When Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe started in on each other in the summer of 2007, it was a case of two relative hockey heavyweights exchanging verbal haymakers in an over-the-top barrage that filled notepads and polarized fans in Anaheim and Edmonton.
Who’d have guessed then, with Burke and his Ducks coming off a Stanley Cup parade and Lowe’s Oilers one year removed from taking Carolina to Game 7 of the Cup Finals, their spat, since silenced by hall monitor Gary Bettman, would seem more like an NHL version of Bum Fights, a thumb-inside-the-fingers throw down between a couple of weaklings? That’s exactly how it plays today.
Lowe, who started the feud with his $21.25 million offer sheet to Dustin Penner, has since been removed as GM and bounced upstairs as director of hockey operations by friend and owner Daryl Katz. The Oilers are dead-last in the Western Conference as they face Detroit tonight and are looking like locks to miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
Burke, of course, has since moved on to Toronto. Burke’s Maple Leafs are again skid marks in the Eastern Conference, sitting in 14th place, as his genius has yet to see the Buds distance themselves from their recurring role as laughing stocks.
Thumbs on the outside, boys.
A sampling of the verbal hair-pulling and wedgies exchanged by Burke and Lowe down by the bike racks since the Penner offer sheet.
"I will not be announcing whether or not we will match the offer sheet to Dustin Penner. I’m coming back to Anaheim on Sunday and conferring with ownership.
"Kevin Lowe has been in Penticton. I certainly think this could have waited until Monday. I think it was a classless move, timing-wise. I was not notified of this until Dustin Penner’s agent faxed it in. I would have thought Kevin would have notified me. I thought that was gutless.
"I have no problem with offer sheets. They’re part of the CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement]. But in my opinion, Edmonton has offered a mostly inflated salary for a player, and I think it’s an act of desperation for a general manager who is fighting to keep his job."
— Burke, July, 2007
"I just decided that this offer doesn’t make sense. If I believe these salaries don’t make sense and I match, then I’m just as dumb as the team that extended the offer. … We’re going to take the three draft picks and given Kevin’s recent performance, I expect them to be excellent picks.
"My anger isn’t with losing a player, that’s part of the business. I’m annoyed that the offer (dollars) impacts on 30 teams. This is highly inflationary to players in this age group. I’d be shocked if there’s not significant support in that view with my brethren."
— Burke, August 2007
"I’m not in the business of trying to make friends. Never have, never will be … Dustin was on a very short list of players we thought would compliment our hockey club. We see him as a guy who is capable of scoring 20-plus goals and he adds some size to our line-up.
"If Dustin continues to score goals at the clip he has been, at some point in his contract, he’s going to be highly underpaid. That’s a good thing."
— Lowe, August 2007
"If I had run my team into the sewer like that (the Oilers), I wouldn’t have thrown a grenade at the other 29 teams — and my own indirectly."
— Burke, October 2007
"Where do I begin? He’s a moron, first of all. Secondly, he really believes that any news for the NHL is good news. Thirdly, he loves the limelight, and I don’t think anyone in hockey will dispute that. Lastly, he’s in a pathetic hockey market where they can’t get on any page of the newspaper, let alone the front page of the sports, so any of this stuff carries on.
"He’s an underachieving wanna-be in terms of success in the NHL. He won a Stanley Cup? Great. I’ve won six Stanley Cups. You want to count rings? Who cares? It’s just a little pathetic that he carries on."
— Lowe, July 2008
Here and now
Apparently, Burke and Lowe were both right.
The Oilers were unquestionably mediocre with Lowe running the show as GM, despite the eighth-place finish that turned into the unlikely 2006 Cup run. It’s difficult to argue a team sitting in 15th place in the West and pressed up against the salary cap isn’t in the sewer, no?
Lowe, conveniently, has been extracted from the stink he created by being shunted into the background by Katz, who inherited Lowe’s four-year contract extension from the EIG. Katz gave Lowe a soft place to fall and cash his cheques after a dismal 2007-08 season in which the Oilers went 41-35-6 and missed the playoffs for a second straight season.
Cleaning up the mess falls to Steve Tambellini, in his second season of inhaling the methane of deals done by Lowe, who bungled at the contract table after the brains of the front office, assistant GM Scott Howson, was hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Lowe, hindsight tells us, was way too heavy on both terms and dollars in contracts he handed out after the summer of 2006. Maybe it was those six Stanley Cup rings weighing down his right hand.
Lowe overpaid Fernando Pisani for eight weeks of great hockey in the 2006 post-season. He tossed stupid money, in both terms and amount, at Shawn Horcoff. He overpaid for Sheldon Souray. All this, we know.
A fine mess
When it comes to the Oilers, Lowe’s heart has always been in the right place. There’s no questioning that. His head, at least in the business end of the job, is another matter.
— Contracts for Pisani, Horcoff and Souray aside, Lowe and former coach Craig MacTavish couldn’t seem to get on the same page in terms of defining how the Oilers would play and the players it would take to get the job done after the summer of 2006. There was a disconnect.
— With distinct challenges in attracting free agents to Edmonton, Lowe was put in the position of having to overpay to compete, and that played into some of his mistakes.
— Lowe was prone to chasing marquee names, like Marian Hossa or Jaromir Jagr. That’s not necessarily a problem, unless it happens at the expense of lesser but necessary priorities — hello, Petr Sykora, Curtis Glencross and Jan Hejda, to name three. Again, all this, we know.
Today, with the Oilers having just 24 points in the standings, Tambellini has a handful of contracts he can’t trade and new coach Pat Quinn has a roster full of players struggling with injuries and, it seems, indifference.
Of course, things aren’t any better in Hogtown, where Burke’s Maple Leafs look like sure bets to hand over a 2010 Entry Draft Lottery pick to Boston. Thanks to Bettman, we’re not hearing much from Burke or Lowe.
Then again, what could either one of them possibly say now?
— Listen to Robin Brownlee every Wednesday and Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on TEAM 1260.