Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Better Burke Days

This is maybe a rethinking of the criticism I leveled at Maple Leaf management in their search for a GM. With every creeping day it seems more and more likely that Toronto's General Manger next year will be be less a strong and experienced man and more a collection of senior hockey people keeping the seat warm. The thought of leaving Cliff Fletcher in as an extended interim man got me riled up, I think justifiably, and I labeled this as just more of the same do-nothingness from the men in charge of this hockey team.

But here's something else: the Leafs much publicized and talked about pursual and subsequent rejection by Anaheim tough guy Brian Burke was the fault of not Burke, who by all reports wanted the Toronto job, but was instead at the insistence of Gary Bettman who has developed a near puritanical distaste for tampering in his league. Burke is under contract for another year, so Anaheim ownership was under no obligation to let him go, but in the interest of healthy working environments, you would think that letting the man who won you Stanley Cup go would be best for all parties. The story goes though, that it was Bettman doing his own special brand of tampering that led Henry Samueli to quash the Leafs' request, in the interest of preserving the sanctity of NHL contracts.

So Gary Bettman vetoes any Burke movement, thereby ensuring that at the end of the next season, Burke is in any city other than Anaheim, and if the Leafs have anything to say about it, that city will be Toronto. They've already started greasing the wheels; that's why Burke's former wingman Dave Nonis is in talks to take a senior management position. Is this, and this is hard to even put into words, but is this MLSE being clever? I'm not used to seeing astute and long range plans being put forth by the hockey side of the operation so it's hard to say, but if hiring Nonis is the Leafs unsubtle up yours to the commish, a sort of above board and quite transparent tampering that is hard for anyone to prove and punish, then I don't know what to say. Screw you Gary Bettman, for one, but that is hardly an original sentiment.

I'd still rather see the Leafs commit to a real GM for next season and avoid a long winter of endless Brian Burke speculation, but if it ended in some sort of confrontation between the Leafs and the Commissioner well, at least that is high entertainment right there.

I've been listening to Bob McGown too much.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Head for the hills, the Canadians are coming

Pity any poor fan of English soccer stuck cheering for Leeds United, they don't even know what's about to hit them. People are reporting from both sides of the pond that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the sports holding company last seen putting forty years between championship hockey teams, is now extending its gaze outward. Having conquered just about every sporting mountain there is to climb here in Toronto (money making hockey team, competitive basketball team, a Major League Soccer team with actual fans, and the groundwork for a future NFL team) this city must seem all of a sudden rather provincial. How better to extend the MLSE brand than to gain entrance to that playground of Russian oligarchs, oil rich Arabs and bored Americans, the English Premiership?

Of course MLSE has some work to do to make it that far. Leeds United, the unfortunate soccer team that has become choice number one for MLSE's great European soccer experiment, is not currently playing in England's top league; regulation has seen them tumble down two rungs to the third division, League One. But bad teams are nothing new to MLSE, it's the turn around that seems to give them difficulty.

Will Leeds fans take heart at this news? Going on nothing but a Wikipedia page MLSE certainly looks solid enough. Who wouldn't want their team owned by an organization with dollars and clout?

I don't want to be the petty, older child, jealous at his new sibling, but I don't like this at all. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has a hard enough time with the Maple Leaf aspect of their business, their crown jewel, the one aspect that any one ever expects anything from, and now it's time to invest in English football? The Premiership is serious business, and Leeds fans have an expectation that that is where their club belongs. They deserve an owner with a commitment to winning, who has a stake in the team, who understands the sport and what it takes to win.

Come to think about it, so do the Maple Leafs.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Love Letter, Of Sorts

Things looked, and I don't want to exaggerate here, but the day the Toronto Maple Leafs fired John Ferguson Jr, things looked good. There was optimism and there was hope and there was genuine reason for Toronto fans to think that for once, for once in a long time that maybe theirs would soon be a team not at the whim and drift of cluttered ownership and muddled and always contradictory vision, but that they would be able to cheer for a team that was moving forward both on the ice and off it. Richard Peddie said, "we'll get a hockey man with brass balls and vinegar in his blood and he is going to clean up Dodge City," or words to that affect, and there was that reason to think that those years of neglected drafts and overpaid veterans would be a thing of the past, something to be filed away and forgotten; along side other effluence of the early twenty first century, alongside Tila Tequila but before Transformers: The Movie, there, in resplendent , hidden glory, Toronto Maple Leaf teams, Crappy.

