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BETWEEN THE LINES: Brian Burke's new book prompts Steve Simmons to reflect on 30 years covering the hockey lifer

Brian Burke during his days as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Brian Burke during his days as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

I approached Brian Burke one day in 2007, when he was still general manager of the Anaheim Ducks, and asked a rather simple question.

“Would you be interested in being general manager of the Maple Leafs, for three million dollars a year and a five-year contract.”

At the time, no general manager in hockey was making that kind of money.

He waited a moment before answering.

“Where do I sign up?” he said, half serious, half smiling, knowing full well the question I asked wasn’t necessarily coming from me.

This story, like a lot of stories, doesn’t appear in Burke’s Law , the recently released book written with Stephen Brunt.

Burke’s Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and by November, 2008 he was named general manager of the Leafs. Five-year deal. Approximately $3 million a year.

He accepted the job on the American Thanksgiving Weekend, which I remember well, because I was home when the phone rang around dinner time and it was Burke calling back: “I’m home with my family in Boston, I can’t talk long” he said. “I know you’ve been calling. I just wanted you to know, before it’s officially announced, that I’ve accepted the Leafs job.”

And before hanging up, he thanked me for supporting him.

That story isn’t in the book, where he referred to me as “the worst of the (media) bunch.

“I barely spoke to him,” he wrote. “And I never liked him.”

After July 1, 2011, those words were partially fact, true. Before that date, that’s complete nonsense.

Not long after Burke was hired in Toronto, I arranged for a lunch with him and my colleague Mike Zeisberger. It’s something I tend to do with new coaches and general managers in town. It’s a good way to set ground rules. How are you going to deal with each other? How do you want the relationship to work?

In the conversation we got into the rather nasty media feuds Burke had gone through in the past with Tony Gallagher in Vancouver and with longtime Toronto hockey writer, Al Strachan. Over lunch, I brought up the notion that there would come a time, knowing our personalities, when I would be angry with him, or he would be angry with me or Zeisberger, and how we could prevent that from festering?

We talked through it that afternoon and came to the conclusion that it didn’t benefit anyone to carry this kind of angry business around. The three of us agreed, shook hands on it, that no matter what happened, no matter how bad anything got, we would find a way to talk our way through it.

Then came July 1, 2011. Free agent day in the NHL. And Burke went to Afghanistan on a good-will tour. And I wrote a column — and said the same thing on TSN — that it was irresponsible for a general manager of an NHL team leaving North America on one of the most important days on the hockey calendar.

I wrote that he could have made a trip any other day of the year – that he was hired to fix the Maple Leafs and he wasn’t present or accounted for on July 1.

That day I asked a number of general managers about Burke going to Afghanistan and one answer stuck with me. The GM said if he asked his owner permission to go to Afghanistan the answer would have been: “Sure you can go, just don’t bother coming back.”

In writing about the situation in Burke’s book he made it sound as though the column was primarily about signing or not signing free agent Brad Richards. Which is funny, because, Richards wasn’t mentioned until the ninth paragraph of the piece. The column was about the GM, the closer, the salesman, the optics of not being present and accounted for on one of the largest days of the hockey calendar.

“I was so outraged and offended,” Burke wrote in the book. “It was the lowest thing I’ve seen in journalism in my 30-plus years in the hockey business. It was a gratuitous cheap shot.”

That day he sent me a text message so long that it came in two parts, maybe three. I wish I had kept it. Then I could have counted all the expletives.

When I finally wrote back, I asked about the agreement we had made, to find our way to talk through anything that happened. He wanted nothing to do with that. He answered with two words.

It wasn’t happy birthday.

That was the last time Burke corresponded with me in any meaningful way. We first met in 1986 when he brought Brett Hull to Calgary and signed him in the Stanley Cup playoffs. From 1986 to 2011, some 25 years, if I called Burke, he called back. We weren’t friends but it was always professional. When I wrote The Lost Dream, the edgy and sad book on the escapades of Mike Danton and David Frost, Burke was good enough to write a quote for the back cover.

That was just months before Afghanistan.

For someone he barely spoke to, we sure spoke a lot.

In the book, Burke writes somewhat naively, or maybe lacking self-awareness, about his firing by the Maple Leafs. He doesn’t really explain what happened except he didn’t win enough games.

He wrote there was no sign it was coming. But there were, in fact, many signs. There were all kinds of stories circulating in the hockey world about Burke’s behaviour and about the possibility of him leaving the Leafs, being fired or taking a leave of absence.

During the 2012 Stanley Cup Final in Los Angeles, Bob McKenzie went on TSN’s Insider Trading panel and spoke about the Burke rumours. At first, I wasn’t going to write about it, but after McKenzie’s report, I knew I had to.

That was before the London Olympics, where Burke went on vacation. He attended many receptions and parties there and it was hard not to notice him or hear him. At at least one of those events, maybe more, George Cope, then head of Bell, was present. Cope, I’m told, decided then that Burke could no longer run the Leafs. He then had to convince Nadir Mohamed, then head of Rogers, that Burke had to go. Mohamed agreed. At the time, MLSE COO, Tom Anselmi, said Burke’s firing had nothing to do with his personal life. Maybe so, but whatever the reason they no longer wanted Burke as face or voice of the franchise.

There was just one problem. The NHL players were being locked out and Burke was on the league negotiating committee. How would it look, owners figured, if they fired him while he was negotiating on behalf of the league?

So they waited until the half-season lockout ended. And once it did, they didn’t fire Burke themselves, they actually sent Larry Tanenbaum and Dale Lastman, neither of whom wanted Burke gone, to go and pull the plug.

That’s what happened. That version is not in the book either, except for Tanenbaum and Lastman doing the firing.

So much like Burke, the book is loud and full of bluster with some terrific stories, inside tales. Some of them are true. Some of them are his truth.

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