The expression on Brian Burke’s florid face spoke as much or more as anything the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager actually said in a 27-minute news conference about the decision to fire coach Ron Wilson and replace him with Randy Carlyle.
He looked stricken, glum - and typically combative.
“Despite my demeanour,” he said at one point, “I’m actually pretty excited.”
In the end, Burke decided it was time to fire Wilson, who he has known since the two were college freshmen at Providence College in 1973, in the aftermath of a home loss to Florida last week where incensed fans chanted “Fi-re Wil-son! Fi-re Wil-son.”
“After the last home game it occurred to me it would be cruel and unusual to let Ron coach another game in the Air Canada Centre,” he said.
Burke said he understands the fans’ ire, and in any case it had become apparent from the team’s performances that a change was required.
“I wasn’t going to put Ron through that again, it was hard to listen to and it was hard to watch,” said Burke, who also observed that the team had appeared to tune Wilson out.
And so, as he waited in an airport on the way to Montreal from a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday, he sent an e-mail to Wilson asking to see him around 8 p.m.
“When you’re a coach, you don’t need a road map when that call comes,” he said.
After the meeting with Wilson, Burke and Carlyle met with the players at the team hotel in downtown Montreal.
“We met for close to an hour [Friday]night, the reality was that I sensed the hockey club is very, very tense right now, a lot of tension. I feel the confidence level as a group is probably at a low where it’s my responsibility as a head coach and as a coaching staff to pick these guys up. They’ve got to feel a lot better about themselves than where they are today.”
The Ontario-born former Norris Trophy winner said that he feels “very, very fortunate” to have a second opportunity to be in the Leafs fold.
But he’s facing a tall order - Toronto has 18 games to rescue a season that has seen them tumble out of a seemingly secure playoff spot in the space of two-and-a-half weeks.
The Leafs are mired in a 1-9-1 slide, which Burke said has left him thoroughly befuddled.
“This is akin to an 18-wheeler going off a cliff. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life, I don’t know what happened,” he said.