Toronto Maple Leafs: How They Dodged a Tampering Charge from Brian Burke Pursuit

Rob EllisCorrespondent IDecember 6, 2008

Coincidence: The occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident, but seem to have some connection.

It's finally happened, Leafs Nation.

After suffering through most of this decade, it appears that all the pieces are now in place for the Leafs' resurgence to the upper echelon of the NHL once again. Ron Wilson is the head coach, and Brian Burke is in place as the president and general manager. David Nonis is the new senior vice-president of hockey operations.

All is well in Leafland these days when you add in the fact that the team is by all accounts "overacheiving" in this young season. In less than a year, they have gone from an old, underacheiving team with a horrible GM, to a young team on the rise with one of the smartest hockey men in the business running the show.

My question is: How did the Leafs ever get away with this? How were they able to get away with the obvious tampering that went on in the recruitment of Burke? How were they able to get away with seven months of on and off ice moves that were influenced by Burke himself as he sat in the offices of a rival NHL team?

If you're tired of this kind of talk then I will recommend that you stop reading now. What follows is a detailed look at Brian Burke's road to Toronto in 2008.

January 22, 2008: John Ferguson Jr. is relieved of his duties as General Manager. The announcement is delivered by President and CEO of MLSE Richard Peddie. At the same press conference, it is announced that Cliff Fletcher will take on the role of "Interim General Manager" for the remainder of the 2007-2008 season.

During Fletcher's speech, Peddie stares directly at him and is clearly seen lipsynching the words that come out of Cliff's mouth. Most notably, the phrases "custodian of the keys" and "ahead to the next level."

February 26, 2008: On trade deadline day, Fletcher trades Wade Belak to the Florida Panthers for a 2008 fifth round draft pick. Later in the day he also trades Hal Gill to the Pittsburgh Penguins for second and fifth round picks and sends Chad Kilger to the Florida Panthers for a third rounder.

March 7, 2008: After missing the playoffs for the second straight season, Fletcher fires head coach Paul Maurice. TSN reports that the Leafs have asked permission from the Vancouver Canucks to speak with recently fired GM David Nonis about handling the club's management duties through the end of the 2008-2009 season. At that point, they would approach Anaheim's Brian Burke about coming in as the General Manager with Nonis staying on in an assistant role.

May, 2008: It is reported that Leafs have been denied permission from the Detroit Red Wings to speak with GM Ken Holland, and the same can be said for Doug Wilson of the San Jose Sharks. Toronto media is reporting that the Leafs have Brian Burke as their "candidate of choice" to become the next President and General Manager of the Maple Leafs.

May 5, 2008: Former Stars GM Doug Armstrong speaks with the Fan 590's Howard Berger about his interest in the vacant Toronto job. In Berger's blog, it is quite clear that Armstrong, a native of Ontario, will take the job if it is offered to him.

May 28, 2008: This is where it gets interesting. Armstrong abruptly cancels his interview with MLSE and signs on as the Assistant GM with the St. Louis Blues leaving Leaf fans and media scratching their heads as to why somebody who was so keen on the position suddenly decides to take a lesser job with another organization without even interviewing.

June 2, 2008: Rumours surface that the Leafs have their man and will announce it in the next few days. Interestingly enough, it is not the vacant GM position they will be filling. Instead, it is reported that the Leafs are set to hire recent San Jose firing Ron Wilson as their new coach.

June 3, 2008: The Toronto Sun reports the Ron Wilson news, and more, suggesting that Brian Burke may in fact have already agreed to a tentative deal to be the next GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It points out that Burke and Wilson are "close friends and former teammates at Providence College in the 1970s, suggesting that Burke, who is said to be in line to become the Leafs' next GM once he secures his release from the Ducks, may be unofficially calling the shots behind the scenes for the Leafs."

Burke calls the accusations "absurd" even though he still hasn't signed the contract extension that the Ducks offered him months earlier.

June 10, 2008: The Leafs hire Ron Wilson as their 36th head coach without even interviewing anybody else. Other available qualified candidates included Marc Crawford, Joel Quennville, and John Tortorella.

June 16, 2008: Six days after hiring Wilson, the Leafs announce the hiring of Al Coates as Director of Player Personnel. Coates' most recent job was as senior advisor to the general manager of the Anaheim Ducks, which also happens to be Brian Burke.

