Burke finally arrives in Toronto: "Let the fun begin"

November, 29, 2008
TORONTO -- The news conference was five minutes away when we got a text message from another NHL executive.

"Let the fun begin," he wrote.

Brian Burke was formerly introduced as the new president and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, a job he privately coveted for a long time (the Bruins job would be No. 1 in his heart, but this was a close second).

"You're talking about the Vatican if you're a Catholic," Burke told one of the most well-attended Maple Leafs news conferences in more than a decade. "You're talking about the center of the hockey universe. You're talking about one of the most important jobs in hockey on the planet in running the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's a dream job. ...

"This is one of the crown jewels in the National Hockey League. It's an iconic brand worldwide."

It's also the job that comes with the most media scrutiny in the NHL. Three Canadian sports networks, four daily newspapers, one all-sports radio station, the head office of the national news agency -- you name it and it's in Toronto. Now mind you, Burke dealt with some of that in hockey-mad Vancouver, but at least in sheer numbers, it still doesn't compare to Toronto.

Between Burke and his coach, Ron Wilson, there will be plenty of 30-second video clips to go around. There won't be many boring days for my Toronto media colleagues, which is a good thing because the team is beginning to stink like we all thought it would.

Interestingly, Burke had already publicly touted Wilson as a serious candidate for the 2010 U.S. Olympic coaching job. We can only think it will help Wilson's chances now that they're working together every day.

"I was really lucky when I did work it last time [1998 in Nagano], it was with Lou Lamoriello, who was my mentor," Wilson said Saturday. "It's not something that I'm sitting around waiting for, but the fact that Brian is the general manager obviously tweaks my interest.

"To have a chance to represent the United States a second time, yeah I would love to do that."

Usually when a GM inherits a coach, it's a little awkward; but, in this case, Wilson and Burke go back to their college days in Providence. They also worked together in Vancouver and both were lauding each other Saturday.

"If I had a chance to hire a coach today, I'd hire Ron Wilson," Burke said.

"There's going to be days that we argue; we've argued for 35 years," Wilson said. "That's part of the process. You need different views."

Burke, meanwhile, wasted no time throwing an olive branch to the man whose job he took. Cliff Fletcher's contract with the Leafs expires July 31, 2009, but Burke made it clear he wants the veteran executive to stick around (Fletcher wasn't at the news conference).

"Cliff has a job here as long as he wants one as far as I'm concerned," Burke said.

Rising front-office star Joe Nieuwendyk, who was at the news conference, was also complimented by Burke, and we can safely report the former NHL center is willing to give it a try with the new GM, as well.

So, now what? One of the first things Burke will do is receive written permission from the Anaheim Ducks to speak with Dave Nonis. The plan is to bring him here to Toronto. Burke also needs to get to know his players. Some of them won't last the season here, but don't expect immediate changes.

"The NHL's Christmas trade freeze goes in on Dec. 19," Burke said. "My trade freeze goes in 10 days before that. I don't think players should get traded at Christmastime unless they asked to be traded. So anyone waiting for bated breath for that first deal might wait past that deadline because I believe players deserve to spend the holidays with their families."

But we can promise you this: Burke privately believes the Leafs are not tough enough and get pushed around too much. He will try and toughen up this team; that's been his track record in Anaheim, Vancouver and Hartford.

"We require as a team proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence," Burke said. "That's how our teams play."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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