What do Brian Burke and Cliff Fletcher have in common?
Okay, aside from great hair?
The long-awaited announcement that Burke will succeed Fletcher, who took over the general manager’s seat on an interim basis last January, has cast a light on two of hockey’s most disparate personalities.
Certainly, their backgrounds are profoundly different.
The 73-year-old Fletcher is a graduate of Sam Pollock’s front office factory in Montreal. Burke, 52, was born in New England and raised in Minnesota. He came to the league with a Harvard Law degree and was an NHL vice-president and chief disciplinarian from 1993-1998.
Fletcher is the embodiment of old school charm. Burke is nothing if not direct. That said, they share an overwhelming competitiveness. As the Canucks’ G.M. Burke vociferously defended Todd Bertuzzi after he was charged for assaulting Steve Moore. Fletcher bristled with disappointment last year when players failed to waive their no-trade clauses at the deadline.
Both men paid their dues in neglected markets. Burke was the general manager of the Hartford Whalers. Fletcher made his name as the GM of the Atlanta Flames.
Both have a Stanley Cup ring. Fletcher built the Calgary Flames team that captured the Cup in 1988-1989. Burke’s sole championship came in 2006-2007 with the Anaheim Ducks.
Most tellingly, both men made their names with big trades. Fletcher’s acquisition of Doug Gilmour from Calgary keyed the Leafs renaissance in the early 1990s. Fletcher brought former Leaf Lanny McDonald to the Calgary Flames and swapped Wendel Clark to the Quebec Nordiques for Mats Sundin.
Burke, meanwhile, pried Chris Pronger from Edmonton to Anaheim. Pronger was his punishing best in the Ducks run to the Stanley Cup.
While with the Canucks, Burke traded draft picks to choose Daniel and Henrik Sedin, maximizing the value of each brother. The two have been the Canucks’ top two scorers the last two years. Burke traded for Rob Niedermayer in 2003. Having his brother in Anaheim was an inducement for Scott Niedermayer, who signed with the then Mighty Ducks in 2005.
Burke and Fletcher have every reason to be excellent friends now. Fletcher did much of the difficult work last season in buying out Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft. Likewise, it was Fletcher who sent Kyle Wellwood packing. Thanks to Fletcher, the Leafs have about $7 million in cap space. Signing Niklas Hagman as a free agent and relieving the Montreal Canadiens of Mikhail Grabovski
has swelled the number of capable forwards.
Fletcher purged Bryan McCabe, another player who would not accede to a deal last year. The player he brought back from the Florida Panthers, Mike Van Ryn, has been a pleasant surprise.
With Mats Sundin skating in the ether, only Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle remain of the five players who refused to waive their right to a trade.
Fletcher even had the good sense to hire Ron Wilson to coach the Leafs. Wilson has generated positive results and has been a friend of Burke since the two took shared a pre-med class at Providence College.
It is as perfect a scenario as Burke will find. The populace is starved for a winner but savvy enough to know it will take time. There are plenty of bright hockey people in the organization, think Al Coates, Joe Nieuwendyk, Dallas Eakins, Jeff Jackson and Paul Dennis. The coach and the GM are more than simpatico and if the season has been a disappointment, at least there are more assets, Grabovski, Hagman, Luke Schenn
and a rejuvenated Matt Stajan, than previously believed.
Bringing a Stanley Cup winner to Toronto would mean never having to buy a meal in this town for the rest of your life. It is just the sort of challenge that would appeal to the dynamic, headstrong, Brian Burke. And it took the golden touch of the Silver Fox to make it perfect.