Why the Toronto Maple Leafs are Bordering on Greek Tragedy

CORRECTION: Ron Wilson was hired by Cliff Fletcher, not Brian Burke. Thanks to reader Kartik Subramani for the correction.

In his book The Game, Ken Dryen wrote: “As players, they have been in the hands of their owner, and in the hands of the owner’s general manager, his scouts and coaches. Depending on them to draft the right players, to make the right trades, to give them a chance to do what they were good enough to do, and they have been badly let down. The tragedy is that what they had has been squandered and is now gone, with so little to show for it.” 

In this, Dryden was speaking about the 1979 Toronto Maple Leafs, playing in the shadow of owner Harold Ballard’s blinkered micromanagement. Key players were traded for middling returns. Prospect development was unheard of. Yes men abounded. The Leafs, located then and forevermore at the Center of the Hockey Universe, were subject to the whims of a tyrannical egotism that sucked air from the lungs of the franchise. Dryden suggests that this was particularly heartbreaking to see in 1979, contrasted with the fast-fading glories of the 1967 Stanley Cup winning team.

Over the 33 years since, this identity has hardened. That The Maple Leafs are losers is only more evidence of their status as underdog whose struggle is a nobler struggle: that of the blue collar worker against the capricious and unfair nature of the sport, i.e. the world. The team has been awful forever, but that awfulness has taken on a kind of perseverance in the face of utter pointlessness. All forms of team development swim against the current of this romantic undertow.

What strikes me most about Dryden’s description is his equation of wasted talents with “tragedy.” Dryden’s book, still a lonely, existential examination in contrast to the often saccharine standard that can be long-form hockey writing, lamented what could only be described as the injustice of seeing something so fiercely meaningful debased by incompetence and greed. Sittler and MacDonald wasted away on those mediocre teams, shades of the men they might have been in Montreal, Chicago, or Boston. Dryden lends pathos to those men, admitting that if hockey can be a lonely game while you play for a dynasty, then it is an unimaginable curse when played with a team that is not only underperforming, but culturally stagnant.

There are similarities between this Ballardian intractability and the current General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brian Burke, who finds his team on the cusp of missing the playoffs for an incredible seventh straight season and 45 years from their last championship. Put a more diplomatic way, the differences between Ballard and Burke are differences of degrees. Both men adhere to binding principles that override all objective measures of hockey development. Both men cast themselves as defenders of the hockey faith against the inevitable dilution of the sport’s essence. And both men are responsible for some terrible hockey teams.

Their similarities tell us something about the central identity of a storied club that is paradoxically harmful to that club’s ability to win hockey games. It also says something valuable about the long, cold look in the mirror that the Toronto Maple Leafs must take before they can return to contention, and just how fundamental, even philosophical that overhaul must be. It’s no longer a matter of getting a high draft pick (though that would help). The Toronto Maple Leafs need to stop worshipping the romantic notion of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s time for the Maple Leafs to allow humility into their lives.

In a salary capped league, where the notion of ‘parity’ abounds, there are plenty of mediocre clubs. What denigrates the Toronto Maple Leafs’ situation from merely unfortunate to the stuff of Greek tragedy is how intertwined their history has become with that sense of lost opportunity. A rebuild is a very difficult thing to embrace, particularly in a hockey market as rabid as Toronto’s. Ownership must be convinced to swallow the loss of revenue (which, in Toronto’s case, will never be an actual ‘loss’ so much as ‘lower profit than what’s possible’). The media needs to be convinced of the process so they don’t sour the fan base with their editorials, ubiquitous coverage and speculation. And finally, the fan base needs to be on board so as to not damage the brand too badly.

Prior to Brian Burke’s arrival, Toronto’s ownership and management had taken these difficult steps. General Manager John Ferguson Jr. was dismissed, and an interim General Manager—respected, old-school personality Cliff Fletcher, the “Silver Fox”—was appointed, with particular emphasis placed on the word ‘interim.’ Fletcher would be empowered to make the hard decisions, but didn’t have to worry about being liked. He knew his way to the exit already. He could be the bad guy.

