Brian Burke is not a superhero. He doesn’t have magical powers that allow him to move faster than everyone else. He cannot use pure energy to forge amazing things out of nothing. He’s a normal man trying to do a well-intentioned job – one for which he is eminently qualified – by using the significant earthly resources at his disposal to sort out justice in an incredibly dark, cynical, and complex environment. He’s trying to build future positives from the smoldering pile of ash that was past tragedy.
Brian Burke is Batman.
Yeah, this post is a longwinded beast. And it gets kind of preachy in the middle. I won’t be upset if you bail now. But it’s Friday, and we both know you’ll spend a chunk of the afternoon doing nothing, so it’s here if you need it.
And you should know going in, it wasn’t intended as a pure Burke defense. It may well end up that way after a few thousand words, but honestly, I’m trying to be as objective as possible. This isn't a "Brian Burke is awesome" vs. "Damn Yankee and his hellions!" discussion. It's a "How do we see him, and why?" one. I’m a Burke defender, but a pragmatic one – not a blind one.
I won’t argue that his promise of a truculence upgrade has been, to this point, anything but mostly empty. And I can’t say that I ever saw any sense in spending so much time, money, and effort to improve a defensive squad on paper just so that ridiculously-mismatched-with-the-on-ice-strategy roster could fail for three years playing a run and gun style. I will not claim to have any clue about why John-Michael Liles’ extension needed to happen when it did, given the player’s health situation. And that whole “not being a seller at the 2012 trade deadline” thing? Seemed seems a bit crazy.
After the [INSERT GIANT VEHICLE DISASTER METAPHOR] that was the 2011-2012 season, defending Brian Burke is not a particularly popular position to take in any discussion, even totally unrelated ones. You could be talking about bunt cake with Gordon Ramsay, and he’d find a way to work in “All that talk of truculence, and they still have maybe the softest forward group in the league. Isn’t that simple to fix? Wanker.”
The Batman analogy hit me this week upon seeing some informal polls and ensuing (largely negative) discussion about Burke's job performance since 2008. I realized I was seeing, in real life, a story very similar to the one we’ve watched unfold during the past eight years of director Christopher Nolan’s cinematic universe.
(If you’re not a nerd or simply don’t agree, feel free to skip to the comments below and start sounding off. Or come back in about 15 paragraphs when the comic book movie stuff is over. Otherwise, hang on. This is going to reach frightening, unprecedented levels of geek talk.)
Those Batman movies are great because they're not just flash popcorn superhero movies. They're legitimately smart. They incorporate real world themes and concepts to ask some very modern and complex questions. They don't settle for "good vs. evil." They try and walk a line of morality that's not easily drawn, and in the end, make a very definitive point about what being a hero means in our contemporary world. That series grossed billions of dollars worldwide, and sometimes - from my perspective, anyway - it feels like not a single person in Toronto saw it.
Here’s the revolutionary thing about Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s Batman: Most of the time, people hate him.
Take 2008’s The Dark Knight. This creepy albino guy called the Joker shows up in Gotham and basically says, “Hey, you guys enjoying your lives? Great. I’m gonna screw it all up. Because I find that, like, totally hilarious.” Then he starts killing people, and issues some ridiculous ultimatum that Batman has to publically reveal his true identity before the deaths will stop.
Now the audience – and Batman – know this is utter horseshit. The Joker’s a psychopath, and a liar. So Batman says no. But the public starts to get really ornery. So Batman starts feeling miserable, and Alfred shows up for a pep talk. For anyone not familiar with Batman lore (or just wondering how the hell any of this relates to the Leafs), picture Alfred as Cliff Fletcher but with good advice that people actually want to hear.
Bruce Wayne: “People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They'll hate you for it, but that's the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.”
He’s right. Actually, old Al is pretty much bang on. Batman is just a character to the public, a symbol, a myth, who cannot be literally taken to task. He knows his reputation is independent of the situation’s necessities. Alfred’s pragmatic, saying it’s fine if people hate Batman, because their feelings about him are irrelevant to the job he does. As long as Batman’s actions serve a greater purpose – the greater good – their opinions are meaningless. This allows Batman to do things that are tough – but also right, and necessary – that others might not have the stomach for, because they don’t match public sentiment.
Wait. It gets better. Not quite Oscar-winningy better, apparently, but that’s a debate for another day.
