It may be a few days before we learn what eventually drove Brian Burke out of the trust of the corporate Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. It may be months, or years. All there is left to discuss until the NHL season begins next Saturday is the moves Burke made or did not make that would have saved his job. Burke had many faults as a general manager, but he did care, he took his work seriously, and he wanted to build the Leafs into a winner.
He was a good person, active in the community, and unlike the way Pierre Gauthier, or possibly even Darryl Sutter, left their jobs in Montreal and Calgary, Burke never made a last-ditch, future-killing move to save his job. That very well could have been a deal for Roberto Luongo. It may be days, it may be months before we find out what it was.
However, if Brian Burke was fired because corporate ownership disagreed with him over a hockey decision—purportedly the Roberto Luongo trade—as theorized by Mark Spector, then that’s wrong. MLSE hires the hockey staff to make hockey decisions, the sales staff to sell tickets, and the kitchen staff to make overpriced sandwiches at Real Sports.
Where I think Leaf fans have room to gripe about the firing of Burke and the subsequent hiring of Dave Nonis is how little decision-making appeared to be involved. It hasn’t been reported yet how long Nonis’ deal with the Leafs will be, but it has the markings of a hasty hiring made before Burke could make one of the bigger and tougher decisions the team faces in recent years. From the Globe:
Rumours of his eventual departure had been swirling for months. However, the timing – just four days before training camps are set to open – left observers puzzled. Though Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had begun formulating a list of names to replace Mr. Burke, rushing Mr. Nonis into the job on Wednesday was clearly not part of the succession plan.
It’s unclear from that story whether MLSE began actively considering that list of names. The latter half of the graf has me leaning towards “they did, but not really.” The way that story has been written, full of anonymous sources from inside the organization, it sounds like MLSE fired Brian Burke the person and not Brian Burke the hockey general manager. That was the on-record reason MLSE’s Tom Anselmi gave for the firing, anyway.
What makes it more baffling: the losing seems to be acceptable. Nobody else from that large boardroom was considered disruptive enough to successful hockey organization that they saw the door as well. The decision was made sometime between August and today, after the sale of MLSE to corporate conglomerates Bell and Rogers was made official. They conducted their review and they found the leader of the hockey operations department to not be what they wanted. Great, that’s fairly standard procedure. Naturally, MLSE’s next course of action was to search for replacement candidates.
The firing was fairly sudden, and the internal structure Burke helped build is still the foundation of the current Leafs. There was no search for a candidate outside the organization, otherwise we would have known something about MLSE’s search as the NHL’s inter-connected web of reporters occasionally deliver friendly bits of information for a key scoop or two.
Identifying the problem as Burke and the solution as Nonis is simplistic. It may very well be that he is the man of the job, but the speed at which the decision took place seems to give credence to Spector’s belief that there was disagreement with the majority of management over whether to trade for Roberto Luongo. We could find out in the coming days. The feeling in Vancouver today is that, yes, Burke being out will pave the way for an easier deal.
If this is a decision where the new ownership is not confident in Burke’s ability to make one more hockey decision with the team, then it’s only fair that they hire a member of Burke’s staff to ease the transition, pass on Luongo, and publicly search through outside candidates to find the best man for the job. Jonathan Willis spent a lot of time digging through potential candidates for an NHL job, certainly a lot of other assistants are qualified, from Laurence Gilman to Jim Nill to Julien Brisebois.
(Clarification – It is fair to note that John Shannon did say this on the broadcast, that Nonis was acting more of an interim guy. However these words do not appear in a column just yet, and, as far as I can tell, just one more conflicting piece of information from an insider)
Without the specifics in rushed the rumours. Safe to say that Burke has a reckless streak for which there is little doubt his new corporate masters at BCE and Rogers Communications Inc. had little tolerance.
There were the public feuds with Don Cherry and other media members. Privately there are emails out there filled with language and subject matter that simply shouldn’t be put on company letterhead in a digital age.
The conversation just lends itself to pure speculation. A website made very detailed proclamations about Burke’s personal life and other MLSE employees, which was sure to lead to his firing. It never did, but since Burke was fired with very little in-house information, after the fact, it is just as good of an answer as any.
Then there’s local straw man Steve Simmons, who assured us Wednesday night that “One source told me in June that Burke would not manage one more game with the Leafs. That source proved to be correct” without providing any information as to why. While the information makes Simmons appear to be a hardcore insider, he did write back in June that Burke “isn’t about to be fired, much as a case could be made for doing so.”
A lack of public information is going to have the fans looking for answer. Occam’s Razor though, sometimes the simplest explanation turns out to be the correct one:
@mlse No–but I’d guess that’s because they know they don’t really understand baseball. Every Canadian thinks they’re a hockey expert.
— Stephen Johns (@snjohns) January 10, 2013
The MLSE board making the decision may not know what a good general manager is, but, tear it, they know a bad one when they see one. It’s just how two of Canada’s largest companies are going to run their new billion-dollar toy.