TORONTO - Brian Burke is struggling to come to grips with the evolution of hockey.
On a day the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager sent enforcer Colton Orr to the American Hockey League, he bemoaned the fact there doesn't appear to be much need for players like him in today's game.
Long a proponent of rough and tumble hockey, Burke now presides over a Leafs team that is built largely on speed and skill. The sport in general has trended in that direction since the lockout and it's come with a few other developments Burke finds troubling.
"If you want a game where guys can cheap shot people and not face retribution, I'm not sure that's a healthy evolution," he said Thursday at an impromptu media conference. "The speed of the game, I love how the game's evolved in terms of how it's played. But you're seeing where there is no accountability, this is the byproduct—is people running around that won't back it up."
According to numbers provided by the NHL, fighting is down significantly this season. Through play Wednesday, there was an average of 0.8 fighting majors per game compared with 1.2 at the same point last year.
"To me, it's a dangerous turn in our game," said Burke.
The Leafs found themselves in the bottom third of NHL teams in that category with just 13 total fighting majors prior to facing Winnipeg on Thursday night. The New York Rangers were tops with 31 while the Detroit Red Wings were last with six.
Burke's comments come at a time where the sport has been forced to do some soul-searching. Tough guys Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak died in a short span over the summer and Boston University doctors found evidence of the neurodegenerative disease CTE in Boogaard's brain, as they have with other former fighters.
At the same time, a number of high-profile NHLers have been sidelined with concussions while new league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has attempted to lead a crackdown on dangerous hits, suspending three players in the last week alone.
Burke once held Shanahan's job and believes the director of player safety wouldn't be so busy if players were policing the game themselves with more fights.
"(Shanahan) needs a telephone receptionist in his house because of all of this crap that's going on on the ice," said Burke. "These guys that won't back it up, won't drop their gloves, run around and elbow people in the head and hit people from behind. They never have to answer for that in the game, they used to have to answer for that in the game.
"The players (used to) police the game and now it's Brendan Shanahan."
A number of recent incidents have drawn Burke's ire, including the hit that got Chicago's Daniel Carcillo suspended seven games and the elbow that drew a five-game ban for Calgary's Rene Bourque. He was also upset after watching Tampa Bay's Steve Downie at his agitating best—or worst—during a game at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night.
The linesmen stepped between Downie and a Leafs player on more than one occasion during that game.
"I wonder about the accountability in our game and the notion that players would stick up for themselves and for each other," said Burke. "I wonder where we're going with it, that's the only lament I have on this. The fear that if we don't have guys looking after each other that the rats will take this game over.
"You see guys that run around and start stuff and won't back it up and it makes me sick to my stomach."
The decision to demote Orr was clearly a difficult one for Burke, who said he experienced a sleepless night before speaking with the tough guy. The Leafs gave the 28-year-old forward a US$4-million, four-year contract in 2009 but couldn't find room for him in the lineup on many nights this season—dressing him for just five of 39 games.
Orr is essentially a one-dimensional fighter in a league with very few other heavyweights for him to square off against.
"If there's no dance partner for Colton, it's pretty hard not to be able to say well, 'Darryl Boyce gives us more on a given night or whoever, Joey Crabb,"' said Burke. "We've made the same judgments, so I'm not throwing stones as much as saying I don't like where it's going."
It's quite possible that Orr's NHL career might be over after 378 career games and 921 penalty minutes. But Burke wasn't quite ready to entertain that possibility just yet.
"My admiration for this kid just knows no limits," he said. "This is a wonderful young man and now he's cleared (waivers) so we've got to get him back to the Marlies and get him playing. I'm trying to get his game back and see where he can maybe help us later in theseason."
With the way things seem to be going, it's hard to imagine that happening.