Time caught up to Brian Burke on Wednesday morning. It’s one thing when a general manager lets himself be branded as the face of a winning team, quite another when he’s still the face of an NHL franchise after four years without a playoff spot.
The fact that Burke’s firing as Toronto Maple Leafs general manager could come as a palpable shock speaks to the larger-than-life quality of the man and screams the failure of his tenure. That Burke was still very much the face of the franchise when he was fired – more than his leading scorer, Phil Kessel, or his captain, Dion Phaneuf – reinforced what a waste the past four Leafs seasons have been.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. is no longer run by a benign pension plan; it is controlled by two media conglomerates that have signalled they intend to play an activist role on the MLSE board, with a clear sense of image and product. It is controlled, now, by businessmen unafraid to can somebody when stuff goes awry; by people smart enough to look at what Burke wrought and come to an inescapable conclusion: You mean that after four years, this is all we have?
Nobody doubts that Burke had some seriously heavy lifting to do when he took over the Leafs job.
But you have to be a blind Burke loyalist to wonder if it really should take that long to make the playoffs in this market in a league in which 16 of 30 teams advance to the playoffs. Not only did Burke not deliver results, he didn’t even deliver the type of truculent hockey which he so bravely promised, instead icing teams that always seemed out of step with their head coach.
And while the playoffs went on without the Leafs, there was Burke making this pronouncement or that pronouncement, all bluster and picking fights and leading with his chin while he was instituting his own make-believe trade deadline. That was okay when the MLSE board was run by people who would take “because I know more about it than you do,” for an answer; not so much when BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. put their people in place and need to market cellular telephones and services and television and radio product, as Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo appears to be finding out, as well.
The timing of Wednesday’s announcement is puzzling, and immediately led to speculation about untidy personal matters or an imminent trade of goaltender Roberto Luongo, the thinking being that Burke’s replacement, David Nonis, is more than Burke to strike a deal with Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis; that whatever animus exists between Nonis and Gillis manageable compared to the toxicity of Burke’s relationship with the Canucks GM. Perhaps there is an element of truth to those hypotheses; or perhaps the timing was dictated by the end of the NHL lockout and the beginning of a jury-rigged schedule next Saturday. What’s another shock to the system after what we’ve all been through, eh?
At any rate, Toronto sports fans who have been wondering whether the sale of the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan shares in MLSE to rival broadcasters simply meant exchanging one group of Tory blue suits for another now have an answer. Of course the new board will talk about being committed to winning. That’s motherhood; it’s a sports version of apple pie. The proof will come on the ice, the soccer pitch and the basketball court, but it is hard not to see Wednesday’s move as a positive sign.
The simple fact is the people who own MLSE thought they deserved better than what Burke had delivered, and looking beyond some of the charms of the man – the loyalty, the civic awareness and sensibilities and the raw emotion that comes from wanting to win so badly it hurts – it’s hard to argue with the choice. Matter of fact, the real question might be: what took you so long?