About the only thing that came out of Tuesday’s press conference on Brian Burke’s firing was the consistent reference to style.
“It was more about leadership style and fit, without getting into specifics,” said MLSE Chief Operating Officer Tom Anselmi.
“Did the four years of missing the playoffs factor into the conversation with the shareholders? For sure it did. At the end of the day we were really looking to a different voice, a different leadership approach.”
Clearly, Brian Burke had style. He has been shifted from president and general manager to consultant because someone, probably lots of people, didn’t like his brand of it.
In the days to come there will be plenty of references to the buttoned-down management vibe that is the hallmark of the new owners, Bell and Rogers. Burke was not buttoned down. He was button undone, tie barely knotted, profane, often outrageous and above all, stubbornly, even blindly loyal not just to others but to his own view of himself and the world he lived and worked in.
Loyalty, misplaced, admirable and everything in between was the hill he chose to die on.
Burke extended Ron Wilson’s contract despite his inability to produce a playoff team. He knew there was no winning with the thin talent Wilson had when he took over in 2008. Burke kept him even though Wilson eschewed the kind of tough tactics that Burke so publicly coveted. Burke only fired him after boobirds made his tenure impossible.
He insisted consultant Francois Allaire was the best goalie coach on the planet even while members of his coaching staff mutinied over Allaire’s handling of the goaltenders. Only after Allaire criticized the team on the way out the door did Burke publicly scald him.
Burke has stuck with his free agent choice, Mike Komisarek, despite three desultory seasons. He called a press conference to lament having to send down pugilist Colton Orr.
Burke feuded with members of the media. He famously traveled to Afghanistan on the opening day of free agency, a move that many said spoke to his diffused view of his duties.
He championed gay rights, slept on the street for a night to raise awareness of homelessness and espoused a love of fighting that was out of step with dawning recognition of concussions.
Shakespeare wrote of giant figures undone by misguided loyalty and he would have delighted in inventing Brian Burke. Dave Nonis, by comparison, would have been written in by the Bard as a minor character.
Style will be the only real change wrought at Air Canada Centre. In saying he wants to make the team tougher to pay against, Nonis lifted one of Burke’s frequently-stated ambitions.
“To turn around and gut the franchise would be the wrong way and it’s something I don’t think anyone is interested in doing,” said Nonis.
Nonis said he is delighted to work with coach Randy Carlyle, a man Nonis himself hired in 1996 to coach the Canucks farm team in Winnipeg. No one will overlook the fact that Nonis traded for Luongo when he was running the Canucks in 2006.
Burke leaves an unfinished body of work in Toronto. His acquisition of Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner were the high-water marks of his tenure. There is no question the Leafs farm system is far more robust than it was when he arrived. He mentored a host of young leaders including well-regarded Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.
Nonis was on his third go-round with Burke and looked like a man tapped at the last minute to speak at his father’s funeral. The two had been at the Marlies game in Hamilton Tuesday night. Neither man had inkling of what was coming when they walked into the ACC, Wednesday morning.
Beyond the hazy catch-all of style, not much more is known on why Dave Nonis now rules as the club’s 14th GM. Anselmi insisted that the move wasn’t predicated by on any element of Burke’s private life or by the lively debate that will surely envelop the decision to shun or acquire Roberto Luongo.
It comes down to this: someone didn’t like Brian Burke and he gave everyone plenty of reasons. That is the great overriding truth of his jarring and sudden firing.
The Leafs 13th general manager was honest, uncensored and riddled with contradicting principles. He was a great guy to watch but not, apparently, the right guy to work for you.