Friday, January 11, 2013

Maple Leafs Fire Brian Burke: What Happened, Why Did They Do It, and What Now

This photo is property of somebody-and-I'm-too-lazy-to-give-credit
Alright, I'm sure everyone has taken their deep breaths and are now coming back to earth following Wednesday's shocking news. In a move that floored the hockey world, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired President and General Manager Brian Burke, replacing him with assistant G.M. Dave Nonis. While many analysts agree that the move itself isn't entirely shocking -- considering the Leafs failed to make the playoffs in the four years Burke managed the club -- but the timing of it is what threw everyone off guard. With the lockout ending just a few days prior to the firing, fans were more focused on whether or not the team would acquire Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, and if this squad could find a way to grab a playoff spot in the upcoming 48-game season.

 Then, just before 11:30 A.M. on Wednesday, this happened...

I was literally speechless. No exaggeration, I was shaking and couldn't speak. I had just finished my lunch at Subway and came close to throwing up the foot-long cold cut combo. As I stated in the paragraph above, it wasn't the actual letting-go of Burke that made me come close to ruining my new hoodie, but that it was just days until training camps opened. Twitter blew up and fans across Leafs Nation (do we really have to call it that?) were asking each other what the hell was going on. Rumours started swirling about whether the move was based on the performance of the team, the lack of a Luongo deal, or if the new owners -- Rogers & Bell -- didn't want Burke holding the keys to the Caddie.

A few hours after the Mckenzie tweet, the Leafs held a press conference announcing that Nonis was going to take over the managing duties. While watching, it was apparent how emotional Nonis was with the decision, considering how he and Burke have worked together for many years, growing a friendship along the way. President and COO of MLSE Tom Anselmi sat beside Nonis, his dead eyes reminiscent of Johnny Sack from The Sopranos, giving the same four or five answers: "Ownership wants to win" "We were looking for a different voice to lead" "I eat the souls of young children to pay off the deal with the teachers union". He tried to keep things light, throwing in the odd joke here and there, and tried to put a positive spin on everything asked by the media. After minutes of cruddy questions from reporters, Bruce Arthur of the National Post finally asked something with some substance: "If it wasn't about the direction of the team, and it isn't about what Brian had accomplished or not accomplished, what was it that new ownership didn't like about Brian Burke's leadership style, and how he carried himself in and out of the organization?" It was the type of question that all my professors in college want us to ask, and I was relieved that he did it. Anselmi's response: "I don't want to get into specifics...*ramble ramble ramble* relationships between ownership and management *ramble ramble ramble*" It was the type of response that would have made Mitt Romney's campaign team proud.

(Side-note: Was it Damien Cox's chromed dome that was distracting me throughout the entire presser? It left me questioning whether the Leafs future or his head looked brighter)

The presser ended, and I was still left reeling from the move. It never donned on me that ownership would actually pull the trigger and relieve Burke of his duties. But as more and more information leaked out, it was apparent that the decision to fire the 57-year-old was made well in advance. Many in the twitterverse and hockey circles believed that the board of trustees hated Burke and his brash approach, and wanted to rid him once the opportunity came. And, to top it all off, that whole "not making the playoffs in four years" thing didn't help his case.

But again, the timing: why make this decision now? Why let Burke fire his head coach Ron Wilson, them replace him with Randy Carlyle (the man Burke won a Stanley Cup with in Anaheim in 2007)? Why let him draft the players he scouted and studied, as well as let him go out and sign Jay McClement in free agency? Why allow him to trade Luke Schenn, who was once considered the future of the team, for James van Riemsdyk? If the team were to fire Burke at the end of last season, I would have been much more understanding of the decision. While I was a Burke supporter, even I could acknowledge the fact that missing the playoffs four straight years and failing to deliver on many of his promises was unacceptable. Despite all that, I felt like giving him the chance to try and make the playoffs this season, especially considering there are only 48 games, and the chances of making the post-season are increased if you can string together a couple of winning streaks, was the right thing to do. What was the harm in it? If you miss the playoffs: fire him. If you make it, then reevaluate your franchise and go from there.

Brian Burke watching Mike Komisarek skate backwards, probably
Clearly, ownership had other ideas. Firing Brian Burke was what MLSE wanted, and firing Brian Burke is what MLSE did. There was no "aw c'mon, give him a shot"; that ship sailed when the finalization of the sale to Rogers & Bell was made. Larry Tanenbaum and the teachers union gave Burke every opportunity to turn things around and improve the club. But for new ownership, there are no scraps in their scrapbook.

To be honest, I'm gonna miss Burke. It may have bit more than a few people the wrong way, but his attitude and demeanor towards the game and everything else was something I admired. He had his morals and principals, and didn't give a rat's ass if you didn't like it. And while it may have been that same moral code that aided to his firing (refusal to sign offer sheets, front-loaded contracts, finding loopholes in the CBA), I had to give him credit. His feuds with the media were something to behold. His soundbytes from press conferences were some of the most entertaining things to happen to this city since Darcy Tucker fought an entire bench. His loyalty to his players and coaches were the kind of things that people should strive for in their own lives. Not to mention, him dealing with the loss of his son Brendan in early 2010, and the work he had done with LGBT organizations to help pave the way for homosexual rights and acceptance in the sports world was tremendous.

But when the average person in Toronto hears the name "Brian Burke", the first thing that will come to their head will be, "He never got the job done". Is he a bust? You could make the argument either way. Moves like trading for Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, and the signing of players like Mike Komisarek and Tim Connolly, will be the lasting impact of the former Stanley Cup winning general manager.

Yet, frankly, his legacy isn't sealed quite yet. Considering he drafted Nazem Kadri, Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy, Morgan Rielly, and several other prospects in the organization, what exactly Burke did to make this team better is yet to be seen. In fact, Nonis may have said it best:

"Four or five years from now, I think people will say a lot of the things Brian Burke did were very, very positive and helped this team become successful."

Only time will tell.

1 comment :

  1. Great read, this indeed caught my father and brother by surprise as well. They themselves are huge Leaf's fans, unlike me, but I had been following his work with the LGBT organizations and I surely knew his name. Hopefully time will allow for his achievements to be recognized