By Stu Hackel
Unless the NHL Board of Governors had dismissed Gary Bettman, which they didn’t, any news coming from Wednesday’s Board of Governors meeting was bound to be eclipsed by the bombshell that dropped in Toronto earlier in the day. The Maple Leafs — who have yet to play a game under their newly reconstituted MLSE parent company — fired the team’s president and general manager, Brian Burke.
Outspoken, opinionated and often in the media spotlight, Burke has been in the center of nearly every debate about the game for years, highly visible for an NHL GM, a group whose other members by comparison often stay quiet and behind the scenes. A frequent opponent of rules for a safer game in the past and a traditionalist when it comes to the role of fighting in the NHL, he often helped shape the discussions the league’s managers have had in their deliberations over headshots, among other controversial subjects. That voice will now be absent.
Dave Nonis, who has been a trusted assistant of Burke’s at multiple stops during their careers, has been appointed the team’s new GM. Burke stays on as a senior adviser to the MLSE Board of Directors, which in part may be due to the fact that he still has two years remaining on his contract at a reported $3 million a season.
There have been persistent rumors that Burke’s job would be in jeopardy if the team didn’t make the playoffs in this upcoming season, which is a distinct possibility. But the timing of the move comes with the lockout-shortened season only 10 days away and must be seen as bizarre. When a club wants to make a change at the top, it usually does so at or near the end of a season, not the outset. And this isn’t a house-cleaning because the rest of Burke’s hand-picked hockey department — Nonis, V.P. of Hockey Operations Dave Poulin, Assistant GM Claude Loiselle and coach Randy Carlyle — are sticking around.
Tom Anselmi, the executive vice president of MLSE, explained that the move was made now because the new ownership group, which includes media giants Bell Canada and Rogers, has been undertaking an ongoing review of its various properties and it was decided that a change needed to be made at the top of the hockey club. “There’s no good time to do this,” Anselmi told a Wednesday afternoon press conference. “Once you get to a decision, it’s really only fair to act upon it. It’s fairest for fans, for the people involved and for everybody. If you’ve decided it’s not going to work long-term, it’s best to deal with it and deal with it expeditiously.”
The reasons for that decision seem to be in part because of the Leafs’ fruitless record but are perhaps more rooted in Burke’s not meshing with the new ownership group. Anselmi repeatedly stated that this was largely about “tone” and “voice,”as well as a “leadership approach” and “style.” Burke is a boisterous personality, not especially subtle. Always highly quotable, he has had a mercurial relationship with media members at various stops in his NHL career, including a few feuds. However, Anselmi said Burke’s relations with the Toronto media played no role in the decision and he declined to get into specifics on the gap between Burke on the Board. But there were clear indications that Burke didn’t enjoy a good relationship with the new ownership group.
“Essentially, the new owners, Rogers Communications and Bell Canada, didn’t trust Burke with the most important part of their billion-dollar bauble,” wrote Bruce Arthur in The National Post. “He didn’t fit their vision of a chief executive; he didn’t fit in with the new guys, who trade in image as well as product.”
On CBC.ca, Tim Wharnsby suggested the problem was more than mere image. “The veteran hockey man did not react kindly to the hockey-team related free advice he was receiving from new board members,” he wrote. “After several of these get-togethers between Burke and the MLSE board, the latter finally decided it was time to part ways with its bombastic hockey GM.”
Still, the unusual character of the shortened 2013 campaign requires teams to make sound judgments on players more quickly and the Leafs are pushing a highly experienced talent evaluator away from the front lines, although it’s clear that for as long as he’s in the organization, he will still assist Nonis when called upon.
Of course, Burke’s critics will claim that his skills at evaluating talent are not especially strong, considering the Leafs failed to make the playoffs in each of his four years on the job. He has very little scoring punch on his squad and has never been able to secure a top-flight goalie. The lack of a top goalie also hurt him when he was GM in Vancouver in the early ’90s. It was assumed he was working on a trade this past offseason for Vancouver’s veteran netminder Roberto Luongo, but reports say he was not particularly enamored with dealing for the high-priced netminder. The Leafs do not have much to give in return and Luongo, who has a no trade clause and seems to prefer being dealt back to Florida. Anselmi said the Luongo situation had no bearing on the MLSE Board’s decision. (Jason Botchford of The Vancouver Province has more on Luongo’s plight here.)
Burke inherited a bare-cupboard team when he took over in November, 2008. He had quit his post as GM of Anaheim, where the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, his second year on the job. Previously, he had been GM in Vancouver where he built the Canucks into a strong franchise before a falling out with the new ownership there.
Joining Toronto, he famously vowed to remake the club into a physical one. “We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That’s how our teams play,” said Burke. “I make no apologies for that. Our teams play a North American game. We’re throwbacks. It’s black-and-blue hockey. It’s going to be more physical hockey here than people are used to.”
It never happened that way. In fact, as the game became more speed and skill oriented, the Leafs seemed behind the curve and were not able to catch up. Most of the moves Burke made in the trade market and through the draft did not pan out. His most notable trade was with Boston for Phil Kessel, the streaky scoring forward who is the only legitimate star up front for Toronto, but is not especially physical. Burke surrendered a 2010 first-round pick (which became forward Tyler Seguin, a rising star), a 2010 second-round pick (Jared Knight, a highly touted first-year pro who has been slowed this season by injury) and a 2011 first-round pick (Dougie Hamilton, projected to be an impact defenseman who just competed for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship). It’s a deal for which Boston fans have been grateful ever since.
Nonis — who worked with Burke first for the NHL when Burke was in charge of hockey operations under Gary Bettman, then in Vancouver (before taking over as GM when Burke left) and later in Anaheim, confessed shock that his mentor had been let go. He admitted he shares a lot of Burke’s outlook on building a team, but believed his approach is a bit more patient than Burke’s. As for how the team should play and his expectations, those, Nonis said, are similar.
“We have some work to do,” he told the media. “We have some good building blocks, we have some good players.” He said he believed that down the road people would look back on the Leafs and recognize many of Burke’s moves to were good ones, but many of the young players he acquired are not yet ready for the NHL.
In the league’s biggest hockey-oriented market, the Leafs — the league’s most lucrative franchise — continue to be an embarrassment, now having missed the playoffs seven straight seasons. They have also failed to qualify for the postseason or been knocked out in the first round 13 times in the last 18 seasons. The Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup since 1967, the last year the NHL played with six franchises. It’s the longest drought in the league.
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