In those early years of the rebuild, Fletcher sold off what veterans he could (largely hampered by No Trade clauses, the most famous of which belonged to Mats Sundin), bought out a few, traded up in the draft to pick promising defenseman Luke Schenn in the top-five, and traded for top line center Mikhail Grabovski (recently re-signed by Burke). In his short time as Toronto’s GM, Fletcher laid the foundation for a future team that was never to emerge. The rebuild would be difficult, but the hardest of those first steps had been taken. Most importantly, the Maple Leafs and their management began to look at their roster through a cold, utilitarian lens rather than with the blue-and-white colored glasses.

In 2008 Brian Burke came to the Toronto Maple Leafs from the Anaheim Ducks with all of the respect afforded an unstoppable force. While managing the Vancouver Canucks Burke had displayed an undeniable will, moving mountains to draft twin Swedes Henrik and Daniel Sedin side-by-side in the first round. (An act having about it certain masterpiece qualities in the art form of General Managing.) Burke convinced Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Neidermayer to join his brother Rob in Anaheim, where Scott made up one half of an unstoppable top defensive pairing with Chris Pronger that helped the Ducks to win the Cup in 2007. Burke demonstrated again and again that if inheriting a team whose fundamental building blocks were in place, he could do what was necessary to get them over the hump.

In Toronto, he would sign the most lucrative contract in the league for a General Manager. Fletcher was given a role as an advisor in the organization. And with his arrival, Burke once again gave the franchise an identity of inescapable gravity. The Toronto Maple Leafs as we had always known them—defiant, romantic, never compromising—were back. For better or worse.

In his almost five years since assuming the General Manager position, Burke has done everything in his power to resist the notion of a traditional rebuild, as if the sole missing factor in the equation for success is for the team to understand what Burke understands. It’s this fact, and the cyclical history it implies, that makes the Maple Leafs’ situation particularly tragic.

Burke appointed his good friend Ron Wilson as coach, Burke only recently assented to firing his good friend, the Fletcher-appointed Ron Wilson, despite the team having only one winning (non-playoff) season in four years. Wilson was replaced with Burke’s other good friend, ex-Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle. In the middle of another lost season (albeit at a time when the Leafs still clung to a playoff spot), Burke awarded Wilson a one-year contract, admitting it was less about security than danger pay in the event that he might have to fire Wilson. At no point did the awful results of the previous seasons seem to factor in.

In his first year with the team, with the Leafs floundering and the playoffs out of reach, Burke picked up veteran goalie Martin Gerber on waivers. Gerber, his career on the line and with something to prove, led the team from what would have been a draft lottery pick to seventh last overall, where they drafted promising but second-tier Nazem Kadri.

Most controversially, Burke obtained the talented but unpopular scorer Phil Kessel from division rival Boston Bruins for a king’s ransom of two first round picks and a second round pick—less than he would have been required to pay if he had used an Offer Sheet, a tactic which Burke objects to on moral grounds—in a move that spurns the cheap Entry Level Contracts on which rebuilders thrive. Burke promptly signed the winger to a deal paying him over $5MM a season. The Maple Leafs finished second and ninth last in the league in the next two years to hand Boston—the defending champions no less—two foundational players in Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.

Burke has traded and overpaid for players like Dion Phaneuf and Colby Armstrong, known for playing with an edge but far from their prime. In many of his transactions Burke has been saved from disaster only by the missteps of the GMs with whom he was dealing, those few other lost souls like Calgary’s now-dismissed Daryl Sutter, beleaguered too by his own inability to adapt to the game.

As the language of the game has changed to capture diminishing margins of advantage—CORSI, Fenwick, QualComp—Burke has remained steadfast. Appearing with tie draped, untied around his neck, he isn’t embarrassed to express himself in terms like “truculence.” He calls a press conference to lament the diminished role of the enforcer in a game that he perceives to have lost its sense of honor. This is the man, after all, who challenged a ex-Oilers GM Kevin Lowe to a fistfight in a rented barn, and then later spoke about it as frankly as one would any natural path to conflict resolution.

