The Inevitable End
What I heard was a requiem for a heavyweight.
Nothing wrong with that.
What I also heard was a dedicated, long-time hockey guy lamenting the way the business used to be, the way the game used to be.
Nothing wrong with that.
That's what I heard behind all the words Brian Burke uttered today while announcing the team's decision to send enforcer Colton Orr to the minors after he had cleared waivers.
Let me repeat that. After the Leafs CHOSE to send Orr down. Nobody made Burke do it. It wasn't about a cap consideration. If Orr was so beloved and his role so important, the Leafs could have kept him.
It was Burke and Ron Wilson who decided not to use Orr this season and, more to the point, he and Wilson who decided another, younger tough guy, Jay Rosehill, was more valuable to the team. Burke will have to explain this to team ownership, why a $1 million player will be getting that money to skate in the AHL, although my guess is that is a small part about what pained Burke about this decision.
He likes Orr. Most people who played with him have liked Orr. In Toronto, he chose not to talk a whole lot, so we didn't get to know him much, about how he got a late start in hockey but still made the big time, about how he designed his own tattoos. Heck, after he was concussed badly last season, we never really heard from him again.
Burke likes Orr, and he likes fighters, and he likes fighting. He and I have been up and down this subject for years. He loves to call me a "Greenpeace puke," and I laugh, mostly because he knows I'm not changing my anti-fighting views and he's not changing his.
In fact, the way in which enforcers like Orr are discarded when they aren't needed, either because they can't fight any more or play well enough to justify their presence in the lineup, is one of the many reason I despise the presence of fighting in the game. That, plus the damage it does to these gladiators, and they are gladiators, albeit well-paid ones. We know a lot more about the damage after the de-mystifying process of last summer, and after Bob Probert, and after John Kordic. But those who love fighting choose either to look the other way to the huge toll it takes or say that simply adds courage and honour to a tough job.
When the Leafs signed Orr away as a free agent from the Rangers, it wasn't a bad decision. He was a legitimate heavyweight, Burke's championship experience in Anaheim had taught him such players were an invaluable component to team success and he wanted to forge a new personality for the Leafs.
But less than five years after the Ducks won it all, the game has indeed changed, changed to a remarkable degree considering the relatively short period of time. Speed, or lack of it, and a concussion (or more than one) rendered Orr unable to keep his job. That said, he has this year and next year on his deal and if he goes to the Marlies and works on his game and his skating, well, who knows what might happen? This is a sport that handsomely rewards those who can re-invent themselves.
The other stuff in Burke's presser today, about rats in the game and concern about accountability, well, he believes it but I'm not buying. Such players have always been in the game, probably always will be. They existed before the instigator rule, and after. They were there in the 1960s and every decade since, arguably in larger numbers than now. The Leafs have had their share of these agitators. Bill Berg. Darcy Tucker. The great Bobby Clarke was surely one. The list is long.
They've existed because they can be effective. They've never been scared of heavyweights like Orr because they never had to fight them. Indeed, players like Clarke and Ken "The Rat" Linesman were able to poke and prod and needle largely because the beefier fellows on their own teams were more than happy to do the fighting, to be enablers, as it were, so they could continue to do the rat-work.
Dan Carcillo might be the worst rat in the game today. Well, when he hit Tom Gilbert the other night, Gilbert's Edmonton teammate, enforcer Ben Eager, was on the ice. Sure didn't stop Carcillo did it? The only retribution he faced was from the league, which suspended him seven games. Which is the way it's supposed to work. Next time it will be 10 games. Soon he'll be unemployable.
Burke lamented a time when players fought their own battles. Well, had Dion Phaneuf wanted to, he could have dropped them with Steve Downie of the Lightning the other night just like the "good old days," but wisely Phaneuf thought better of it, knowing it would be a total waste of his talent and energy. But Downie wasn't running away from fighting. He challenged just about every Leaf out there to fight. He's a rat, but he's accountable for his own rat-ness.
So to me, today's Burke presser was about feeling bad for Orr, missing the way the game used to be played and regretting sending an NHL salary to the minors for no pressing reason other than he needed to open a roster spot and Orr was the least valuable guy on the team.
Nothing wrong with any of that.