June 20, 2008:
David Nonis, a former candidate for the GM job in Toronto, signs on with the Anaheim Ducks as senior advisor of hockey operations alongside Burke. Not much is said at the time, but there is a clause in the contract that allows Nonis to leave whenever he wants. Why would he ask for that clause if he didn't foresee a possible early exit from Anaheim?

June 20, 2008: On the eve of the draft, Fletcher swings a deal to bring forward Jamal Mayers to the Leafs in exchange for a third round pick.

June 21, 2008: Fletcher works out a deal with the Islanders to acquire the fifth overall pick and selects Kelowna Rockets defenceman Luke Schenn.

July 1, 2008: Fletcher is busy on free agent day. He quickly signs Colorado Avalanche defenseman Jeff Finger to a four-year, $14 million contract leaving everyone in the hockey world baffled. He follows that up by signing Dallas Stars forward Niklas Hagman to a four year, $12 million contract. Last, and certainly least, he brings back a former "saviour" by signing unrestricted free agent goalie Curtis Joseph to a one-year, $700,000 contract.

July 3, 2008: Fletcher acquires Mikhail Grabovski from the Montreal Canadiens for Greg Pateryn and a second round draft pick in 2010.

July 4, 2008- The Leafs announce that they have signed Swedish defenceman Jonas Frogren to a contract.

July 8, 2008: The Leafs hire former player Joe Nieuwendyk on as special assistant to the general manager.

July 14, 2008:
Fletcher sends the fifth round pick acquired from Pittsburgh in the Hal Gill deal to the New York Rangers for Ryan Hollweg.

July 22, 2008: The Leafs hire Rob Zettler and Tim Hunter as assistant coaches. Both held the same roles with the San Jose Sharks alongside Ron Wilson.

August 1, 2008:
Fletcher signs minor league tough-guy Andre Deveaux.

Summer, 2008:
Fletcher passes up a one-month window which allows him to trade defenceman Pavel Kubina despite a no trade clause in his contract.

September 2, 2008: After convincing him to waive his no trade clause, Fletcher trades defenceman Bryan McCabe along with a fourth-round pick in 2010 to the Florida Panthers for defenceman Mike Van Ryn.

November 12, 2008: Brian Burke steps down as the general manager of the Anaheim Ducks.

November 21, 2008: It is reported that negotiations between MLSE and Brian Burke are set to begin.

November 25, 2008: Fletcher trades Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo to the St. Louis Blues for Lee Stempniak leaving fans and media with a question. With the signing of Brian Burke inevitable, why would MLSE allow Fletcher to make a trade. For that reason, it is assumed that Brian Burke had some say in the completion of this deal.

November 29, 2008: MLSE hold a press conference and introduces Burke as the new president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Burke states that he is "thrilled to be working back in Canada" and calls his new position a "dream job!"

December 6, 2008: Burke hires David Nonis as senior vice-president of hockey operations as he chooses to use the "out clause" in the contract he signed with the Ducks less than six months ago. The question must be asked once again, "Why would Nonis ask for that clause if he didn't foresee a possible early exit from Anaheim"?

The argument can be made that he wanted to make himself available for a vacant GM post in the near future. That is obviously not the case now that he has ended up in Toronto as Brian Burke's assistant once again.

There you have it. All the lies and deceit that came from the camps of both parties involved in this union between a struggling sports franchise and a top notch hockey executive.

It is pretty clear that almost every front office move that has been made has a Brian Burke link to it.

Burke is the godfather of the head coach's daughter and one of his closest friends.

The last two men who served as "senior advisors" under Burke are already both working with him in the Leafs organization.

The two big signings in the off-season, Nik Hagman and Jeff Finger, both played in the Western Conference where Burke had a very good look at them.

I do believe in coincidence, but this is just too pretty a picture to be just that.

So what's the answer to the question that was asked above? How did the Leafs get away with this? The answer is, proof!

It is pretty clear that the Leafs had found a way to speak with Burke long before November 25 when the negotiations between the two parties "officially began." Maybe it was at Wilson's daughter's wedding in July, or at a BBQ at Al Coates' house in June.

Who knows, but I personally believe it happened in late May when Armstrong's meeting was abruptly cancelled, and that all subsequent hockey moves were made with Burke's input.

Any way you look at it, directly or indirectly, the Leafs broke NHL tampering rules and got away with it. In the next hour or two, before the Leafs take on the Caps down at the ACC, four men will dine in a fine restaurant eating steak, drinking wine, and laughing about the fast one they pulled on the NHL. Their names are Burke, Wilson, Coates, and Nonis. Now that is no coincidence.


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