Brian Burke firing was personal | Hockey | CBC Sports

NHLBrian Burke firing was personal

Posted: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 | 09:13 PM

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The firing of Brian Burke caught more than a few in the hockey world by surprise. (Chris Young/Canadian Press) The firing of Brian Burke caught more than a few in the hockey world by surprise. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

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Whether on-ice or the boardroom, someone important withing MLSE didn't want Brian Burke around anymore.
NEW YORK - So, here's a question: how many times do you see a GM on a run of regular-season disappointment get fired -- but the rest of his staff survive untouched?

It doesn't happen. You get an interim replacement or a complete Mr. Clean-style changeover. And that's the proof that whatever happened with Brian Burke was personal. Whether on-ice or the boardroom, someone important didn't want him around.

There is no question Burke was in trouble. While Burke has supporters for the work he's done with the team's prospect base, another season without a playoff performance probably meant the end. But this move was a total stunner, coming hours before the NHL ratified its new CBA with the players.

Other governors were shocked. The NHL's meeting was loaded with people who make the kinds of decisions Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment did Wednesday morning.

"You never do it on a lark," one said.

"These kinds of moves are planned out well in advance," said another. "Unless something big happens that forces you to do it immediately."

"Something must have happened," said a third, the overwhelming sentiment of the day.

One year ago, media covering the team heard Dave Nonis (the new boss) was running the day-to-day operations, while Burke worried more about business aspects and the big picture.

I asked Burke if he would become more of a CEO or COO while Nonis became the GM. He smiled.

"Won't happen," he said, not surprised to hear the question. But he has another saying: "I work for the owners as long as they want me."

New bosses, new answer.

Timing right out of Bizarro World

If MLSE planned this out well in advance, the timing makes absolutely zero sense. It is right out of Bizarro World for Burke to be a part of CBA negotiations if this is what the organization wanted to do.

What could have happened? Burke and his staff attended Tuesday night's AHL game between their Toronto Marlies and the Hamilton Bulldogs. After the game, his travel plans to New York City were intact.

He never made the flight.

There are a ton of rumours that the new Rogers/Bell ownership did not like his "management style." The unfortunate thing for Burke is rumours like that one only create more rumours. Whatever the case, there's no way it's unanimous.

Larry Tanenbaum, the team's chairman, doesn't like talking to the media. But he's classy about it, often answering reporters' queries with a polite refusal to say anything. It's the nicest "no-comment" on the planet.

I've never seen him try to avoid talking like he did on Wednesday, at one point pulling the old "fake-I'm-on-the-phone" bit so he didn't have to stop. When he did speak briefly before the board meeting, he looked more uncomfortable than ever.

"This was the decision of the [MLSE] board," he said quietly. "And I'm on the board." But his heart wasn't in it with his friend fired hours earlier. Nonis looked ashen at the official media conference.

"The relationship between a general manager and ownership is a very complex, different relationship, and it has to work long-term," said Tom Anselmi, MLSE's Chief Operating Officer. "If you decide it's not going to work long-term, you're best to deal with it and deal with expeditiously."

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. Raptors boss Bryan Colangelo survived a horrendous start, with angry hounds baying at the moon.

Next week, we'll find out if it really was Roberto Luongo. (Good thing he's got a great sense of humour, he's getting blamed for everything from new CBA rules to executive firings).

Burke had a clause in his contract that gave him final authority on hockey decisions. (Not unusual in either MLSE or the NHL). You could debate him, but he had the hammer.

While the Maple Leafs' interest in Luongo is about as secret as Kim Kardashian's love for attention, it's believed the hockey boss cooled on the idea. Maybe it was posturing. Maybe he didn't like the price (not both Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, that's crazy talk).

Maybe he didn't like that Luongo's long-time guru is the recently replaced Francois Allaire. But, there was certainly a feeling in New York that the Maple Leafs will be much more interested now that Nonis (who brought him to Vancouver) is in charge.

Burke's future

Of course, the price might just have gone up...especially since Philadelphia is reportedly in the picture, joining the Maple Leafs and the wildcards from Chicago, Florida and Edmonton.

Where does Burke resurface? Former coach Ron Wilson -- who also had time remaining on his contract -- remains in the Witness Protection Program. Burke is a television natural but this may come with a muzzle.

Don't be surprised if he wants to rejoin the league office. The oddest thing about Burke's Toronto tenure is that he always seemed to be arguing against positions (back-diving contracts, offer sheets, etc.) that seemed to align with the advantages of a financial powerhouse.

He was a "hawk" during CBA negotiations, helping draw up a plan that would penalize teams benefitting from back-diving deals. Maybe he saw this coming and was planning an exit strategy.

This is one where we're going to know more in a week than we do now.

Bettman apologizes

Initially, I thought the NHL would be furious at the timing of the Burke presser, but after watching commissioner Gary Bettman's media conference, I'm not so certain.

It's clear the league's strategy is that it is time to move on. Board chairman Jeremy Jacobs said the game was gone "far too long, and for that we are sorry." Meanwhile Bettman said, "I owe you an apology," to the players, sponsors and fans.

What was more interesting is what Bettman wouldn't answer - specific comments regarding the negotiations or any regrets about them. Same for three general managers who met with the media beforehand -- George McPhee, David Poile and Steve Yzerman -- only hockey questions, no CBA thank you.

It's a smart strategy. "Focus on the future and not the past," is a good message to send when your past wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs. But, it's not going to work -- yet.

The puck doesn't drop for another week-and-a-half, so fans still have plenty of time to stew. If my twitter feed is any indication, today's apologies weren't enough. The Burke news and other moves may occupy their attention, but, as a group, fans are keenly interested in what's in it for them.

It's not a bad thing that Bettman also ducked that question, as long as he, the teams and the players are working towards an excellent answer.

And the longer fans go without knowing what that answer is, the better they expect it to be.

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