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Final Lamentations: The Omissions and Omens of The Burke Firing.

Yesterday the axe fell, and what a commotion it caused. Like the scattering of fearful birds upon the sound of the falling blade, the media, and more so social media, were abuzz with chatter. Most of the buzz was impassioned agreements or disavowals of TMLSE’s decision to fire General Manager Brian Burke one week before the shortened NHL season begins.

Therein lies the rub methinks; it is the timing of this decision that is suspect. Leafs Executive Vice President Tom Anselmi in a press conference yesterday claimed that the new ownership consortium of telecommunication giants Bell and Rogers had come to this decision shortly after taking over last winter. There have indeed been rumblings since the summer that Bell was never fond of Burke and his influence over the Leafs’ brand.

Unfortunately, that’s how these people think. To Bell and Rogers, the Leafs are not so much a team as they are a brand; a business empire, and unfortunately for Burke, that old business saying “it isn’t personal, it’s business” is often woefully inaccurate.

Let’s, for a moment, examine this move purely in business and hockey terms. While Burke’s blustery, antagonistic attitude was controversial at times, and at other times simply irritating, he did become the most television friendly GM perhaps in the entire league. What will we do now without the long panning shots of Burke in his manager’s box every five minutes of every Leafs’ game?

The Leafs are a team with few household names, Burke was perhaps its biggest star.

Now, I would never argue that this is a healthy state of affairs for any sports franchise, but purely considering business, a TV company such as Bell can surely appreciate the importance of star power. There was not nearly this much fanfare when John Ferguson Jr. Was fired, then again that has as much to do with the bizarre timing of the firing as it does with Burke’s prominence in the Toronto media landscape

Brian Burke is, simply put, newsworthy. How many other GM’s have challenged colleagues to barn-fights?–leafs-gm-brian-burke-wanted-to-rent-a-barn-to-fight-kevin-lowe

In summation of this point, I find it hard to believe that Bell and Rogers thought that Brian Burke was entirely bad for the brand; if the old adage is true, and I expect for telecommunication companies it is, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

However, because a rather large part of me still wants to believe TMLSE considers hockey sometimes, let’s take a look at this firing purely in terms of hockey.

In their press conference on the matter Nonis and Anselmi talked quite a bit about the performance and trajectory of the team, and how that all influenced ownership’s decision to oust Burke. Nevertheless, would Nonis not be close in blame for this team’s failures, considering he was intimately involved in hockey operations since 2008? In fact Nonis claimed that he would simply be continuing the process Burke started in building this team.

Both Nonis and Anselmi talked about the “building blocks” Burke put in place that will presumably allow this team to continue to improve (although “continuing” is a more than slightly debatable way to put it)

This all raises the question I’ve been asking myself since yesterday, why fire Burke to simply replace him with his right hand man? This is no great ideological shift, nor is it, as is typical in sport, a response to recent failure (The Leafs haven’t played a game since last spring) or overwhelming fan outcry. So what the hell is it?

Allow me to return to the interesting timing of this firing, one week before the shortened season begins.

Anselmi said today that “there is no good time to do this”, and that ownership had reached this decision due to various factors and other vagueries he offered, not, of course, wanting to delve into the nasty business of specifics.

Interestingly, he made it sound as if this decision was reached some time ago, however they still decided to wait until three days before the presumed start of training camp to act on it.

That is the theory that has been supplied, although I find it terribly dissatisfying.

This all smacks of a recent turning point. I’m left thinking that something must have happened, some impasse must have been reached for this sudden and shocking event. And I think we all know what, or I should say who, that impasse is: Roberto Luongo.

Roberto Fucking Luongo: The Hill Brian Burke Died On (Yes, that is inextricably part of the hockey lexicon now, thank Bill Daly)

It seems to me, and this is all conjecture amongst the rumours that have been dispersed as of late, that Leafs’ ownership was eager to get a deal done that would bring the star goaltender to Toronto, and Burke was not prepared to reach Vancouver GM Mike Gillis’ demands. Burke, being a stubborn man of principle, likely flat-out refused to mortgage the future on a deal that might allow the leafs to make the playoffs this year.

We’ll see I suppose. My suspicions will definitely be confirmed if, on Sunday or Monday, when the new CBA is ratified and player movement is once again legal, the Leafs make a quick and costly deal to get Luongo.

Otherwise, it might confirm for me another rumour I’ve heard: that Burke knocked up some Leafs TV employee.

Oh, the sordid affairs of TMLSE; we don’t have championships, but at least we’ll seemingly always have that.

Perhaps there is no better image to describe both the shock, and unsettling nature of this firing than the visage of Dave Nonis, who at yesterday’s press conference looked like he was about to cry. This was not a man who had just received good news.

