Toronto Maple Leafs GM plays defence with reporters

Brian Burke is the general manager of one of the most popular teams in Canada and the NHL but the media aren’t popular with him: he has
referred to reporters as “scumbags,” “maggots,” and “idiots”. But after
his recent snub towards “Hockey Night in Canada,”
Ian Jacobs decided to take a closer look at this antagonistic relationship.

Brian Burke, the General Manger of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is famous for his brass and abrasive style when handling the media. He’s known as one of the greatest interviews in hockey because of his blunt approach. So when he refused to appear on Hockey Night in Canada with Ron MacLean earlier this month, it was a snub that the hockey world took full notice of.

Throughout his career Burke has shown a fundamental lack of respect for the media. During his six year stint with Vancouver he referred to the media as “scumbags”, “maggots”, and “idiots” according to Vancouver radio personality Dave Pratt, and his recent snub to Ron MacLean was the first big one as the GM of the Leafs.

A few weeks ago on-air, MacLean and co-host Don Cherry raised the idea that Burke fire the head coach Ron Wilson. Then, when MacLean approached Burke about appearing on the show for a Dec. 4 broadcast, Burke declined.

“He made it clear he didn’t like what has been said. I explained a few bits about the balance we’ve brought and explained the value of his appearance to our show and his fans,” MacLean wrote on CBC’s website.

After MacLean explained to Burke the importance of having him on, Burke told him what he thought.

“I have no obligation here. Write and say whatever you want,” Burke said.

The Leafs currently sit 13th in the Eastern Conference and dead last in the North East division. They likely won’t be competing for the Stanley Cup for the seventh straight year.

And Burke’s recent tiff with the media certainly isn’t his first. He spent six years as General Manager of the Vancouver Canucks, and that’s when he got into it with Dave Pratt of the Team 1040.

“He didn’t like some things we said on our show. We got in an argument and he’s refused to come on for ten years now,” Pratt said.

Clearly, Pratt isn’t surprised by Burke’s recent refusal to appear on Hockey Night in Canada.

“Brian works under the mantra of ‘it’s all about Brian Burke.’ If he doesn’t like what’s being said about him then he’ll cut you off,” he said. “It’s happened to me so I’m not surprised one bit.”

So how does it sit with members of the media when Burke denies them access to an interview?

“It’s his obligation to talk to the fans,” said Michael Landsberg, the host of TSN’s Off The Record.

“If he doesn’t want to do CBC that’s fine, but if he was to shut us out completely then that’s not fine,” said Landsberg.

And Pratt has seen it unfold in Vancouver when Burke was the GM of the Canucks.

“When your team is winning, life is great, but when your team is losing then all those fights you picked and problems you created come back to bite you,” Pratt said. “When you need a nice column to bail you out, it’s not there.”

Burke was not available for comment for this story. However, he is still doing interviews with the main HNIC competitor, TSN, where one journalist says Burke understands how important the media is, and uses them better than anyone else.

“He knows the game is entertainment and it’s important to provide answers for the fans,” said TSN story editor Josh Cooper, who interviewed Burke in a media scrum in 2009 before working for TSN.

“I was a student journalist and it was the day before the trade deadline,” Cooper said. “He told us he had gotten a handful of offers for defenceman Tomas Kaberle, but with Burke you never know if it’s true or not.”

According to Pratt, there are two sides of Brian Burke that the Toronto fans and media may not be used to just yet.

“On his best day he’s charming, funny and engaging, but on his worst day he’s an absolute nightmare,” Pratt said. “He’s his best friend and his worst enemy.”

And Burke has a history of using his different sides to spin stories in his favor.While the G.M in Anaheim, Burke was in a highly publicized feud with Edmonton Oilers G.M. Kevin Lowe. Lowe pounced on an opportunity to sign one of Anaheim’s young restricted free agents Dustin Penner to what Burke believed was a highly inflated contract. Penner’s yearly salary jumped from $450,000 to $4.25 million thanks to the generous offer by Lowe.

Burke spoke out to the media, calling Lowe “gutless” and accused him of running the Oilers franchise into the gutter.

And while with Vancouver in 2002, Burke famously called out the referees during a playoff series with the Detroit Red Wings. He drew attention away from his team’s play on the ice by putting focus on the referees, saying “Sedin is not English to punch me or headlock me in a scrum.”

In the same year during a press conference, Burke was asked what he thought about Detroit Red Wings head coach Scotty Bowman being fined for pushing a reporter.

“I want to send Scotty a cheque. I support him fully,” he said.

Recently, things have been tough for Burke. He faced major criticism from the media and the fans for a deal that saw Toronto say goodbye to their first and second round picks in the 2010 NHL draft and a first round pick in the 2011 draft, for right wing Phil Kessel. However, he has underachieved, and Burke has faced more pressure this year than in any other point in his career — he seems to be taking it out on the critics.

But according to MacLean, Burke will eventually appear on Hockey Night in Canada.

“Brian and I sat down and he said he’d come on the show in the upcoming weeks,” MacLean wrote on his blog last week.

At the moment it looks like it’ll be another losing year for Toronto, but Burke’s antics off the ice should give Leafs fans more entertainment than the team can provide them on the ice.

Ian Jacobs is the co-creator and host of the Casual Sports Guys Podcast (available on iTunes). He moved to Ontario from Vancouver to pursue sports journalism in May 2010 and is currently attending UWO’s M.A Journalism program. You can follow his sports news feed on Twitter @Ian_Jacobs.