Relationships Matter


Ken Holland and Brian Burke announce the 2013 Winter Classic.
Photo: Paul Sancya/AP

If you watched the Nicklas Lidstrom retirement press conference, which I’m sure some of you did, you undoubtedly saw the passion of Mike Ilitch Sr., who almost cried when talking about the departure of one of the best hockey players the world had ever seen. You undoubtedly bore witness to the quality of player/management personnel relationships that exist in such a world class organization.

I’ll be the first one to admit it. A part of me, the general hockey loving part, is a Red Wings fan. By that I don’t mean I support the team as a jersey-wearing fan or anything like that, but I do have tremendous admiration for how they conduct business, personnel decisions and make hockey men part of their family. In my line of thinking that kind of relationship has a major impact on the continuing excellence of that franchise.

The more I dwell on the subject, the more I find similarities between the current management of the Toronto Maple Leafs and said franchise (Ken Holland). Sure, we might not have the ownership that Detroit does (it’s only a pipe dream at this point, not only for the Leafs, but for many other sports franchises around the globe), but Burke’s conduct and set of values could inspire a similar type of loyalty/attitude in the Blue and White in a not so distant future.

Let’s face it, when Burke first set foot in Toronto the “hockey culture” of our beloved Leafs was at a low. Maybe not a Ballard type all time low (in terms of well, general craziness and mockery), but it was certainly not where the storied franchise should be, at any point of their history. Roster wise, this meant relying heavily on Jason Blake (who did have health problems), Vesa Toskala and Tomas Kaberle. Without going overboard with player skill or cap impact assessment (because this isn’t that type of article), it’s not that difficult to argue that Burke wanted to change the culture of this team, he himself declaring exactly that in a couple of statements.

I’m not here to assess anyone’s desire to win, but what can be claimed with a very high degree of certainty is that loyalty can’t work if the GM doesn’t feel the players giving back. In other words, players themselves are worthy of the loyalty of a GM only if their views on the game/effort coincide with that of the GM. Burke seems like a workmanlike, blue collar guy. He loves the gritty, in your face, truculent type of hockey. He undoubtedly thinks that the players who play his style of hockey and give an “honest” effort night in and night out deserve a place in his team.

All of this doesn’t differ from Ken Holland’s point of view, nor does it differ from any other GM’s point of view. Do you think Jiri Hudler would have gotten another crack at the top six if he hadn’t spent the duration of his summer working out with mixed martial arts experts to improve his conditioning and core strength? Of course not. All I’m saying is that this character has to fit in order to establish this two way trust. GMs, coaches need players who they can trust to do the right things. Right now, I think Burke’s a lot closer to having that trust in the players on the Leafs’ roster.

Having come close to completing that part of the recipe, he can now show more loyalty than he did in the past. Best example: Kaberle’s NTC. Having repeatedly said he wouldn’t ask Kaberle to waive his NTC, eventually he did exactly that… or Kaberle mysteriously came to the conclusion that he suddenly wanted out, which is much less probable.

As far as Kaberle goes, after 25 games played as a Cane he had five points and was minus-12, causing Canes GM Jim Rutherford to call out the veteran defenceman in public. “He has to figure out a way to get out of it or he won’t be playing with the Hurricanes long,” Rutherford told XM Home Ice radio. “Maybe the Leafs and Bruins knew something when they let him go.”

Now, like I said, I won’t slander anyone’s reputation, let alone a guy who was a proud member of the Leafs for 12 seasons and contributed a lot to this team, but his track record after the Leafs is anything but great. A lot of hockey people choosing to pass up on him also has to turn on a red light or two. In my mind, Kaberle only lasted this long as a member of the franchise because it settled for mediocrity in his later seasons. From the 08-09 season, Kaberle was the same type of non-defense producing player and he also lost that offensive aspect of his game which made him the second highest all time producing defenseman in the history of the Maple Leafs.

So, what basically killed his Leafs’ career was the inability to click with Burke. In the final Leaf years Kaberle’s natural talent was getting him a decent stat line, but he showed no interest in really becoming a complete player or putting in a complete effort. That’s where the loyalty stopped. On the other hand, Grabovski got signed for too much because he is what he is (well, that and the UFA market isn’t exactly churning up high quality replacements).

I’m pretty sure Burke is the type of guy who, once he recognizes you as a “good part of the organization,” will stick his neck out for you if you fit his profile. So, when talking about Kaberle, I’m not saying his principles are flexible, because saying they were (when he had to get rid of certain players) would be like criticizing a poor person for not spending more money. Some times, even a man such as Burke has to “compromise” for the good of the franchise, but I have yet to see him compromise those principles with a player he trusts/views as a valuable member of the squad.

Like it or not, his set of self imposed rules and ethics might not get us certain players on contracts of certain lengths but they are probably going to get us more blue collar, hard working players (not talking talent here). You’d be correct in saying the core reason the Red Wings succeed is because they can resourcefully unearth hockey talent like they’re picking apples. But what this organization also has going for it, and it’s arguably just as important, is a culture of success. In our case, a culture where failure won’t be looked upon indifferently and where the players might also be pulling their hair when they see Burke picking fifth on draft day. Accountability, family, team, effort and pride might just be words on paper, but the real success comes when they become part of the roster.