Word came out today that he asked the Leafs’ brass to give Burke until the end of this year’s shortened season before he was canned; Burke who was his friend and mentor, who he spent the evening prior to his promotion with at the Marlies’ game, no doubt talking about their plans for this year. He appeared as shocked as anyone, perhaps more so, and spent the bulk of his opening remarks praising Burke’s work thus far.

If this all seems strange to you, that’s because it is. This is not a typical move in the world of sport. General Managers are not fired the week before the season starts.

Nevertheless, much of the sports-media-landscape is already rushing to legitimize and falsely contextualize the move, largely because this landscape is dominated by the very entities who own the team in question. That may be the most troubling feature of these recent events: we are starting to see what a Bell/Rogers ownership team will mean for hockey in Toronto.

When the ownership of the Leafs officially changed hands last winter there was considerable debate as to whether it was good or bad for Leafs fans. I simply wondered if they would be as good for Leafs fans as they have been for telecommunication costumers, and by that I mean very bad.

Our North American sensibilities should make us innately distrust monopolies, and that’s what we have here: a sports monopoly. This new monolith controls not only every major sports team in Toronto (if you include Rogers’ ownership of the Blue Jays) but they also, by and large, own the media coverage of those teams, and thus can control the way we view and even interpret sports in Toronto to a significant degree.

While much of our domestic sports media has been busy rationalizing the strangeness of this firing, US media has been openly skeptical:

As a final note, as one Leaf fan to I’m sure several others, make no mistake: no matter how much you disliked Burke and are happy he’s gone, this is not good news. This is proof that Leafs ownership is as out of touch with the hockey side of their business as ever. This is a tribe with too many chiefs. This is a room full of empty suits trying to make their mark on a piece of history. And before you go judging Burke remember he was run out of town in Vancouver as well, and all he did there was the lion share of building a championship caliber team.


The Ballad of Raffi Torres

I’m sure you’re all familiar with that old southern mantra; Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

I wonder, how many times will Raffi Torres fool the NHL?

Shake it off, right?

Let me disclaim upfront: this is not merely about Torres’ hit on Marian Hossa last night that sent the Slovak to the hospital on a stretcher,  of all his questionable hits, that may have been the cleanest. This is about a body of work; a portfolio of wanton violence and skulduggery that stretches the length of Torres’ entire career. This is about consistency.

I enter the following as evidence:

and of course:

I included the last one so that you get the gist of my overall argument here: Raffi Torres makes poor choices, habitually. And each time he’s called on it, whether it’s a questionable hit or dressing in blackface, his argument is typically “i didn’t mean to hurt anyone”, which might be true. In the case of his Jay-Z get up I genuinely believe he didn’t mean for it to be racially insensitive. Still, poor choice of costume for a public figure. Poorer choice to allow your friend to put it on twitter.

As for the hits, most of them, on their own, are questionable. The question being whether Raffi was specifically head hunting each time. But all together? It’s a pretty damning collection of evidence that seems to suggest that Torres consistently targets other players’ heads.

So what to do with him this time? Suspension lengths increase based on player history, which, one would assume, will count against Torres here, and heavily. Also, I get the impression, and you might as well, that it’s high time Shanahan make an example out of someone. The perception is quickly becoming that these playoffs are a little out of control and a significant suspension here would be, depending on your point of view, a step in the right direction.

Then again, there have been worse hits these playoffs that garnered no suspensions, or at the most, suspensions of three games (Carl Hagelin on Daniel Alfredsson). What Shanahan does here may very well be the benchmark on which his career as VP of Player Safety is judged. It may even determine how long he keeps that position.

Finally there is the supposed “culture change” to consider. We’ve heard many times this year about the need to “change the culture” surrounding hits to the head in light of the concussion epidemic. Part of that culture, we’ve been lead to believe, is cultivated by the players, and it’s up to them to change it. Fat chance. As for the other part, that is the onus of the NHL, and will be changed by how they approach head-shots in terms of suspensions. In the past, this hit on Hossa, with Torres’ history in mind, may have resulted in a game or two being docked, but it feels as though that might be insufficient now. If Shanahan and the NHL are to make a statement here it will have to be an unprecedented one. It’s a go-big-or-go-home moment now.

If Torres gets more than five games the statement will have been made. Two or less? Business as usual.Three or four? A decidedly ambiguous result, which may be what the NHL would prefer.

At any rate, there is a reason that this moment has caused such a stir around the NHL and its fanbase: it’s a contentious hit. There’s validity on all sides. It’s up to the NHL to let everyone else know, finally, what kind of hit this one really is.

Written by Jesse Borg.