We’re not talking about “pugnacity,” a word often used by Burke about the style of play the 57-year-old envisioned for his National Hockey League team during his four years in charge.
If it wasn’t the Maple Leafs’ poor performance under Burke’s watch — four missed playoffs — or upper management’s disappointment in the lack of talent assembled, what was the driving force behind his release 10 days before the start of a lockout-shortened season?
Was the Leafs’ ownership team of Bell Canada and Rogers Communications simply tired of Burke’s personality, which some would describe as gruff, confrontational and obnoxious?
“I think that was part of it,” Tom Anselmi, president and COO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, told CBC’s Metro Morning on Thursday when asked if Burke’s personality played a part in his dismissal. “I talked about leadership and a lot of different things.
“The leadership and relationship between the general manager and ownership is a really unique type of relationship. Style, personality, ways of doing things all factor [in the decision].”
On Wednesday, Anselmi introduced former Leafs assistant GM Dave Nonis as the 14th GM in franchise history. The men who preceded him include Conn Smythe (1927-57), Clarence "Hap" Day (1955-57), Howie Meeker (although he was fired before the 1957-58 season began), Punch Imlach (1958-69/1979-81), Jim Gregory (1969-79), Gerry McNamara (1981-88), Gord Stellick (1988-89), Floyd Smith (1989-91), Cliff Fletcher (1991-97), Ken Dryden (1997-99), Pat Quinn (1999-2003) and John Ferguson, Jr. (2003-08).
As Burke reiterated on April 10, 2012: "I'm not interested in making the playoffs unless it's part of [winning] a championship.” The Leafs didn’t accomplish either goal under Burke, whose 128 wins as GM rank seventh in team history.
Anselmi added there was no one part of Burke’s approach to managing that led to his departure two years before his contract was to expire.
He said the Leafs’ board of directors began their evaluation of the organization when they met last August once Bell and Rogers closed their $1.07-billion acquisition of MLSE and its sports television channels.
When Anselmi was asked further about Burke’s personality and how it might not sit well with new ownership, he said Leafs executives were aware of Burke the person when he joined the team on Nov. 28, 2008.
“One of Brian’s great strengths is his honesty, he’s candid, his ability to cut to the chase. It’s not that,” said Anselmi, who confirmed Wednesday that Burke would remain with the Leafs as a senior adviser. “Really, it was the sum total of evaluating everything, both on the ice and off the ice, that led us to the conclusion that a different style of leadership and different direction was going to be required long-term.”
Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman wrote in his blog at CBCSports.ca that while Burke has supporters for the work he's done with the Maple Leafs’ prospect base, another season without a playoff performance probably meant the end for him in Toronto.
“There must be a catalyst, a final straw that doomed the marriage - calling for a divorce at the weirdest possible time. Losing can't be the only reason,” Friedman wrote. “[Toronto] Raptors boss Bryan Colangelo survived a horrendous start [this season with a 4-19 mark], with angry hounds baying at the moon.”
Anselmi told Metro Morning that the Maple Leafs and Raptors are “two completely different situations,” despite the fact they operate under the same ownership and corporate structure.
“You’ve got two teams that are in different points in their development cycle. You’ve got two different people, different skill sets,” said Anselmi, referring to Colangelo and Burke. “Bryan [Colangelo] is in the final year of his contract, so obviously we’re going to have to make a decision about the Raptors between now and the end of the year.”
The timing of Burke’s firing was the confusing part, according to CBCSports.ca senior hockey writer Tim Wharnsby.
“It came on the same day the NHL board of governors approved the new collective agreement between the owners and players, 10 days before the lockout-shortened season was to begin,” he wrote. “Burke was supposed to be at that meeting in New York City.”
Wharnsby pointed out the decision by Leafs ownership to relieve Burke of his GM duties was not, as some speculated, a difference in opinion in whether the club should make a serious pitch for Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo.
The task of helping Toronto reach the goal of gaining a playoff berth for the first time in eight seasons and competing for a Stanley Cup title now falls under Nonis, who compiled a 130-91-25 record during his four seasons as Canucks GM several years ago.