Brian Burke, Leafs fans deserve better
January, 9, 2013
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com
In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the Toronto Maple Leafs and the horde of suits that now own the game’s most lucrative hockey team thought Brian Burke was a good GM or not.
It’s their team, this Brooks Brothers Brigade that assumed ownership of the team last summer in a mega-merger of communications giants Rogers Communications and Bell Canada, so they can have the Leafs all dressed up in Blue Man Group get-up and dance the cha-cha before every home game if they want.
But what remains mystifying about the decision announced Wednesday to fire Brian Burke and replace him with his former right-hand man and longtime pal Dave Nonis is: Why now?
What management course taught the well-heeled, highly-paid ownership group at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) that rearranging the upper management of a team, oh, about an hour before the start of a lockout-truncated NHL season is a good idea?
If you listened to executive vice president and COO Tom Anselmi, the man tasked with carrying the corporate water on this one, we still don’t know.
Anselmi pinballed around things like the “complex” relationship between owners and general managers, meanwhile insisting this had nothing to do with Burke’s personal life or feuds with the media.
In fact, Anselmi said that Burke was being kept on as some sort of adviser because of his great expertise.
In short, this all appears to be suit-speak for "we got tired of Burke, end of story."
But the fact that it took from the time the ownership group took over in August to four days before the start of a post-lockout training camp illustrates in many ways why MLSE has such a track record of making money but apparently knows nothing about putting a winning organization on the ice -- or in the case of their soccer team the turf and their NBA team the hardwood.
So, what were these guys doing during the lockout?
Did it suddenly dawn on them that, gee, we stink down the middle and it doesn’t look like we have anyone to play goal?
Did someone finally turn on the TSN feed in their corporate dungeons (they own TSN by the way) and realize that games are set to begin on Jan. 19 and somebody better send out a memo?
Disgraceful. Too many suits and not enough hockey sense.
Apart from the shock value of this move -- Nonis has worked with Burke most of his adult life and the two were at an AHL game watching the Leafs’ top farm team Tuesday night -- there is the absolute lack of hockey logic in what the Leafs hope to accomplish moving forward.
Did Brian Burke do what he’d been hired to do in Toronto, which was to revive a franchise that had lost its way since Pat Quinn was ousted in 2007?
No. The team continued to languish even though Burke arrived not long after building a Stanley Cup winner in Anaheim. The Leafs are the only NHL team that has failed to make the playoffs every season since the last lockout. Much of that falls on Burke.
They have struggled to attract top free agents and failed to improve in the critical areas of the game, including goaltending and special teams.
And yet ownership turns to Nonis to do what Burke could not when Nonis and Burke have been part and parcel of the same dynamic.
It’s not that we think Nonis and the rest of the management staff, including assistant GM Claude Loiselle, Dave Poulin and Hall of Famer Cliff Fletcher, aren’t smart hockey people. They are.
But if Burke needed to go because his direction was wrong or his philosophies were flawed, why turn the keys to the temple of hockey on Bay Street over to Burke's guys?
Frankly, Nonis seemed a bit mystified by the whole thing at Wednesday afternoon’s press conference in Toronto.
He suggested he might be “a little more patient on how I approach things,” but in terms of how the team is expected to play and the expectations he’ll have, the two are “very similar.”
“We have some work to do,” Nonis said.
“We have some good building blocks. We have some good players. Some of those building blocks aren’t ready to play here yet.”
Had this move been made in August or September when the lockout started, at least ownership could have sold this as some sort of big-picture plan.
Instead, it happens on the day that the NHL’s Board of Governors was meeting to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement, with the Leafs likely looking to open the season in Montreal on Jan. 19. This smacks of the kind of disconnect that has long existed between ownership and Toronto's on-ice product.
Look at the teams that have had success in recent years and you’ll see teams not just with strong ownership but ownership that has assembled top hockey people and let them do their job. Owners of successful teams may not all be hockey people, but they understand at some elemental level what it means to build a winner.
Los Angeles, under the Anschutz family, was patient with GM Dean Lombardi and they won a Cup last June. The Ilitch family in Detroit, Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, Rocky Wirtz in Chicago, the much-loathed Jeremy Jacobs in Boston and Ed Snider in Philadelphia all have charted their own course decisively.
No one, not one single person, ever says that about ownership in Toronto.
The Leafs weren’t going to win the Cup this year, whether it was Brian Burke or Dave Nonis or the late great Sam Pollock himself sitting in that GM chair.
But somehow it’s hard not to believe that a Leafs fan base whose last Stanley Cup celebration was in 1967, not to mention Burke and Nonis et al, deserved a little better than what they got Wednesday.
But that’s been pretty much a team slogan for the better part of a decade, no matter which group of suits has been calling the shots.