On an otherwise unpredictable day, there was one frustrating inevitability on July 1 in the NHL: Some pundit was going to criticize Brian Burke for being in war zone in Afghanistan instead of in the Toronto Maple Leafs' war room; visiting Canadian troops in Kandahar on the opening day of free agency.
Some member of the media was going to question Burke for choosing public servants over free agents.
Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun was that pundit, writing the following:
You don't, if you're running the Leafs, if you're struggling to make a lousy team better, if you haven't been in the playoffs yet under your watch — even if it is a Canada Day trip for the Canadian troops — go to Kandahar on July 1. You just don't.
You find another time to make the trip. You do it next week or next month. You do it when it doesn't affect anything about the building of your hockey team. And how do you explain to Leafs fans when you promise to be busy and active during free agency that you're absent at precisely the same time. There is a certain contradiction in all that.
Simmons reaffirmed this message as a panelist on TSN:
On Monday, Brian Burke said he was "deeply offended" by what Simmons had written and inferred about Burke's job priorities. But was Simmons' opinion all that offensive, or merely echoing what many were thinking anyway?
Michael Traikos of the National Post caught up with Burke, who said the following about the critique:
"They ask you to go," said Burke, who was joined on the trip by Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn(notes). "It's not like you call them and say, 'Hey, it would be good PR if I went to Afghanistan.' I didn't tell anyone I went and I didn't talk to anyone when I got back. I did it because it was the right thing to do."
… "The night before the trade deadline, I made sure we had Skype contact so that I could talk to any free agents we needed to talk to," Burke said. "My cell worked great on the base. We had a backup landline."
Damien Cox acknowledged that in a preemptive strike against Burke's critics in the Toronto Star on June 30:
With email, Skype and other communication devices and techniques making it so much easier to communicate from anywhere around the world. It's not like Burke will be out of touch, or won't be available to make tough decisions.
It's also part of the reason he has so much depth and experience in the Leaf front office. [Dave] Nonis has more responsibilities than most assistant GMs, while Dave Poulin, Claude Loiselle and newly hired Rick Dudley will all be part of the team's decision-making process on deadline day while staying in touch with Burke in Kandahar. It will be Nonis making the direct pitch to Richards, Christian Ehrhoff(notes), Max Talbot(notes) and whatever free agents the Leafs try to sign.
Indeed, it was Nonis, Loiselle and special advisor Cliff Fletcher who met with Richards on July 1.
The essential question here is whether there's a need for Burke to physically be in North America to conduct hockey business on July 1. Had he been in that room with Brad Richards(notes), does he choose the Leafs of the New York Rangers?
We'd argue no. We'd argue that the Leafs' reported reluctance to frontload Richards' contract in the same manner in which the Rangers did would have been more a determining factor than Burke Skype'ing in. We'd argue that having Ron Wilson instead of John Tortorella as a head coach was more a factor than Burke visiting troops.
Unsaid in all of this: Would Burke's trip to visit the troops actually increased his standing in Richards' esteem? Keep in mind that while with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Richards launched Task Force 19 to honor members of the military and their families. That included Richards hosting Thanksgiving dinners for military families.
Yeah, sounds like a guy who'd be really, really offended if a GM courting him instead spent some time with the soldiers ...
The other facet of Simmons' critique was that this trip was more about Brian Burke than anything else:
A longtime successful general manager wondered how Burke would do in Toronto when he took the job of leading the Maple Leafs. He explained it in two ways. He said, if Burke stuck to the business of hockey, his strength, he would do just fine. In fact, he predicted he would flourish. But if he got too caught up in what he called "the business of being Brian Burke, being bigger than the franchise" then he would struggle.
One can interpret that his determination to go to Afghanistan on July 1 was less about hockey and more about being a figure of importance. Or as another general manager texted me on Friday: "If I went to my owner and told him I was taking off on July 1st, he would turn to me and say — just keep on walking."
So in the end, it comes down to optics. Was this a flight of ego for Burke? Does his absence in July 1 make the Leafs look inept, or make Burke look ill-prepared for the gig in the eyes of his peers?
It's all about optics, right? So what to say then about the Leafs and Burke signing Tim Connolly(notes) on July 2, who was arguably the next-best option at center behind Richards, and then pulling off a fleecing of a trade in which they snagged blue-chip defenseman Cody Franson(notes) and injured standout center Matthew Lombardi(notes) from Nashville for a package that included the Untradable Brett Lebda(notes)?
Those two moves were made while Burke was not, in fact, entrenched in the Air Canada Centre.
Simmons is getting vilified, but again: He's not alone in thinking it.
He's wrong on Burke's absence being a hindrance in free agency, even if he's right to point out that fellow GMs and some fans felt it made the franchise look unguided at a critical moment.