Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Gospel according to Brian

Brian Burke the communications savant running the Toronto Maple Leafs knows how to take advantage of a dead day in the NHL schedule. He is a sports columnist’s best friend. His frank discussion with the media regarding his pursuit of John Tavares gained him headlines across the continent. But for me it was his comments regarding the future of the Leafs that caught my attention.

"A player's here long enough, he starts thinking, `I'm special, because there's 20 people who want to talk to me.' No. They're there to talk to whoever comes off the ice with a Maple Leafs uniform on. And I think players confuse their role on a team that's struggling with being a good hockey player. `Oh, I'm on the second power-play unit. I must be a good hockey player.' No. We don't have a very good team, and so you get that ice time."

"All we've done here is put in accountability, and try to say, `That's not good enough. This isn't good enough. This group has to aspire to higher levels of achievement or we need different athletes,'" said Burke. "That's how pro sports are supposed to work. That's why these guys make the big bucks. And yes, there's been a culture of entitlement here, and we're trying to change that, and we will change it."

He is bang on once again. Playing in Toronto provides players with a distorted perspective of their ability and importance to the team. Who is to fault? Well historically fans have blamed the owners or management. But everyone is at fault.

The owners who are flush with money tend to pamper the athletes. They are provided with world class facilities and paid very well – often in excess of their true market value. Management has always looking for a quick fix to keep the team competitive and to ensure that the lineup had enough “star” attractions to justify the high ticket prices. Players who might be 2nd or 3rd liners on contenders are provided with significant ice time. But it doesn’t end there. The media are also to blame. The 24/7 coverage of the Leafs also distorts the players’ perception of their contribution. Any reporter that dares to be critical of players or writes about the goings on in the dressing room is bound to get the cold shoulder find interviews harder to come by. Leaf fans dump on reporters like Damien Cox who they perceive to be too critical of their beloved Leafs.

But maybe the guiltiest party is the loyal faithful fan base. They fill those seats every game, buy Leaf merchandise and will parade down Yonge Street after a single playoff win. They have set the bar so low for the players that every player can walk away at the end of the season convinced they gave it their best. Sure most seasons there is one player that ends up being the scapegoat for the fans’ frustration (eg. Larry Murphy, Jonas Hogland, Andrew Raycroft) but everyone else is pretty much off the hook. Players on other franchises are not pampered like Leaf players. In New York and Philadelphia uninspired play will get you showered with garbage. Fans will scream obscenities at you from their car.

Brian Burke has signalled that even if the fans and media continue to fawn over anyone wearing blue and white, management will be singular focused on results on the ice. No one can feel secure or safe if the team falls short of his high expectations. There will never be another Muskoka Five on his watch.

I can’t wait!