The Other Side of the Job


Photo: National Post

Brian Burke recently sat down with TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin for an extensive interview entitled “The Business of Hockey”, available to watch via the TVO website (or YouTube, in case you have the same viewing problems I did with the first link).

The conversation is 27 minutes long and covers topics we’ve heard Burke discuss before – with some of the same philosophies and sound bytes he’s previously delivered – but its best advantage, perhaps, is that we now get to see them in one contextual conversation. When evaluating the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ President and General Manager, far too many fans seem to focus on player transactions within the hockey operations department as the sole admissible metric of performance. Which is a fancy way of saying they believe Electronic Arts’ NHL GM Mode captures the minutiae of the job accurately and that it never gets more complicated than compiling XP points to be exchanged for generic “medical staff” upgrades.

To hear the forgotten side of the job – call it “business,” “administration”, or “executive” – discussed with focus is a frank reminder heading into hockey operations’ prime season that there’s a whole other side to the equation that is often overlooked.

I won’t summarize the interview. It’s entertaining, informative and worth your time to watch.

A few points, however, did strike me as being worth further discussion.

Burke is openly candid (that’s probably a redundant description, right?) toward what he terms his somewhat “fraudulent” title of President. I’ve heard him discuss in prior interviews how it amounts to little in the way of added responsibility, but ensures a measure of added clout in certain situations involving corporate relationships or commercial partners. Employed the right way, even a token title can lead to a certain amount of pragmatic power. It’s as much an endorsement of, I guess, authenticity to his personal authority from MLSE as it is a boardroom advantage for the man himself.

In response to a great question from Paikin about how the hypothetical President would regard the job done thus far by his immediate inferior, the General Manager, Burke concedes a lack of success in the team’s performance. But he makes an important – and accurate – distinction (that I haven’t heard to this point) between what a “C or D-grade” evaluation and “incomplete” evaluation would be. He cites the team being in such serious trouble when he arrived as a major factor, which some might consider a cop-out. In my humble opinion, they shouldn’t. Much as winning has an organizational momentum, losing produces the same (albeit inverse) effect – and make no mistake, the Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the most disastrously broken NHL organizations when Burke arrived.

Lastly, Burke goes into some detail about his personal relationship with players. Known as a “players’ GM” in many circles, Burke’s answer is calculated and prudent. He believes in relationships that are “relatively close, but with some distance.” He communicates openly and frequently with his players (sharing coffee around practices, notifying them personally of trades, hovering over the charter card games to make sure no one’s being “skinned”), but draws a line where deeper bonds might be formed – IE, dinner invitations for families. His reasoning is simple and understandable: he may have to trade any one of those names the next day, and fostering too much closeness could make that process more difficult or even sway his ability to objectively judge a player’s value when making a deal.

All in all, a very enlightening talk. And a good reminder, heading into what we could call “transaction season,” that there’s a lot more on the GM’s plate than trying to pry Ryan Getzlaf or Roberto Luongo from his former organizations. Not that Burke’s really going to need a crowbar for that second one.


Brian Burke: The Business of Hockey


Thursday morning links:

A beloved former LA Kings trainer of “Cal Ripken-like” reliability drank 19-year-old Budweiser from the Stanley Cup that has been around since they lost to Montreal in the finals in 1993. Hmm. Los Angeles. Finals. 1993. Something about that sounds famil…OH MY GOD I HOPE IT’S POISONED!

-At The Leafs Nation, our own Ryan Fancey discusses the Top 5 draft scenario specific to where defenceman Ryan Murray might go – even if that’s Toronto.

-Also via The Leafs Nation, Cam Charron discusses Luke Schenn: the player he is, the player he can be, and his tendency to deliver great odd-numbered seasons and subpar even-numbered ones. So, he should be perfectly fine in 2012-13, just in time for Jake Gardiner’s inevitable sophomore slump!

-The Vancouver Canucks filed ‘cutdown’ arbitration with forward Mason Raymond, which is something I literally had no idea existed, and sounds as harsh as a millionaire taking a (maximum) 15% pay cut can possibly sound.

-Per Zach Parise, Zach Parise will not sign with the Rangers, and would like to stay in New Jersey (which, I think, is literally item #1 on “List of things to say going into unrestricted free agency, as provided by your agent”). Also from Zach: “We’re 48 hours away from a pretty devastating loss, so I haven’t had time really to sit back and think about that yet and that’s the truth” – which seems to me like an extraordinarily polite way of telling that particular reporter that they “seriously need to back off right now…like, seriously.” I’m including the story as a Leaf link very hopefully because…well, I think it’s pretty transparent why I’m including this story as a Leaf link very hopefully.