility last year. I just want that on the record. I may have spent a few thousand words comparing Brian Burke to Christopher Nolan’s cinematic Batman. Seems relevant now. Wednesday was basically the last scene of ‘The Dark Knight.’

Speaking of my go-to analysis style (film comparisons), there’s a really, really phenomenal movie coming out on DVD soon that I may have referenced sort of directly in this post’s title. I’ll spare everyone the superficial details and cut straight to the metaphor: it’s all about institutional failure.

Let me be more specific. It’s about what happens when the institutions in our lives fail us.

If I’m reading too much into a Bond flick, feel free to skip to the end. The whole premise of Skyfall is that Judi Dench screws some major stuff up in the name of cold patriotism and procedure (a failure of which 007 himself is a direct victim) and is called into question at a public enquiry. There is, frankly, a badass and brilliant scene where she’s literally facing this panel of public judges who are questioning her relevance, methods, and capabilities. She throws the optics of the situation back in their faces, standing on the defence that the end is worth the means, even if the means is mighty ugly.

There’s apparently no shortage of movie characters I’ll compare him to, but Brian Burke’s tenure in Toronto is essentially Judi Dench’s in Skyfall. (SPOILER: Things get poopy for ‘M’, too). Tough assignment, decisions that won’t be popular, and some questionable choices made in order to serve what is considered the greater good – despite the best of intentions. Screwups along the way, sure. But at the end of the day, these are the best people to protect you – because there’s a credibility and reliability that comes from experience.

In the end, it’s easy to hate the people who bear responsibility for what is an inevitably difficult process.

Are Burke’s detractors displeased because he executed the task poorly, or simply because he was the face of whomever had to take on this unfortunate task to begin with?

Near the end of Skyfall, Dench asks Bond – “I [censored] this up, didn’t I?” 007, who has perhaps as much reason as anyone to doubt her competency and performance, offers a reply of pure, honest pragmatism: “No. You did your job.” But the institution M serves, the one she’s sacrificed her public image for, doesn’t even seem to care that she was doing exactly what it needed and wanted her to.

Our world measures results, not intentions. If you’re still looking for an explanation in all this, that’s the best one I have to offer. Context be damned, it would seem.

I began this piece saying this is a worst case scenario. I know it’s not. General managers come and go. Some win championships, some don’t. I’m not going to pretend Brian Burke is the only man who can win a Stanley Cup in Toronto. I feel badly for him on a personal level, and I wish it hadn’t happened. If it were up to me, he’d be in his office tomorrow morning.

I fundamentally disagree with MLSE’s decision. And that’s the road leading to the real concern. The sickening feeling that we’ve been here before.

Much has been made about how dumb the timing of this is. Like, objectively stupid in both a hockey and business sense. I’m not sure there’s an adequate defense. Tom’s is, “Well there’s no good time to do this.” No, Tom, there’s not. But there are a bunch of bad ones, and MLSE bulls-eyed a prime example.

The paranoid side of my brain says this is a harbinger for the return of classic MLSE corporate micromanagement and committee-based decision making. The realistic side of my brain says this is… a harbinger for the return of classic MLSE corporate micromanagement and committee-based decision making.

I’m sorry this took so long. If only selfishly, I needed to post it, and I hope some of you identified with the sentiment.

Brian Burke will be remembered as GM who laid a lot of groundwork and ultimately accomplished nothing. That may be an objectively a fair assessment, but it robs his efforts of context, oversimplifies what is actually a far more complicated evaluation/discussion, and does a disservice to the man who rather obviously put a lot of effort into resurrecting a franchise which has, for years, been far more dead and competitively irrelevant than many of us on sites like this want to admit. He started with an organization that was far more broken than most, and ultimately received less time than he deserved to try and fix it.

He never failed to thank players and staff for their service. He deserves the same, at a bare minimum.

Thank you, Brian. Thank you for the hard work, thank you for your candor, thank you for your intentions, thank you for being inspiring at a time in this writer’s life when he needed it more than anyone will probably understand, and thank you for the colossally entertaining way in which you did it.

Thank you…for your style.

(I’d put some links here, but I’ve just spent twelve hours pretty furious at MLSE. Let them promote themselves).

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