There were lots of questions about Brian Burke's reign as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs: Why did he give up so much for Phil Kessel? Why was he unable to find a No. 1 centerman or No. 1 goaltender? Why did he talk about truculence but build a roster that couldn't back it up? Why were his personal principles stricter than NHL rules? Why did he wait so long to replace Ron Wilson with Randy Carlyle? Why did the Leafs fail to make the playoffs four years in a row?
But there is really only one question about his firing: Why now?
"This is a shock for a lot of people," said David Nonis, Burke's right-hand man and replacement.
Tuesday night, Burke and Nonis were together watching the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs' American Hockey League team. Wednesday morning, Burke was supposed to fly to New York for the NHL’s board of governors meeting. The owners were to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players' Association.
After a long off-season and a longer lockout, the league is about to open for business with a flurry of transactions and a quick training camp before an abbreviated 48-game season.
And yet, at this critical point, the board of directors of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment decided now was the time to disrupt the organization's top hockey position. Nonis moved up to GM; Burke was put out to pasture as a senior advisor.
"Did you see this coming, Mr. Nonis?" the Leafs’ new GM was asked in a press conference.
Nonis looked shocked Wednesday afternoon, his tie loose and askew, a little like Burke's always was.
"I guess the news is coming as a shock, but I don't think the decision has happened overnight," said Tom Anselmi, the executive vice-president and chief operating officer of MLSE. "I think it is a conversation that the board and myself have been having for several months that ultimately came to a decision recently."
Wait. The board and Anselmi had been discussing this for several months, and they couldn't come to a decision until recently?
Burke deserves plenty of criticism. He wanted to rebuild on the fly, but he never seemed to find the right balance between the present and future. He made good moves and bad moves, leaving the Leafs with a better foundation, but not enough high-end talent to suggest a dramatic improvement is imminent.
Toronto, the Centre of the Hockey Universe, has not won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and has not qualified for the postseason since 2004. The Leafs have the longest championship and playoff droughts in the NHL.
But the Leafs' last game was April 7. MLSE could have fired Burke in April or May or June or July or August. MLSE could have given Nonis – or someone else – time to prepare for the coming season and put him in a better position to succeed. Did something change in October or November or December when there was no hockey being played and there were no moves being made?
Anselmi said this had nothing to do with Burke's personal life. He said this had nothing to do with a potential trade for Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, even though Nonis once replaced Burke as the Canucks GM and acquired … Roberto Luongo. He said it was "more about leadership style and fit," that MLSE was "really looking for a different voice."
OK. Nonis is a more patient, toned-down version of the brusque, blunt Burke. He worked with Burke for years in different spots, and he has known Carlyle longer than Burke has. He hired Carlyle to coach the AHL's Manitoba Moose before they all won a Cup together with the Anaheim Ducks. He was handling a lot of the Leafs' hockey operations already. The front office is still packed with veterans like Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin.
"Obviously the team of people [Burke] put in place made the succession easy and seamless despite having to deal with the change, the disruption, at this time," Anselmi said.
The philosophy and approach will stay the same.
"With this decision really, I think Dave and his staff are looking at continuing a process here that's been underway," Anselmi said. "Really the leadership change that we talked about is more about a tone and a voice of leadership than it is about changing gears and going in a different direction technically."
"That's right," Nonis said. "We need to continue building the team. It's not starting from scratch."
But that still doesn't answer the question. What didn't MLSE like about Burke's leadership style? Why now? Anselmi declined to give specifics, even though, you know, those specifics were supposedly the reason for firing him.
"The relationship between a GM and owners is a complex, multifaceted, unique kind of relationship," Anselmi said. "It's not like a suit and his bosses. It's not like a typical employer-employee kind of relationship. It's a very symbiotic kind of relationship. And I mean, Brian, when we were talking this morning, one of the first things he said is, 'You know, I get it. Ownership's changing. Sometimes that relationship changes.' "
I would get it if this happened a while ago. I don't get it now. Ownership's changing? Telecommunications giants Bell and Rogers announced they were buying a 75-percent stake of MLSE in December 2011, and the deal closed in August 2012. It's not like the deal didn't close until Wednesday morning, and it's not like Burke is a hard guy to figure out. He's as out-front and in-your-face as they come.
Maybe there's some just cause that isn’t public. If so, fine. Maybe Burke rubbed the wrong guy the wrong way at the wrong time. If so, it's ownership's right to fire him.
But if Burke was reluctant to trade for Luongo because the cost was too high and MLSE wanted him to make the deal so the Leafs would have a better shot at the playoffs this season, then that would confirm fears about the Leafs' ownership structure harbored since the days of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan – that the investors cared more about short-term profit and loss than the long-term plan to build a champion.
And even if that's not true, this still confirms fears about the Leafs' ownership structure – that it is a board of corporate types that doesn't function like a singular owner would. Several months of conversations? A complex, multifaceted relationship? Not like a suit and his bosses? Sounds like politics are too much a part of the process.
"Our ownership wants to win," Anselmi said. "That's what they want to do. They want to reward our fans. That is our singular focus here. It's all about winning."
Sure. But same, old question: Does MLSE know how to do it?
This is the second straight time the Leafs have changed GMs after changing coaches. They hired Burke after hiring his buddy Wilson. Now they're hiring Nonis after hiring Carlyle late last season. This is another corporate ownership group giving another example of how to do hockey business backward.
Perhaps we shouldn't be so shocked.