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Brian Burke: the latter-day Punch Imlach? Irony as Bruins use Leaf pick to take London center?

One of the intriguing things about Brian Burke is that, in addition to being an outstanding, savvy and experienced hockey guy, he is also part carnival-barker, salesman and entertainer.

While we are talking about very different people and very different eras, there are some similarities between the current Leaf GM and long-time Maple Leaf coach and GM Punch Imlach (left). Of course, there are all kinds of personality differences and the circumstances were obviously very different in hockey in the late ’50s and 1960s in the old six-team NHL. Imlach, for example, relied on King Clancy as his sole confidante, while Burke surrounds himself with a number of smart hockey guys like Nonis and Poulin, to name only two.

But both Imlach and Burke like tough players (Bradley Ross, drafted in the second round by Burke on Saturday, just the latest example) and players with a more than a pinch of talent, too. Imlach wanted tough skilled guys like Bert Olmstead, Bobby Baun and Bobby Pulford, but he also needed the sublime skill and tenaciousness of kids like Dave Keon and Dick Duff. We know Burke loves toughness, but he well recognizes that he needs the Kessels' of the world to build a top team.

Punch knew how to grab attention, and wasn’t afraid to say things that might ruffle feathers. Burke certainly falls into that category. Imlach had a simmering, almost palpable running feud with Montreal’s legendary former star player and long-time coach Toe Blake. Burkie, as we all know, was ticked with Edmonton’s Kevin Lowe a few years back, and that situation lingered publicly for some time, though that relationship is now repaired.

Punch was respected by some players, loathed by others. Burke, on the other hand, engenders universal respect, because he will stand up for his players and does everything he can to be straight in his dealings with them. He’s much better than Punch at putting himself in the shoes of his players.

It's fair to say that with both men, it was/is their way or the highway.

Punch loved talking to—and taking on—the media, as does Burke. Of course, Burke’s media platform is much bigger in 2010 than was Imlach’s fifty years ago, but even back then, Toronto had three daily newspapers (Star, Globe and Telegram) and several radio and TV stations that followed the fortunes of the Leafs closely. In a sense, they were the only game in town—no Jays, no Raptors. So when Imlach spoke, he made news just about every time.

Late in the 1958-’59 season, Imlach’s Leafs were way behind in the standings. Making the playoffs seemed highly unlikely. Yet Punch rather boldly (some thought stupidly) predicted that the Leafs would make it in. They did, needing a huge late-season run and a win on the road in Detroit on the last night of the season to sneak by the Rangers. They went on to make the finals against Montreal.

One of Imlach’s most famous statements was made to then Montreal beat writer Red Fisher (if you’re interested in hearing my recent interview with Red, click on the “new audio" tab of this site) just prior to the 1967 Stanley Cup finals. The Leafs had upset the Hawks in six tough games to get to the finals, while Montreal had swept aside the young New York Rangers in four straight. A young 21 year-old goalie by the name of Rogatien Vachon had emerged late in the year as the Habs’ goalie (I seem to recall to Gump Worsley had been injured). Vachon was outstanding in the first playoff round. He did not have the goaltending pedigree that some young players had and had kind of come out of nowhere. So Imlach stirred the pot, telling Fisher that, “no Junior ‘B’ goalie” is going to beat the Leafs. Fisher’s story made huge news across Canada, and Imlach had, again, put his team squarely on the hot seat against the heavily-favored Habs.

Remarkably, Toronto outlasted Jean Beliveau and Montreal, winning the Cup in 6 games.

Imlach was fired two years later when Leaf owner Stafford Smythe grew weary of the Imlach era, and quite likely the attention that Imlach always brought upon himself. (Smythe died not long after, and his partner Harold Ballard grabbed most of the media attention for the next twenty years.)

Imlach had, somewhat unfairly, a reputation as a guy who relied too much on the “old guys”. The truth is he did rely on them, but also was constantly bringing in young players through the mid and later 1960s. Names like Ellis, Stemkowski, Unger, Ley, McKenny, Pappin, Byers, Meehan, Walton, Carlton and many others spring to mind. But he was fired before he could complete his make-over as he tried to bridge the old-guard era of Horton, Stanley, Bower, Armstrong, Pulford with the incoming kids.

Interestingly, Imlach re-invented himself as the new GM in Buffalo with the expansion Sabres.  Yes, he built around veterans like ex-Leafs Tim Horton and Eddie Shack along with goalie Roger Crozier, Floyd Smith and some others, but mainly with outstanding youngsters like Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin, Danny Gare and Jim Schoenfeld. As GM, Punch led the Sabres to the Cup finals against the Broad Street Bully Flyers in the spring of 1975- within five years of joining the league.
He was ultimately fired after a good decade in Buffalo, and returned to Toronto whereupon he tore down the Leaf team that had been re-built somehwat successfully by his successor in Toronto, Jim Gregory. Problems started because of battles with Leaf captain Darryl Sittler, and continued with the trading of Sittler’s linemate and best friend, Lanny McDonald, in early 1980. Imlach’s health soon failed, and he was fired by Ballard while recuperating.

Imlach was a savvy, shrewd hockey executive, who knew the kind of player he liked and went after them. He was loyal to guys like Johnny Bower, but would trade even his best players (Frank Mahovlich being the prime example) to improve the team.

Burke is the same. Smart, tough, loyal, not afraid to make bold, unexpected moves (Phaneuf out of the blue) and also not afraid of media attention.

Whether Burke can build this current Leaf team into his image, as Punch did in the late ‘50s, and, like Imlach, lead the team to a Cup, is impossible to know just now. But at least Leaf fans know that he’ll give everything he has, as Punch did, to try.


I found it interesting, to say the least, that the Bruins selected Jared Knight, the young OHL center from the London Knights, with what would have been Toronto's (for Kessel) pick in the second round.  Leaf and Boston fans will already be comparing Kessel with Seguin for years to come.  Now, we have the added fun of monitoring how Kadri, the graduating London center drafted by Toronto, will develop compared with Knight, who still has time to develop in junior.

The Kessel deal becomes all the more interesting if cap issues lead to Marc Savrd becoming a Leaf.

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