He has been, for the majority of the last 15 years, the mild-mannered right-hand man of one of the most bombastic personalities in hockey.
And now, for the second time in his career, Dave Nonis is following in his mentor’s footsteps and replacing Brian Burke as a general manager.
Nine years ago, Nonis first took centre stage in the NHL when he landed the Vancouver Canucks’ top job at 37, becoming the youngest GM in that organization’s history.
He quickly made his stamp on the franchise, too, when he pulled off a blockbuster deal to land Roberto Luongo in 2006, adding the netminder that the Leafs are now in talks to acquire from Vancouver nearly seven years later.
A native of Burnaby, B.C., Nonis had worked his way up to the top of Canucks hockey operations after getting his start assisting in the negotiation of contracts at just 24 years of age.
He had hockey experience after playing in college for the University of Maine and a season in Denmark and quickly rose to prominence as a smart, young executive on both the business and hockey side of the franchise.
Nonis lasted only three seasons as GM in Vancouver, however, as the Canucks missed the playoffs twice. His failings were mainly due to simply being too cautious in attempting to build on his success in bringing in Luongo, as the team often went the safe route with acquisitions after that point and struggled to add offensive talent.
He was believed to have been fired in 2008 for not going for the quick fix and trading prospects like Ryan Kesler and Alex Edler for a superstar talent, although injuries also played a key role in the team missing the postseason by three points.
“The trade he made for [Luongo], that might go down as one of the greatest trades in history,” former Canucks captain Markus Naslund said after Nonis was let go.
“What I liked about Dave is he didn’t give in to what would make him popular,” added Trevor Linden, another former Canucks captain. “I think he has a good understanding of what it takes to build a good team.”
Since Nonis’s departure, the Canucks have become an NHL powerhouse and made a trip to the Stanley Cup final, with several key players acquired or held onto during his tenure playing key roles.
On Wednesday, Nonis admitted his style will likely be much different than Burke’s, something to watch for as he attempts to push the Leafs into playoff contention for the first time in nearly a decade.
“I think if there’s one difference [between us] it’s I would say I’m a little more patient in how I approach things,” Nonis said. “I evaluate things a little bit longer.”
The plus side of Nonis taking over is that he was already intimately involved in hockey operations, often dealing with general managers and negotiating contracts more than even Burke.
He has the reputation of being bright and well reasoned, and his press conferences will likely have little of the spectacle Burke became known for in his last three NHL stops.
“He did almost as much work there as a head guy,” former Leafs winger Colby Armstrong said of Nonis on Wednesday. “I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”