Days after their blockbuster $1.3-billion acquisition of the Toronto Maple Leafs closed, the team’s new owners met with general manager Brian Burke to hear his plans for revitalizing the losing franchise.
By all accounts, the first impression from the famously outspoken Mr. Burke did not go well. Within days of that introductory presentation in late August, the new board of directors began building a list of names to replace Mr. Burke.
According to a source in the room, Mr. Burke offered few solid answers for why the losses on the ice kept piling up. Nor did he explain why his four-year rebuilding effort had failed to solve two key issues for the hockey team: finding a first-line centre and stabilizing the Leafs’ goaltending situation.
Executives of BCE and Rogers Communications, who together control 75 per cent of the sports franchise, found Mr. Burke defensive and brusque – difficult to work with, the source said.
It was in that meeting that the early seeds of a personality clash were sown, sources close to Rogers and Bell said. Soon after, BCE chief executive officer George Cope, unsure that Mr. Burke was the right man to lead the team forward, began discussing a search for a new GM with his colleagues at Rogers. The decision would culminate in Wednesday’s sudden firing of Mr. Burke, who will be replaced by his long-time protégé, Dave Nonis.
Mr. Nonis, who worked under Mr. Burke with the Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks, was brought to Toronto in 2008 to help rebuild the team. He was introduced as the 14th general manager of the Leafs during a hastily arranged press conference on Wednesday that caught much of the National Hockey League – and even Mr. Nonis himself – off guard.
Mr. Burke’s firing was, in itself, not shocking. The GM was in the final year and a half of a lucrative six-year contract worth $18-million, and the team had missed the playoffs every year on his watch.
Rumours of his eventual departure had been swirling for months. However, the timing – just four days before training camps are set to open – left observers puzzled. Though Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had begun formulating a list of names to replace Mr. Burke, rushing Mr. Nonis into the job on Wednesday was clearly not part of the succession plan.
But according to MLSE president Tom Anselmi, the curious timing of the decision came after months of soul-searching by new owners and a conclusion that Mr. Burke’s bombastic leadership style was no longer a good fit.
“I don’t think the decision has happened overnight. I think this is a conversation that the board and myself have been having for several months that ultimately came to a decision recently,” Mr. Anselmi said.
“Did the four years of missing the playoffs [under Mr. Burke] factor into the conversation with the shareholders? For sure it did … but at the end of the day, it was really looking for a different voice and a different leadership approach.”
One well-placed source with knowledge of the situation pinned the blame for the awkward firing on BCE and Rogers, who they said took an almost immediately dislike to the outspoken hockey executive.
“New ownership didn’t like him,” the source said. “Fundamentally, they wanted a GM who would listen – for better or worse. They said they want a corporate guy and fired a Harvard lawyer.”
Mr. Burke will be kept in an advisory position for the time being, but Mr. Anselmi made clear he will have no role in hockey operations. It’s widely expected Mr. Burke will stay only until he takes a new job with the NHL’s head office or another franchise, moves that would be made easy due to his tight relationship with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Despite the Leafs poor record under Mr. Burke – with more losses than wins in nearly four full seasons – the firing caught the players and staff by surprise. Many had written off rumours several months ago that his job could be in jeopardy as media speculation.
“This is a shock to a lot of people. Our players I think will be shocked a little bit by it,” said Mr. Nonis, who was senior vice-president and director of hockey operations since his hiring four years ago. “Brian had a pretty strong rapport with a number of them.”
“It’s sad to see this happen,” said Leafs winger Mike Brown, who has played for Mr. Burke in three different organizations. “I’ve known him a long time. But teams do what they have to do. I’ve been traded. I wish him the best and I thank him for everything, but the team here has to do what they have to do. It’s definitely weird timing.”
That shock played out at the afternoon press conference at the Air Canada Centre. A subdued Mr. Nonis appeared to be emotional after he was introduced as GM and sat next to Mr. Anselmi as he detailed to the media why Mr. Burke was removed.
Mr. Anselmi informed Mr. Burke and Mr. Nonis of the decision early Wednesday morning, hours after the two friends had watched a minor league game together.
“I’d like to thank him personally for everything he’s done for me,” Mr. Nonis said of Mr. Burke in his opening comments. “I’ve worked for Brian most of my adult life, and he’s always been a great friend and mentor.”
Mr. Nonis’s appointment is sure to increase the speculation the Leafs could trade for Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo, a deal that had stalled under Mr. Burke. Mr. Nonis acquired Mr. Luongo for the Canucks in the summer of 2006 and signed him to a four-year, $27-million deal. The two still have a strong relationship, and Mr. Nonis was one of several members of the Leafs brass who supported trading for Mr. Luongo despite his age (33) and the 10 years remaining on his contract.
As for the odd timing of the decision, Mr. Anselmi explained that the ownership change and 113-day lockout complicated matters for a board still settling in as owners of the league’s wealthiest franchise. “There’s no good time to do this,” he said. “Once you get to a decision on something like this, it’s really only fair to act upon it… You can’t fake it.
“Obviously this year was complicated with a sale that closed and a new ownership group coming together and then all of a sudden we’re in a lockout and now we’ve got a week to get ready for a season,” Mr. Anselmi said.
Mr. Burke leaves a polarizing legacy. Although he could never duplicate his success with the Anaheim team, which won the Stanley Cup in 2007, he was known for supporting several causes in the community, including championing the rights of gays and lesbians, and promoting campaigns against bullying.
Editor's note: Brian Burke, the former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was dismissed on Wednesday, not Tuesday, as reported on Thursday. This online article has been corrected.