Burke has announced in turn, and with characteristic publicity, his position on a number of ‘vital’ issues: front-loaded contracts, offer sheets, roster freezes before trade deadlines, how “the rats are taking over” the sport, and most persistently how Toronto should never build through the draft. Ever more puzzling, the practices to which he takes umbrage are not only enshrined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but embodied by a league-wide shift in the game. In this, Brian Burke’s principles automatically place his club at a disadvantage. And as during the Ballard years, Burke’s inflexibility provides more fuel for the “us-against-the-world” fire, solidifying the team’s conviction that it need only will itself to victory in a world where will is quantified and tallied on other team’s scouting reports.

On these and many other issues Burke is cast as the only good man in an immoral, dehumanized league. Like his closest comparable, Don Cherry (with whom he only naturally began to spar in the media recently), Burke’ authenticity makes him likeable. It validates what for many of us is our sense that the sport, so full of complexities and occasional crushing disappointments, was indeed better before, in some halcyon past, where all we remember, conveniently, are the victories.

I’m certainly not above liking Brian Burke. I don’t doubt the sincerity of his morals, or that they can be employed for enormous good. His stance on gay rights in hockey is not only admirable but essential, and an example to the rest of the sports leagues. But when it comes to building hockey teams, his morals just happen to be misplaced. Burke’s stance on gay rights demonstrates that he’s capable of change, of questioning his principles and changing his mind, doing what’s right for the greater good. Those no reason why he can’t do the same during the far less loaded discussion of whether or not the team should retain draft picks or fire an ineffective coach. 

The Leafs are already wildly profitable, a 79.5% stake in them having recently sold for an insane $1.32 billion, a number so big that it took two rival behemoth telecoms carriers partnering up to buy it. But a winning team in Toronto would not only be good for Toronto, and for Canada, but the league and the sport all over the world. Were Toronto to find itself in the playoffs and actually winning a game, the city would be exactly the place you would want to be. Interest begets interest.

Toronto is so far beyond the notion of “not buying tickets to send a message” that the decisions made in board rooms and managers’ offices take on the qualities of royal decrees. Their decisions take place in a vacuum without ramifications, where intense privilege allows those with power to humor abstract principles for diminishing returns.

The unique tragedy of the Toronto Maple Leafs is not that they are a mediocre team. They are not, like Columbus, Long Island, or Edmonton, in a perpetual state of rebuild, needing only to refine their development of top prospects and pair it with smart contracts given to key veterans. Watching the Leafs’ frequent pre-game ceremonies, which are arduously long and self-congratulatory, it becomes apparent that the Toronto Maple Leafs are on an island of their own making, adhering to values all their own, winning their own game but no one else’s. They are in purgatory.

17 thoughts on “Why the Toronto Maple Leafs are Bordering on Greek Tragedy

  1. A good read, however there is a question left unanswered (that everyone seems to have trouble with). Why has this environment been born in Toronto whereas it hasnt in other cities with other famous teams (like with the Yankees, or Manchester United, etc.) Surely those teams will sell tickets regardless too?

    • That’s a tough one. I’m not sure what makes a team like Toronto suddenly say “we don’t rebuild like other clubs” and try another way. Those other cities you mentioned of course don’t have to worry about salary caps, so they can spend their way out of whatever incompentence they get into, but the Yankees have certainly had their years where Steinbrenner was interfering with management.

    • Salary Cap….Man U and the Yankees can overspend and add better value through money…look at the NFL and to some extent the NBA salary cap helps balance things out

      • Also Man U can literally buy players for cash without needing to give any return or go through free agency and sign dangerous long term deals

      • i disagree witht his video high seeedd teams 8th 7th always make it far in the playoffs and there are teams coming out of no where to win all the time this video is amusing tho

  2. Awesome article! Very good read. I like the references to Ballard, and “The Game.” I am with Jimmy on that unanswered question. Why hasn’t this happened anywhere else? It surely sheds some light on Toronto, their philosopies, and their stagnation of play year after year. You have to have a little respect for Burkie, his scruples, and determination to ever be impatient for a long effective 5 year rebuild. Even as a Sens fan, its kind of sad to see them spin their wheels despite recognizing they are driving on sand. Great read though!

  3. Pingback: A Tale of Three Rebuilds: Toronto, Edmonton, Ottawa |

  4. Pingback: But wait…what does the seventh most popular Senators blog have to say about Brian Burke’s firing? |

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