Brian Burke is out in Toronto.
And for the second time in their careers as NHL executives, it’ll be right-hand man Dave Nonis replacing him in the general manager’s chair.
The Toronto Maple Leafs new ownership conglomerate of Bell, Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum pulled the plug on Burke on Wednesday morning, shocking the hockey world on a day when most of the game’s owners – included Tanenbaum – voted to approve the league’s new collective agreement.
Burke’s firing comes just four days before training camps are expected to open and a week and a half before an abbreviated 48-game schedule will start for the Leafs in Montreal on Jan. 19.
The curious timing of the decision came after months of soul searching by new ownership and a conclusion that Burke’s bombastic leadership style was no longer a good fit, according to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Tom Anselmi.
“Since the closing of the sale in August, I’ve spent a lot of time working closely with our board as they evaluated our organization and its people and the long-term direction of our team,” Anselmi said.
“Part of that involved taking a look at the Maple Leafs and the result of that we’ve decided to make a leadership change and go a different direction with the general manager.”
Anselmi then officially appointed Nonis the 14th general manager of the franchise, putting him in Burke’s spot just as he had succeeded him in 2004 with the Vancouver Canucks.
Nonis has held the position of senior vice-president and director of hockey operations since his hiring December of 2008, a week after Burke was brought into Toronto from the Anaheim Ducks.
Burke, meanwhile, will be kept in an advisory position for the time being, but Anselmi made clear he will have no role in hockey operations.
It’s widely expected Burke will only hold such a role until he found another job with either the NHL’s head office or another franchise.
Despite the Leafs poor record under Burke’s tenure – with no playoff appearances in four seasons – the firing caught the players and staff by surprise, as despite rumours several months ago his job could be in jeopardy, most in the hockey world had written the speculation off.
“It’s sad to see this happen,” said Leafs winger Mike Brown, who has played for Burke in three different organizations. “I’ve known him a long time. But teams do what they have to do. I’ve been traded. I wish him the best and I thank him for everything, but the team here has to do what they have to do.
“It’s definitely weird timing.”
Even Nonis appeared to have not expected the news and looked somewhat emotional after he was introduced as GM and Anselmi was forced to detail to the media why Burke had been removed.
Anselmi had informed both Burke and Nonis of the decision early Wednesday morning, setting up the 1:45 p.m. press conference at the Air Canada Centre.
“I want to thank Brian for everything he’s done for this organization,” Nonis said in his opening remarks. “I think years down the road, I think we’ll be able to see the mark he made. Which is significant.
“Secondly, I’d like to thank him personally for everything he’s done for me. I’ve worked for Brian most of my adult life, and he’s always been a great friend and mentor.”
Nonis’s appointment to the GM role is sure to only increase the speculation the Leafs could trade for Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo.
Nonis acquired Luongo for the Canucks in the summer of 2006 and signed him to a four-year, $27-million deal. The two are believed to still have a strong relationship, and Nonis was one member of the Leafs brass that was supportive of making a trade for Luongo despite his age (33) and the 10 years remaining on his contract.
One thing Nonis made clear on Wednesday was that he full endorses head coach Randy Carlyle, who Burke hired late last season with the Leafs in a losing skid they never pulled out of.
“Randy is a quality head coach,” Nonis said. “We go back a fair ways. The assistants are excellent and going forward we’ve very happy that we have them here with us.”
As for the odd timing of the decision, Anselmi said that the ownership change and 113-day lockout complicated matters for a board still settling in as owners of the league’s wealthiest franchise.
“There’s no good time to do this,” he said. “Once you get to a decision on something like this, it’s really only fair to act upon it... You can’t fake it. The relationship between a GM and ownership is a very complex and different relationship. And it has to work long term and if you’ve decided that it’s not going to work long term, you’re best to deal with it expeditiously.
“Obviously this year was complicated with a sale that closed and a new ownership group coming together and then all of a sudden we’re in a lockout and now we’ve got a week to get ready for a season.”