Volume 90, Issue 67

Thursday, January 23, 1997



COLUMN: Burned Leafs

By Dan Gladman
Gazette Staff

There he was Saturday, taking in the glitzy NHL All-Star Game in San Jose, doubling as a commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's two networks – French and English.

Funny how a corporation which is laying off hundreds of people finds use for a man who was fired by a hockey club which is now desperate for some big league coaching.

The last laugh indeed.

Oh Cliff Fletcher, how wrong you were to fire the true saviour of Toronto Maple Leaf hockey – Pat Burns.

Giving credit where it's due is a necessity in any business, including hockey. So is patience. But Fletcher, in an inexplicably Harold Ballard-esque move, fired the coach who led the Buds out of two-and-a-half decades of incompetence and embarrassment.

A year has passed. Are the Leafs better for it?

The answer is obvious. Toronto is the worst team in the National Hockey League, based on their league-leading total in the loss column. Die-hard Leaf fans – people who have traditionally relied on their hearts instead of their brains – contend that the Leafs aren't that bad. Come on, they have Kirk Muller and Mats Sundin and Felix Potvin. Plus, Wendel Clark and Mathieu Schneider are injured.

Sorry folks. The Leafs are lacking the most underrated position on the shinny bench – the coach.

A coach motivates, teaches, respects and demands from his players. Mike Murphy has not shown an ability to do any of these things. Pat Burns did.

Burns led Montreal to a Stanley Cup championship. He led Toronto to two straight final four appearances and (damn, it still smarts) was a Wayne Gretzky-high stick away from taking the Leafs to the Cup for the first time since 1967.

Then the Leafs had a good year, but were flattened in the first round by a tough Chicago team. The next season, an unimproved and aging squad got off to a slow start and GM Fletcher, hurried by a nit-picky Toronto media and pressured by panicky fans, chopped Burns' head off. No more cowboy boots in TO.

No more victories either.

Toronto is now the laughing-stock of the league. The squad is old and underachieving and the entire future of the franchise has been squandered for unproductive talent like Clark, Schneider and grandpa Larry Murphy.

Where are you Kenny Jonsson? Damian Rhodes, come home! Most importantly, Mr. Burns – come back to the Big Smoke.

The Maple Leafs need a guy behind the bench who works his players to the bone, who plays mind games with them in public and makes faces at fellow coaches. The Leafs need a coach who loves his players and can handle the pressure of coaching in hockey's toughest market to please.

What the club doesn't need is an endless string of useless coaches. Remember the embarrassing string of bosses through the hapless '80s? Mike Nykoluk. . . Dan Maloney. . . George Armstrong.

The Leafs need Pat Burns in charge in order to get back on the road to respectability. Building the franchise around Doug Gilmour was a mistake because his legs were bound to give out. Burns' mind is still fresh and one of the best in hockey. The future should have been centred on him.

It has now fallen on Fletcher's head to bring the Leafs back to respectability. Please Mr. Fletcher, heed these words – Re-hire Burns now! Get on your knees and beg if you must, but you know it is the only thing left to do.

And if Fletcher doesn't act soon, he may find Burns taking his job as general manager.

Until then, Burns will just keep collecting cheques from Steve Stavro and the CBC. And he'll just keep laughing.

To Contact The Sports Department: gazsport@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997