Batman’s girlfriend ends up pissed at him and starts complaining about this stuff to Alfred, too. Basically, Alfred is the complaint box of The Dark Knight. And that’s fine, because he’s having none of it:
Alfred: “Perhaps [Batman] stands for something more important than the whims of a terrorist, Miss Dawes. Even if everyone hates him for it, that’s the sacrifice he’s making. He’s not being a hero. He’s being something more.”
The “something more” Alfred’s referring to is Batman’s ability to recognize the greater good through the shortsighted noise, do it, and then willfully accept a backlash by those less aware of what the situation really is. Being a hero without being known as one.
Batman ends up taking it all the way. Some beloved public servant named Harvey Dent goes nuts and kills a bunch of people. Batman knows the city’s spirit will break under that news, so he has Commissioner Gordon lie and say Batman was actually the murderer. He full on takes the rap. Why?
Lt. James Gordon: “Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”
“What the hell does this movie review have to do with Brian Burke?” – All of you.
Brian Burke is Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Burke arrived in this city with the mandate of building a championship team. Which really means accumulating as many high-level assets as possible, and doing so as reasonably quickly as the system he’s working within allows.
That’s the greater good. Can we agree? Awesome. So what’s the problem?
We’re impatient, and unrealistic. Sorry. It’s true, and it’s 100% our fault.
That agreed upon “greater good” is impossible to do fast within the confines the NHL’s cap system, especially when you’re beginning – essentially – emptyhanded. It requires a longterm approach of asset management and accumulation. Good spot for a Burke-inspired crop metaphor? Imagine a farmer planting his corn on April 29th, and then walking out to an empty field on May 2nd and wondering where all the ripe cobs are. That farmer would be an idiot, wouldn’t he?
You could say Burke inherited Luke Schenn , who became James van Riemsdyk. We’ll give Cliff a point for Grabovski, too. And technically, Reimer was in the system already. But beyond that, I honestly don’t think it’s hyperbole to say Burke started out with practically nothing.
In slightly more than three years of acquisition (because, y’know, he couldn’t exactly walk into a “superstar shopping mall” in November 2008), he’s turned that “practically nothing” into what anyone must admit is an impressive list of player assets. Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, van Riemsdyk, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Carter Ashton, Matt Finn, Joe Colborne, Stuart Percy…and that’s just, in my subjective opinion, the cream of the crop.
There’s no guarantee all the names above will all become anything. Everyone’s always free to debate whether or not those “personnel choices” are correct to begin with, and heaven knows, the current mix certainly isn’t working. But before an organization can contend, an organization must be – at a base level – healthy. And the Toronto Maple Leafs were downright terminally ill when Burke took over.
No one can say that now.
I was in a protracted labour day argument with an anti-fan (definition: someone who hates the Toronto Maple Leafs out of pure spite, only because they are the Toronto Maple Leafs) about this very subject. My contention: whatever specific, situational errors Burke has committed during his tenure as General Manager are vastly outweighed by the colossal improvement in the overall health of the organization.
I’d tend to agree that giving Burke a letter grade at this point is…well, pointless. It would be like reviewing a movie while they’re still shooting it. But that public poll’s result was what prompted the Batman analogy. I thought to myself, “How can people really not see beyond a few specific examples of what Burke’s done wrong to recognize the cumulative nature of what he’s done right?”
It’s not Brian Burke’s fault that the clock won’t spin faster so Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly can become NHL stars. It’s not Brian Burke’s fault that he made a largely lauded signing in Mike Komisarek only to have the player undermine the agreement by performing at a level far below what we know he’s capable of. And it’s not Brian Burke’s fault that the other General Managers won’t just “make available” every player that the Leafs want or need at a price less than something that would decimate Toronto’s rebuild more than the acquisition itself would help it.
But he’s blamed for all of those things. Daily.
This Toronto Maple Leafs on-ice product will probably continue to suck if there’s hockey this year, but that’s not because the greater good isn’t being served, and the greater good is Burke’s responsibility. He’s not “on-ice manager.” He’s not “prospects manager.” He’s not “trades manager.” He’s the general manager. His responsibility is organizational, so it’s only fair to evaluate him on an organizational basis.
Do we really believe he does anything not thinking it will lead to the club winning?
