TORONTO – Brian Burke never saw it coming.
Driving to the airport on Wednesday morning, his thoughts centred around the end of the NHL lockout and what he might be able to do to bolster the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup ahead of a shortened season. Then his dream job was taken away with one phone call and a quick meeting with boss Tom Anselmi.
“There’s sometimes when you get fired and you see the vultures circling and you understand it’s coming,” Burke said Saturday at a farewell press conference. “You’re not sure when you’re going to drop dead in the desert, but it’s coming and you can see the vultures.
“This one here was like a two-by-four upside the head to me.”
Three days later, Burke was gracious in describing his exit as president and general manager of the Maple Leafs, showing few signs of bitterness while fielding some tough questions from reporters.
However, he acknowledged that reality had yet to truly set in. That won’t come until the colourful 57-year-old has more time to think back on a roller-coaster four-year tenure that included just as many playoff games at Air Canada Centre—none—as had been played during the four years prior to his hiring.
“We didn’t win,” said Burke. “Obviously, your job as the GM is to bring in players that win. We didn’t win.”
Beyond that, it still isn’t clear why the decision to replace Burke with Dave Nonis was made just 10 days before the new season. Burke himself said he hadn’t received a “satisfactory” answer to that obvious question.
Rumours have swirled since the firing that Burke failed to impress the team’s new ownership group, which sees Bell and Rogers control four of six seats with the organization’s board of governors. Burke came exactly as advertised when he was hired by the Leafs back in November 2008—brash, confident, passionate and occasionally confrontational.
One of the first lessons he learned on the job was not to wear his expensive cuff-links on game nights. More than a few pairs met an untimely ending when he responded to a boneheaded play on the ice by smashing his fists against a table in the press box.
That image may not have fit in well with a board that got more corporate and buttoned-down with the addition of Bell and Rogers executives in August.
“I can stand here and say it’s my personality, they didn’t like my personality, but those all become pretexts and excuses later,” said Burke. “If you’ve won enough games, you can be as obnoxious if you want to be.”
The Leafs were a combined 128-135-42 during his reign and finished a disappointing 13th in the Eastern Conference last season. Despite it being a constant talking point around the team, his biggest failings were an inability to stabilize the goaltending situation or acquire a true No. 1 centre.
Toronto last qualified for the playoffs in 2004—the longest current drought in the entire league.
Burke will remain with the Leafs in the role of senior adviser to the board for the time being. But he made it clear he wasn’t comfortable simply riding out the final 22 months of his contract and that he would relish the opportunity to run another NHL team.
“Tomorrow, if I can,” said Burke. “I don’t think I’m done from a hockey perspective. I am definitely in the job market, no question.”
If a GM’s job doesn’t materialize, he would likely be a good candidate to end up with a role in the league office.
Despite the fact the Leafs failed to qualify for the playoffs with Burke at the helm, there have been some encouraging signs that better days might be ahead for the organization. The Toronto Marlies are fresh off an appearance in the Calder Cup final and currently have the best record in the American Hockey League’s Western Conference.
Burke also expressed pride in being able to use his position to help out with so many charitable initiatives—something that saw him honoured Saturday evening for his support of Canadian troops.
But his dream of winning another Stanley Cup never came close to materializing in Toronto.
“I did not accomplish what I set out to accomplish here,” said Burke. “That’s clear. Absolutely clear.”
On the day he said goodbye to the Maple Leafs—at least as the team’s public face—he had no interest in looking back on what might have been. The team has lived by the motto “no excuses, no complaints” and Burke made it clear he didn’t have any of either.
Truth be told, he probably wouldn’t change a thing.
“The people that hired me hired Brian Burke,” he said. “Maybe the new guys don’t like that brand, maybe they want someone who is a little more conventional. They’re entitled to that, that’s fine.
“I’m not changing. I’m not going to change how I do things, that’s not possible.”