Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Burke will be back; he's just that good

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Brian BURKE didn't watch. Maybe he couldn't. Maybe it would have hurt too much.

Burke landed in Toronto on Wednesday after an 18-day road trip that took him first to Afghanistan, where he regularly visits the troops, and then Helsinki and Stockholm to scout for the Anaheim Ducks at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.

Fired as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs in early January, Burke didn't get to finish the ride he started. He missed his old team's near dismissal of the Boston Bruins and we missed out on the great theatre Burke would have provided from up high in a manager's box. The loosened tie, the mussed hair, the plastic cup spittoon, and almost certainly, at least one tirade. Burke is a lot of things but he's never boring.

"I didn't see one game live. I saw two on TV from overseas," said Burke, in a phone interview with the Free Press on Wednesday while riding a taxi from the airport to his Toronto residence. "I was real proud of them. I thought they worked their asses off."

Burke did almost all of the heavy lifting in the rebuilding of the Leafs and to suggest anything else is foolish.

With the youngest team in the NHL, a successful farm system and one of the best coaches in hockey, Burke left the Leafs in very good shape.

Watching the Leafs lose to the Bruins in Game 7 the other night, I found myself wondering about his thoughts on his former team's success.

It took a couple of days to reach him, but Wednesday he answered his phone. He wasn't, however, interested in taking the bait. He said he didn't want to say much and he didn't.

"I really believe the guy that deserves the credit when a team wins is the coach and not the GM. Randy (Carlyle) is one of the best coaches in the NHL. There's no question about it," said the 57-year-old Burke, who has a deal with the Ducks that expires after the draft.

Speaking to one of Burke's former hockey operations employees with the Leafs, it was clear the organization, if not ownership, still values the job he did.

"Forget the players for a moment. Just look at the people he put in place. From Dave Nonis, Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle and the rest of the management team to Carlyle and his coaching staff," said the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment executive, who demanded anonymity. "The Marlies are one of the best teams in the AHL and they have one of the best young coaches in hockey there with Dallas Eakins. Burkie put all that in place.

"If you look at what he did with the roster, getting Phil (Kessel), (Joffrey) Lupul and (Nazim) Kadri and (Jake) Gardiner. Say what you want about (Dion) Phaneuf but we won that trade. We got rid of (Matt) Stajan."

One can argue back and forth about Burke's moves with the Leafs and depending on one's perspective regarding individual players and coaches, come to a variety of conclusions.

But most hockey people will tell you the Leafs have a talented young roster with more players in the pipe, including first- round pick and consensus blue chipper Morgan Reilly.

This spring's fling may have come a little early as a result of Carlyle's getting more out of this group sooner than expected. But this group has shelf life.

The Leafs -- and the haters won't like this or admit it -- are back. And if the capable Nonis is left to do his work without meddling from above or pressure from the masses, they'll only get better.

Burke's rebuild of the Leafs was never meant to be quick, as it wasn't a short-term fix. Here in Winnipeg we often hear Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff talk about creating depth in the organization and the time it takes.

Burke was able to achieve this and he was on schedule. No one knows why he was fired, but if it was on the basis of his work with the hockey team it was premature. Burke's gone but his work will have staying power.

Burke comes with baggage, but who among us doesn't after a couple of trips around the block? He's combative and, at times, overbearing. He can be his own worst enemy.

But he's loyal -- ask Ron Wilson -- and he gets the best people to work for him.

The track record is obvious. They're still living off the foundation he built in Vancouver and the Ducks thought enough of the acumen that brought them the only Stanley Cup in franchise history to give him shelter when the storm hit.

Now the Leafs are back from the dead.

Brian Burke will be a GM in the NHL again for one simple reason. He's good at it.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2013 D1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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