It’s been a carnival ride, this Brian Burke era: noisy, colourful, stomach-churning and ultimately unequal to the hype.
When he blew into town on a gale of rhetoric four years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs GM promised to restore the lost grandeur of the NHL’s richest franchise. The team would be fast, he said; it would be “truculent.” The Stanley Cup awaited, and the media, more so perhaps than the fans, were pumped.
Instead, the Leafs limped through three losing seasons, missed the playoffs for their seventh straight year and became one of the league’s least intimidating clubs. Today, as NHL governors gathered to vote on a new collective bargaining agreement with the players, the new owners of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment announced they were cutting the cord, replacing Burke with his more buttoned-down assistant, Dave Nonis.
So ends the tenure of one of the most entertaining figures in NHL management–a white-headed throwback to hockey’s bygone era who seemed built to endure one of the game’s great crucibles.
Tom Anselmi, the president of MLSE, was reluctant today to get into the reasons for Burke’s firing–beyond the self-evident ones. “You’ve got new owners who just bought into a company,” he said in reference to the Bell and Rogers partnership that completed its purchase of the team last summer. “They were evaluating people and the hockey club and that evaluation included how the team was doing, how it finished up last season.”
But there were suggestions today that Rogers and Bell executives were unimpressed by Burke’s bluster. And one cannot discount the effect of sorrow. In February 2010, Burke’s son Brendan was killed in a car accident; the GM was candid about how deeply he was affected by the loss (Anselmi, for the record, said the dismissal “had nothing to do with Brian’s personal life”).
Still, Burke’s record of misjudgment in Toronto is surprising, considering his deep roots in the game and his previous success as an executive with the Vancouver Canucks, the Anaheim Ducks and league offices.
To help explain why, in Anselmi’s words, the relationship between Burke and his corporate masters “wasn’t going to work,” we compiled a brief list of his blunders and misdemeanours during his time with the Leafs. None alone is enough to get a GM fired. But each is cringeworthy, and together they have delivered the Leafs to their current state.
The Phil Kessel deal: The speedy winger Burke acquired from Boston in Sept. 2009 is a bona fide scoring star, but Kessel is anything but truculent, and the price was too high. With the picks they got in return, Boston drafted forward Tyler Seguin, a more complete player than Kessel, and Dougie Hamilton, one of the best junior-aged defencemen in the game.
Mike Komisarek: Burke signed the hulking defenceman to a whopping five-year, $22.5-million contract just as his game went into decline. Injuries followed, and this summer Komisarek will be a prime candidate for a so-called “amnesty buyout,” where teams are permitted to pay out a player in order to gain room under the league’s salary cap.
Free-agent lethargy: Not once but twice during his term with the Leafs Burke was away from the office on July 1, the day teams compete for the season’s crop of unrestricted free agents. Hard to know whether his presence would have helped the Leafs land a star like, say, Brad Richards. And in both cases, Burke was supporting worthy causes. Still, to Leaf fans, the optics weren’t great.
Goaltending woes: J.S. Giguere couldn’t rediscover his old magic. Jonas “the Monster” Gustavsson was monstrously bad. James Reimer suffered head injuries. In four years, Burke never quite found the right man to play the game’s most important position.
Roberto Luongo: Burke saw the enigmatic star from St. Leonard, Que. as a potential solution to the Leafs’ goalie grief, but the time to get him was last summer. Luongo is in the third year of a 12-year contract, which was designed to get around the league’s old salary cap system. Now under complex provisions of the new CBA, the Leafs would take a serious cap hit if they traded for Luongo and he failed to play out the entire contract. He’ll be 43 when it expires.
Ron Wilson: Loyalty’s a virtue, but Burke left his former college roommate in place long after it became clear Wilson wouldn’t succeed. So long, in fact, that the fans were chanting “Fire Wilson!” as the Leafs floundered last season—a humiliation Burke then used as cover to let the coach go, saying keeping him in place would “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The credit side of Burke’s ledger is not empty, of course. Kessel may yet have his day, and James Van Riemsdyk, a rangy, talented winger acquired from Philadelphia, seems good return for Luke Schenn, the player Burke dealt to get him. Nazim Kadri, one of the Leafs’ top prospects, is excelling this season in the American Hockey League.
Burke was also a fine ambassador for the team in the city, donating time and money generously and standing tall for the causes in which he believes.
But good will doesn’t show in the NHL standings, and Anselmi has acknowledged that this move was months in the planning, that a change in leadership and direction was in order. If that’s true, it seems odd they’d opt for Nonis, who has a history with the current GM in Vancouver and Toronto, and who had a hand in running the team during its last four dismal seasons.
But Nonis is different. More withheld. More corporate. And not named Brian Burke. Until the Leafs go on their first losing streak, those are all things that will work in his favour.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.