Brian Burke is in the job market again, that much was clear from Saturday afternoon’s exit from the Toronto sports stage. But equally apparent was the difficulty faced by any team contemplating his hiring.
You don’t quit the man easily. He doesn’t quit you easily. This was not the departure of a general manager of a hockey team, it was a candidate announcing that he was withdrawing from a political race, or an actor saying he was leaving the theatre. There were carefully-selected inclusions and exclusions in a list of thank yous and questions not only left unanswered but new questions raised, too.
Burke said he “did not receive a satisfactory answer,” for the timing of his firing, which was announced on Wednesday. He also claimed that his role as senior advisor was changed on him at some point since he was called into the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday morning, asked to divert from a trip to New York City for the NHL’s board of governors meeting. “I called Dale Lastman (a director for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd.) and suggested that perhaps a role as senior advisor might make sense,” Burke said. “I thought that’s what we were doing. I was informed (Friday) that the advisor’s role was to the board and Tom (Anselmi, MLSE’s chief operating officer) and not to hockey operations.
“That was not my understanding (on Wednesday.) My understanding is the board wants a little more distance, and that’s fine. They’re entitled to it. I asked Tom (Anselmi) this morning, and he said we’ll work through it. That’s good enough for me.”
You hire Brian Burke and you get the full Irish: the red-faced bombast, the deep-seated principles and confounding managerial rules, the stubbornness and leading with the chin into places he does not belong or, at least demand as more nuanced approach. It’s all eye-rolling, ‘there goes Burkie again’ fun a year or two or as long as the team is winning. Not so much when you miss the playoffs for four years and haven’t brought in a goaltender or front-line centre for the length of your tenure. “You can be as obnoxious as you want when you’re in first place,” Burke said 48 hours after being replaced by Dave Nonis as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs for what Burke stressed were on-ice performance and not off-ice reasons.
This much is clear: with Rogers Communications and Bell Media now in charge of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd., board, there is a new culture taking hold. These are companies with a wider range of interests than the previous board movers, such as the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, with wider exposure to consumer dissatisfaction. Since Burke’s firing, there have been rumors about off-ice issues and personal issues, not the least of which was apparent tension with Bell Media Chief Executive Officer and MLSE board member George Cope. “It was not addressed in my meeting,” Burke said in reference to personal issues. “It was not addressed as an issue. This is all media speculation, not presented to me as an issue. I think it’s unfair speculation to the people on the other side; that it was a personal thing with somebody was not presented to me, so I’m not going to respond to it. I’m not looking for sniper behind the bush.
“Had we won more games I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today, it’s that simple.”
Burke reiterated that he was shocked by his firing, saying it came “like as 2 by 4 to the head.”
“Sometimes when you get fired, you see the vultures circling and you understand the time is coming,” he said. “You’re not sure when you’re going to drop dead in the desert, but you can see it coming.”
Burke joked that since it was the second time he was fired by as club after a change in ownership – the same scenario surrounded his firing by the Vancouver Canucks – he needed to do a better job of picking teams. “The people who hired me hired Brian Burke, and maybe the new guys don’t like that brand,” Burke said. “Maybe the new guys want somebody more conventional. I’m not changing. I need to find someone who likes that brand, I guess.”
So Brian Burke is looking for work once again. We’ve all been warned.