The firing of Brian Burke proved one thing – no matter who owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, sooner or later they succumb to Harold Ballard disease.
It doesn’t matter if that owner is individual or corporate, once they take charge there is an inevitable descent into the dark comedy that marked Ballard’s ownership through the 1970s and 1980s.
Burke’s removal as president and general manager has the fingerprints of the newest owners, Rogers Communications Inc., and BCE Inc., all over it, rather than Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., chairman Larry Tanenbaum. Several NHL governors said the word going around the room Wednesday when they met to approve the new collective agreement was that Burke’s abrasive and loud public style long rubbed BCE and Rogers suits the wrong way.
Also hanging over the decision was the long shadow of Roberto Luongo. The consensus among the same hockey executives and some NHL GMs was the stalled trade talks for the Vancouver Canucks goaltender were, at the very least, the final straw in the decision to fire Burke and replace him with senior vice-president of hockey operations David Nonis just 10 days before the lockout-shortened season began.
Burke was not keen to meet the asking price of Canucks GM Mike Gillis for Luongo. Nonis and the other Leaf executives are said to be more willing to get a deal done. Gillis said Burke’s firing won’t affect the talks one way or the other.
But no one saw this coming this quickly. Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee, who worked with and against Burke for years, said he was talking to Burke on Tuesday night. Burke was bubbling with enthusiasm with his plans for the season, said McPhee, who was not, by the way, one of the people who shared the information about the opinions of Burke’s bosses.
Tanenbaum, who had the job of informing Burke of the decision early Wednesday morning, seemed as gobsmacked as everyone else. That included Nonis, who has now replaced his long-time friend twice after firings. The first time was with the Canucks. Tanenbaum does not like speaking to the media but he was especially uncomfortable Wednesday when he arrived at the governors meeting to find a group of media waiting for him outside the hotel. While he is usually polite in brushing aside media queries, Tanenbaum was brusque this time. “It was a decision of the board,” he said.
The MLSE chairman, so flustered and eager to escape the reporters, turned to a revolving door that was covered by yellow tape and closed. He pushed at it for a second then turned and rushed down the street to the next entrance.
Burke’s record since taking the job on Nov. 29, 2008 was 129-135-42 and no playoff games, continuing a post-season drought that goes back to 2004. That is not a gold-plated record, to be sure, but no sensible hockey organization fires the GM on the eve of a new season. This does not bode well for Rogers’ and BCE’s ownership.
If you are going to change direction, it is done far enough into a season that the playoffs are out of reach or immediately after the season. This gives the new boss a chance to get his program in place before the next season starts.
On top of that, any seasoned hockey executive will tell you a GM deserves at least five full seasons to show if his approach is going to be successful. Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, whose cluster of Stanley Cup rings show he might know a thing or two about this, argues in a salary cap world, where that restriction means it takes years to undo a predecessor’s mistakes, it should be 10 years.
Rogers and BCE officially took over MLSE last August after their purchase of the company in December, 2011. That gave BCE chairman George Cope and his Rogers counterpart Nadir Mohamed lots of time to decide if Burke was their man.
If they were going to fire him without giving him the decency of five seasons to prove himself, last September was the time to do it. Especially with the league idle because of the lockout, which would give the new person lots of time to his own touch on a team many GMs and scouts around the league say will be a playoff contender if it gets a good goaltender.
Finally, Burke’s gruff exterior ruffles a lot of feathers. But he is a man of integrity and a good heart who made the Leafs better while enduring a personal tragedy that would have flattened a lot of others.
He deserved better than this.