At a ceremony at the Hockey Hall of Fame in January, Brian Burke was asked about the significance of running Toronto's troubled NHL club. He replied cheekily, "If you're Catholic, this is The Vatican."
A typically witty retort from the mind of this crusty, clever and controversial Irish-Catholic lawyer. It now seems appropriate that Toronto's voracious hockey media have finished interpreting the "white smoke" drifting from the head office of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and Burke has now been proclaimed the Leafs' new president and general manager. If you will, "The Pope of Leaf Nation."
Now Burke is hardly infallible and fans in other NHL cities might disagree with the notion of Toronto as hockey's "Holy See" and its media as some kind of ink-stained "Inquisition".
But it's hard to refute the argument that he will be a success. Burke built the Anaheim Ducks into Stanley Cup champions two seasons ago and before that, was the architect of a Vancouver Canucks team that was among the NHL's elite for several campaigns.
Some of these same Toronto reporters might be careful what they wish for however. All they have to do is talk to their colleagues in Vancouver who covered Burke during his two stints with the Canucks from 1987 to 1992 as director of hockey operations and from 1998 to 2004 as general manager.
Five years ago, I began doing research for a possible documentary on Burke for Sports Journal, the current affairs program I hosted for seven years. My interest was piqued after reading about a Vancouver radio host who made a lewd, suggestive remark about the wife of then-Canucks star Todd Bertuzzi. Burke was outraged. He revoked accreditation for the station's hockey reporters and pulled the club's advertising from the station. The host was fired.
I contacted a wide range of reporters who covered the team on a regular basis to find out what was behind Burke's actions. Whether they worked for newspapers, radio or television stations, one after the other told stories of Burke's interfering, often intimidating style.
The one journalist who was prepared to talk about Burke for the record was Mike Beamish. He was on the Canucks beat from 1984 to 1994 for The Vancouver Sun before becoming a sports columnist. He was still willing to comment the day Burke was introduced to the Toronto media.
"Burkie fights his own battles, but he creates his own battles," said Beamish from his Vancouver home. He recalled his first dealings with Burke in the late 1980s and how their relationship began on a civil and professional level. But he says as he started writing more critical stories on the team, Burke's attitude changed.
"He's a bully…" said Beamish. "Brian thinks that all reporters are basically lazy and none of them work as hard he does." But Beamish also offered praise. "I do believe Brian is a really good hockey guy. He knows talent but it's as if he's always trying to prove himself."
Burke was a regular on a popular talk show in Vancouver and Beamish says many reporters would listen to hear if Burke trashed them. "One night," he remembers, "Burke referred to me as 'that guy who writes from a drug-induced fantasy.'"
The veteran sportswriter describes Burke as a complex man with a passion for military history, someone who can be both crass and tender from one moment to the next. "When my daughter was born in 1989, Burkie sent flowers to my wife in hospital along with a sleeper bearing a Canucks logo."
Beamish went on: "A year and a half later, Burke wrote the managing editor of The Sun saying that if I kept writing negative stories, the Canucks would no longer co-operate with the newspaper." Beamish added that when his wife passed away a few years later, Burke left a message of condolence at his home.
Back in 2003, many of the journalists told me that despite their reservations and discomfort with Burke's belligerence, they also admired him for his ability to deliver a "good quote," his willingness to defend his players and his intelligence. But most of their tales exposed Burke's mean streak. A broadcaster related how Burke threatened to prohibit Canucks players from appearing on his program if he went negative on the club.
A producer described being invited to lunch by Burke, then facing a verbal attack in front of stunned patrons. A hockey columnist said Burke met with his publisher on several occasions, demanding they dismiss the writer because of the thrust of his columns.
Others recalled scenes of Burke chewing out a reporter in the hallway outside the Canucks dressing room, in front of colleagues, with language that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush.
At the time, I contacted several media members I knew in other Canadian NHL cities where scrutiny of the local teams is at least as intense as Vancouver. Not one could remember experiencing or witnessing the kind of conduct in which Burke engaged. I had covered the Montreal Canadiens for 10 seasons and general manager Serge Savard never behaved with so much open contempt toward the working media.
What was perhaps even more surprising in Vancouver was the chill when I requested interviews with the nearly dozen members of the sports media I spoke with by phone. All but one declined to talk about Burke on-camera. Some thought they might be cut off from the team. A few even said they feared for their job, citing the case of that radio host. In the end, I never did the Burke profile because most of those same reporters, other than Beamish, didn't wish to co-operate.
So now, the Maple Leafs are about to hand the "Keys to the Kingdom" over to this 53-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer. He's acknowledged in hockey circles as one of the most capable people in the game, ready to lead the once-proud franchise out of the hockey wilderness and perhaps to the promised land of the post-season.
Even with a championship team in Anaheim, the Ducks were an afterthought, with barely a handful of journalists covering the club. But Burke will be plunging into a fishbowl in Toronto. His moves will be analyzed in print and on the airwaves by the largest local media contingent in the NHL. Every word from him and those that cover him will be devoured daily by a devoted congregation of fans.
When it comes to ending Toronto's hockey woes, Brian Burke could well be the answer. What happens to the people asking the questions may be just as compelling a story.