Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Lame Duck becomes a Cooked Duck

The Brian Burke era of the Vancouver Canucks has come to an end; team owner John McCaw issued a brief news release over the lunch hour on Monday, advising that the Canucks would not be renewing the contract of the combative President and General Manager. In a follow up press conference, Orca Bay CEO Stanley McCammon held court with carefully parsed words, never really explaining why a man that Orca Bay credited with building a winning franchise on and off the ice, suddenly was no longer the proper fit for the team he designed. For those who wish to study the art of talking and saying absolutely nothing, check out the CKNW archives for Monday at 2 pm, McCammon’s press conference offered no answers and provided no indication of where the franchise is going.

Burke took over the team in June of 1988 taking a non performing group of highly paid players and beginning the task of re-designing not only a struggling franchise but instilling a work ethic where none had existed for a couple of years.

Burke’s years in Vancouver showed steady growth each year, when he took over they were a fourth place team with total points of 58 during the season, strangers to the playoff race. By the team he was handed his pink slip his team had reached the 100 point a year plateau, been a steady participant in the playoffs and had become a poster child for NHL cost certainty. Burke made this franchise his own; he was loyal to his players and his coaches. Going to bat for them frequently with the bean counters in the Orca Bay offices, his gruff manner with the media was the stuff of legend.

The always excitable Vancouver press would split down the middle in their opinion of Burke, his respectful fans like Neil MacRae and Gary Mason countered by Tony Gallagher, who carried on a feud with Burke going back to his days as Pat Quinn’s assistant. Burke was good for a quick quote, a bombastic statement or a lucid analysis of any hockey situation. He was also short tempered, dismissive and occasionally rude. He was always entertaining and knew more about hockey than John McCaw or Stanley McCammon can ever hope to know. The Vancouver media may not realize it yet, but their jobs just got a lot harder to do. They need look no further than today’s non information session with McCammon for a glimpse of their future.

As the Burke situation festered over the last three months HockeyNation suggested in multiple postings, that the Canucks put this distraction behind them and do it quickly. Well time passed by, the Cancuks stumbled through the playoffs and Burke twisted in the wind. He described himself as a lame duck GM, and it proved to be an accurate description, but one that no doubt did not endear himself to the McCammon/McCaw axis.

During one of our earlier posts we pointed out that Burke had improved the franchise on the ice making it one of the most entertaining hockey clubs in a stale and listless collection of teams. There would be no trap in Vancouver, no dump and chase, Vancouver teams would skate hard, hit hard and score goals. They may not have reached the Stanley Cup in the last six years, but they provided some damn fine hockey at GM place, a night at a Canucks game for the most part was a guarantee that you would have an enjoyable experience. With sell outs a regular feature of Canuck’s hockey, Vancouver sports fans must have agreed.

The short sighted McCaw and McCammon seem to have forgotten that it wasn’t all that long ago when getting a ticket to a Canuck game was as simple as asking a scalper to hand one over at a loss. Crowds of less than 10,000 were common in the Keenan experiment years; Burke rebuilt the image of the team not only on the ice but in the community. The Canucks became the hot property in Vancouver, business executives wanted to partner with them, hockey fans idolized them. Pay TV added to their bottom line, ratings on Hockey Night in Canada and Sportsnet made them the darlings of the networks. That wasn’t any genius from McCaw or McCammon that was all Burke.

For taking a laughingstock of a franchise into the top echelon of NHL clubs he was left to ponder his fate, treated as though he just happened to luck into his success. The handling of the Burke contract through this year in my opinion had a more detrimental effect on this team than any injuries to Naslund or Cloutier. The slump just after the mid way point coincided with the rumours that he was on the bubble soon to be fired. The fact that management had no faith in their President and GM seeped into the dressing room, a place where loyalty was given lip service but seems to have disappeared when the going got tough.

From the suddenly quiet Crawford who hasn’t said one word since his team was eliminated, to a less than ringing endorsement by Captain Markus Naslund the Canucks were strangely non-communicative when it came time to discuss their GM. He may have battled for them but they weren’t going to be caught in a foxhole with him this time. Todd Bertuzzi, who may have inadvertently done more damage to Burke than anyone this year, never spoke up in support of the guy who made him very rich and came to his defence in his darkest hour.

A team that suffered under the dictatorial reign of Mike Keenan didn’t reward Burke for his loyalty, he built a team that came very close, and his biggest crime was not changing the deck chairs at the crucial moments. He believed in his core group, feeling that they were a close group that had bonded well together and would fight for each other; little did he know that when it came time to support him, he would be left alone to face the rumours, the snubs and the questions. Accountability in Canuckland began and ended in Burke’s office, there was none in the dressing room and none in the executive offices, and that is why this team stumbled. His biggest disappointment may be the feeling of a job left undone. He should have been given the chance to re-tool this group, instead that job will be left to someone else, it’s doubtful that the spirit of the current line up will ever reach that which these last few years have given Vancouver.

Brian Burke will be a GM again one day, perhaps not very far down the calendar. Boston, Chicago even the New York Rangers would be infinitely better teams with Burke in charge. If it weren’t for the bad blood between he and Colorado, Burke would be the perfect choice to turn that talented but underperforming team around. His answering machine will soon be full of offers; he can pick and choose his next assignment. While he may miss Vancouver he’ll quickly take on a new challenge and get results.

As for the Canucks, the halcyon days of sell outs and rabid fans will carry on for a bit. But this was Burke’s team, he had the vision for it, the concept of what to build. It seems hard to believe that it will stay whole, a new GM will bring in his “core group” it may work, and it may not. But with a quickly improving Calgary and Edmonton coming on strong, the division is all of a sudden a tougher place to be. A couple of years wandering the wilderness and the Canucks may not be too far off from those 10,000 a game nights.

The Canuck management has shown a terrible inability to make decisions this year, by removing the only anchor they had in place, they now run the risk of drifting off course. A team which has a history of making the wrong decision, at the wrong time has struck again. Long suffering Canuck fans won’t be thrilled with John McCaw’s decision today, Burke was the face of the Canucks in Vancouver. McCaw is just a faceless corporate suit, he may hold the wallet, but he doesn’t hold the heart, that was Burke's! The fans will remember, of that McCaw and McCammon can be certain!

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