Every day since that first firing though, we've been given nothing but a file to wear away that ironclad hope. A search committee was formed, a search committee of two who were clearly in no great rush to complete the search. "We'll have a GM in place by September," Peddie informed us, as if the knowledge that MLSE's president thought that going through an entire off season with no one in charge of hockey decisions was somehow an acceptable way of rebuilding a broken franchise. Brian Burke's name was whispered as the golden grand slam that would save the franchise, and so we waited for Anaheim to be eliminated, diligently and patiently, assured with the knowledge that managing a hockey team in Toronto was definitely and obviously the dream job for any GM with his head screwed on right.

But Burke didn't happen, surprisingly or unsurprisingly, for whatever reason. That didn't faze the Leafs; I'm sure some of them were privately terrified of the thought of a demon like Burke telling them how to do hockey.

This was when I first heard the insidious whisper of an ugly idea begin to spread around. "Well," the thinking went, and to be sure it still goes today, "Burke is a free man in one more year, why don't we just wait for him? Why don't we just let Cliff Fletcher keep the job till then."

I suppose I understand the thinking behind this, but I don't like it. Burke would do something special for this team for sure, but he is not a superman, he is not the panacea we all need him to be. There are other GM's in the sea, and the idea of sacrificing a whole season, a whole season another completely capable GM could have spent putting his plan for Toronto in motion, to throw next season away and leave it all to Cliff to take care of in his doddering hands is such a completely Made in Toronto solution that we need to throw it out at once.

What could be more MLSE than doing nothing? Leaving Fletcher as GM, when we have heard so many times that he is just an interim guy, that he will not be in charge next year, to stick him with the full time job now is creepy and Orwellian in its doublespeak and is the most obvious move for Leaf management to do. What's easier than doing nothing? They sit back and say, "hey, it's worth the wait for Burke" (and then, only because this is Toronto, we'll watch as free agent Brian Burke signs somewhere else).

I don't believe MLSE will leave Fletcher in place, because just from a marketing stand point, even if this is the the Leafs and they could probably sell out the next twenty years of tickets if they just put them up for sale tomorrow, how do you sell a team that is saying "We'll get started next year"?

That's not to say the "wait for Burke" plan is not off the table. The latest proposed gambit involves Dave Nonis, ex of the Vancouver Canucks (and why they would fire the guy who pulled off Luongo for Bertuzzi I never understood) taking over from Cliff and then setting the table for Burke, his former boss.

The people talking this stuff are the people who give Leaf fans a bad name. The Nonis-to-Burke plan is pure Toronto arrogance, bright and shiny. Of course Dave Nonis would love to be GM for a year and of course he would love to go back to working for Brian Burke even if he has had a taste of the manger's chair because working for the Leafs and bringing them a Stanley Cup just transcends everything else and golly gosh if they wouldn't be lucky to be just working here in the first place, etc.

I am open to the idea of Nonis as GM because he seems like a competent guy capable of making creative trades, and more importantly because it would represent action and decisiveness on the part of MLSE, which is such a strange and dizzying concept that I might need a lie down if I keep thinking like that. But to suggest that Nonis would be ok with an interim job so that the man he replaced in Vancouver can then replace him seems like a stretch. I don't know Nonis at all, and I have no idea what his relationship was like with Burke, but on the surface at least, this seems like a mildly insulting proposition on the Leafs part.

The Leafs, obviously, and I shouldn't say obviously because to the people in charge it is obviously anything but obvious, but the Leafs need their guy in place by the entry draft, or else all claims to moving forward with unifying vision are null and void. Nonis could be that guy, Burke won't be, Fletcher should absolutely not be. Doug Wilson will also not be, and Ken Holland will be too busy enjoying a Stanley Cup. There are still lots of guys out there. Doug Armstrong is more than capable, Neil Smith would love a job I'm sure, and Colin Campbell's name always seems to appear somewhere.

In the end, who knows what's going to happen. The Leafs promised change when they fired Ferguson, but since then it's just been more of the same out of Toronto. I still like to think things will turn out right, I mean you have to hope, or why bother with any of this at all. Another year of Fletcher, even if it is in service of the greater Burke good, is the wrong message to be sending to fans. I wish Burke's name would be dropped, but if the Leafs do in fact lure Nonis, or if Fletcher is in fact named full time interim, then we are in for a very, very long year of speculation.

Endnotes - I won't say anything bad about Paul Maurice. I watched his press conference today (school's out and goodness knows there is nothing better I could have been doing) and I realized how little really knew about him. Maurice seems like a genuinely nice human being, and while his firing was inevitable, I guess, perhaps it didn't have to unavoidable. Even if you were like me and thought Andrew Raycroft could have used a good five or six or twenty more starts down the stretch, you have to admire the way his team never gave up.