Further proof that the corporate image makers hold sway at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment came Wednesday morning, when the new guys in control of the operation decided to terminate Brian Burke as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Burke was always a polarizing figure in Toronto, right from the moment he took the job on Nov. 29, 2008, fresh from winning a Stanley Cup championship with the Anaheim Ducks. Burke was loud and brash and unkempt and opinionated and under the old more-or-less hands-off ownership of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, that would have been okay, if he’d won a little more.
Under the new corporate umbrella, which features a marriage of curious partners – Rogers, Bell and Larry Tanenbaum – it wasn’t going to work. Ever since majority control of the franchise was transferred from one group to the other back in August of 2012, there were rumblings about a philosophical disconnection between the new overlords and the man at the head of the hockey operations department.
“This is more about tone and the voice of leadership than changing gears and going in a different direction,” explained Tom Anselmi, MLSE’s executive vice-president and chief operating officer.
Generally, in professional sports, winning provides the best protection for job security and ultimately, the fact that Burke didn’t win more – or sooner – left him vulnerable. Philosophically, Burke made a mistake right from the get-go by pushing too hard too soon to get the franchise back on track.
He was convinced that Leaf Nation wouldn’t have the patience to endure a slow, but steady rebuild along the lines of the Edmonton Oilers. Instead, he was convinced the turnaround had to happen quickly.
It resulted in one very ill-advised deal early on – acquiring Phil Kessel for two No. 1 draft choices that turned into promising youngsters Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton – and a patchwork sort of rebuild that showed promise for a time last year, before goaltending eventually derailed the season.
People forget – on Christmas day of the 2011-12 season, the Leafs were sitting with an 18-13-2-2- record, a point ahead of the eventual Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey Devils, in the Eastern Conference standings, before the bottom eventually fell out. The team had reasonable scoring, some promising youngsters on defence and question marks in goal.
It was believed that if Burke could pull the trigger on a deal for Vancouver Canucks’ goaltender Roberto Luongo in the next few days, that would solidify the goaltending and make the Leafs a playoff contender in the lockout shortened 48-game season.
Now? The Leafs will need to deal with the distraction of having the most visible face of the franchise turfed just days before training camps open. The timing, if not the actual decision, is wholly curious, only because of the unpredictability of a shortened season.
His legacy will always be mixed because some of the better young pieces in the rebuilding puzzle – Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne – still need time to develop. It is hard to imagine that at this stage of their development, the Maple Leafs would propose to go all scorched earth now, after seven consecutive years out of the playoffs. The Leafs were the only NHL team that failed to make the post-season during the seven years between NHL lockouts.
Dave Nonis, appointed as the new GM, has had a long association with Burke and has followed in his footsteps before. Nonis spent four years between 1994 and 1998 working as the NHL’s manager of hockey operations. From there, he followed Burke to Vancouver, where he spent six seasons as the team’s senior vice president of hockey operations.
When the Canucks chose not to renew Burke’s contract following the 2004 season, Nonis stepped into his shoes as GM in May of that year. In Vancouver, Nonis will be largely remembered for the blockbuster deal that brought Roberto Luongo to the Canucks in the first place. Nonis gave up just Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld to make the deal happen – and Luongo’s presence helped turn the Canucks into a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
It would seem more likely – not less – Nonis’s presence in the top job can help facilitate a Luongo trade to the Maple Leafs.
Nonis only learned of his appointment on Wednesday morning, but sounded as if he were prepared to hit the ground running, saying: "Once we get the green light, we're going to have a very short window to make some decisions about this hockey team."
Nonis is familiar with coach Randy Carlyle, dating back to their days together in the Vancouver organization, when Carlyle coached the team's minor-league affiliate, then based in Winnipeg. Carlyle eventually left there to go work for Burke in Anaheim.
The most perplexing question is not why, but why now?
"First of all, there's no good time to do this," answered Anselmi. "Once you get to a decision on something like this, it's really only fair to act upon it. It's fairest for our fans, and for the people involved. It's fairest for everybody. You can't fake it. The relationship between a general manager and ownership is very complex, different relationship - and it has to work long term. If you decide it's not going to work long term, you're best to deal with it and deal with it expeditiously.
"This year, it's complicated with a sale that closed and a new ownership group put together and then all of a sudden, we're in a lockout and now we have to get ready for a season. It just made sense to deal with this as quickly as possible, so these guys can prepare for what's going to be a sprint to the finish line."