Now, here's where you'll say the disagreement is - and you'll be right. I’m arguing for intent. If you want to call him incompetent, and you agree that while Burke's intentions are good, his execution has been a total mess, you're perfectly entitled to say it. You could very well end up right once all of this is over.
And I don’t want to seem pretentious about it. Measuring this objectively is a hard thing to do, and I’m not claiming to be great at it. I spent most of August feeling significant anti-Burke sentiment myself due largely to non-movement on the trade front and the general apathy I’ve felt towards the club since their colossal winter/spring 2012 collapse. I saw discrepancies in Burke’s quotes (JULY: “We’re definitely not done, look at the depth chart, we can’t be done.” SEPTEMBER: “We’re done.”), no immediate reason for hope, and a general lassitude toward the sport itself. Add in Allairegate, and you’ve got a veritable rock bottom for the Toronto Maple Leafs in my lifetime.
It’s an easy time to hate Burke because it’s the kind of frustrating time that breeds hatred. But that feeling will be irrelevant as long as the greater good remains intact. Burke’s management team has a proven ability to recognize necessity and act on it, assembling the players needed to be successful.
Now, if your opinion of the man is less than stellar because you simply disagree with his evaluation of those players, that's fine. That's debate. And it's an argument that can only be settled retrospectively. It's when people claim his mistakes are born of ignorance that I start vehemently disagreeing and writing painfully long, superhero-fueled posts.
Everything you think you know that they don’t know – they know.
I hate to break it to the cynics, but yes, Brian Burke’s vision of a championship calibre team includes a #1 centre and a bona fide #1 goaltender. That he hasn’t acquired them yet isn’t a testament to his supposed ignorance of their necessity. It’s a testament to their availability at a price that makes sense (for established cases), or their place in the development process (for potential internal cases).
These aren’t excuses for his errors. He’s made some. He’s human. And on some calls, he’s been downright wrong. A Tim Connolly doesn’t exactly help the rebuild.
But the fans’ best interest is a team that’s built for perpetual contention in the future. Our best interest is to not make trades that don’t make sense just to say we made them. Our best interest is to let the assets in the system mature and develop into more capable versions of themselves, even if it means waiting through some frustrating losing while they gain the experience necessary to be winners. For my money, Burke’s time in Toronto has been spent largely furthering those best interests.
At the end of the trilogy, (SPOILER WARNING)…
…(who are we kidding, it’s been out for two months, if you haven’t seen it, you don’t care)…
…Batman saves the city and they realize he’s been a hero all along, and then they build a damned statue of the guy. A Batman statue. Seriously. They love him that much. He’s gone, they think he’s dead, and so they build a stone version of him inside City Hall for the sole purpose of permanently worshipping the guy they all misunderstood.
Burke’s lived that story once in Vancouver. If he lives it again in Toronto, it won’t be fair. But I guess, if the world has taught us (read: Leaf fans) anything, it’s that fairness isn’t an entitlement.
Burke takes the rap as a figurehead of the city’s problem, and the shared frustration that we can’t live in the kind of world we want. He’s working tirelessly to fix it, and we hate him not because he isn’t doing it – but because he isn’t doing it fast enough.
Public sentiment might run him out of this town. Whether or not you, the reader, contributes to that sentiment is a personal choice. If your interest is seeing immediate success as a sort of relief to the perpetual losing we Leaf fans have suffered for the better part of ten years, then feel free to hate on Brian Burke for not providing it. Heck, you can criticize every individual player decision he’s made wrong, and you’d be totally right.
But if your interest is in seeing a properly revitalized and constructed organization contend for a long time with Stanley Cup-shaped success…well, it seems to me that’s the greater good. Feel free to think differently, but respecting that greater good means respecting the process it takes to get there. And that Batman guy…well, even though he’s sort of an insane recluse, he usually seems to have a handle on it.
That doesn’t change the truth. We have watched a lot of on-ice terrible product before and since Brian Burke became the Leafs’ GM. Some of it his fault, most of it not. Fans in this city have earned the right to complain, if for no other reason than their never-ending patience. So, if it gives your fandom meaning, feel free to blast the job Burke’s done.
All it means is that if the Toronto Maple Leafs one day win a Stanley Cup with a roster that was significantly assembled by Burke, he won’t be a hero. He’ll be something more.