TORONTO – Brian Burke’s colourful tenure as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs was never short on drama.
So it only seemed fitting his departure from the team would shock the entire hockey world.
The Leafs dropped the bombshell Wednesday, announcing they had relieved the fiery Burke of his duties as president and general manager and replaced him with his right-hand man, Dave Nonis.
While the Leafs had never reached the playoffs during Burke’s four seasons at the helm, the timing of the move was surprising given it comes just days before the start of the lockout-shortened season.
But Tom Anselmi, the president of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, said the decision had been talked about for months following an extensive review of the hockey club by Anselmi and the new ownership group. MLSE was officially taken over by Rogers and BCE in August.
“The news is coming as a shock but I don’t think the decision has happened overnight,” Anselmi told a packed, hastily assembled news conference at the Air Canada Centre. “It’s a conversation that’s been ongoing and we came to a decision.
“Once we got to that decision I’m a firm believer it’s only fair to make the decision and move forward.”
Anselmi said Burke, 57, will remain with the team as a senior adviser.
The decision caught even Nonis by surprise. The 46-year-old native of Burnaby, B.C., was with Burke on Tuesday night watching the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs edge the Toronto Marlies 2-1.
“I came in (Wednesday) morning and was informed of the decision,” a solemn Nonis said. “This is a shock for a lot of people.”
The daunting task of ending hockey’s longest playoff drought now lies with Nonis, a close friend and protege of Burke’s.
One of his first priorities will be to sort out the club’s goaltending situation. Rumours that the Leafs are in talks with the Vancouver Canucks to acquire Roberto Luongo have been floating around for several months. There was talk Wednesday that a potential Luongo deal may have been a factor in Burke’s dismissal.
Anselmi said that wasn’t the case.
“No, no, not at all,” he said.
Nonis said he couldn’t discuss any pending transactions.
“First of all, it doesn’t help get a deal done and second of all we’re not permitted to do so,” said Nonis. “Players that under contract to other clubs remain off limits in terms of commenting.”
Ironically, Nonis replaced Burke as Vancouver’s GM in 2004 and acquired Luongo from the Florida Panthers two years later.
Vancouver GM Mike Gillis was shocked to hear of Burke’s firing but added he doesn’t believe it will have any impact on a potential Luongo deal.
“Not in my mind, no,” he said.
Gillis expects things will heat up on the Luongo front once the collective bargaining agreement is fully ratified. The owners approved it Wednesday and players are slated to vote in the coming days.
“The window (to speak with other GMs) wasn’t open until (Wednesday),” he said. “Until the players vote on it, that’s when I think the activity will pick up.”
Burke, meanwhile, didn’t return an email from The Canadian Press. But there’s no doubt the outspoken GM’s dismissal came as a shock to just about everyone in hockey.
“I know Burkie well. We were talking yesterday about hunting,” said Washington Capitals GM George McPhee. “I don’t know what happened. It is too bad.”
Burke’s son, Patrick, also spoke about his father on his Twitter account.
“Brian Burke did more charity/community work than any GM in NHL history. And the Burke family will always, always be proud of that fact,” Patrick Burke tweeted.
Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul had no idea it was coming and said the players are partly to blame.
“At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility,” Lupul told reporters outside the Leafs practice facility. “He put faith in us and we didn’t get the job done last year and now he’s paying the price.”
During Burke’s reign, Toronto was 128-135-42 and finished a disappointing 13th in the Eastern Conference last season. They haven’t made the post-season since 2004 and own the NHL’s longest playoff drought.
Anselmi wouldn’t say exactly what ownership didn’t like about Burke’s leadership style. But he was a complicated figure in that while he could be very engaging, Burke could just as quickly go on a fiery rant. He was also fiercely loyal, perhaps to a fault, quickly coming to the defence of one of his coaches or players.
“The relationship between the GM and owners is a complex, multi-faceted, unique kind of relationship,” he said. “It’s a very symbiotic kind of relationship.
“We talked to Brian (on Wednesday) morning and his reaction was, as you would expect, one of class, one of disappointment but one of acceptance. He understands this is part of the game and part of the industry that none of us likes but he respected the fact ownership gets to decide who its general manager is.”
MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum, in New York attending the NHL board meetings, said it was “a decision of the board.”
When asked if he had a role in it, he said, “Well I’m on the board.”
Anselmi said there wasn’t “one incident or any one thing” that led to Burke’s dismissal.
Burke held the Leafs job for just over four years and last year hired Randy Carlyle to replace Ron Wilson as head coach. Nonis said Carlyle’s job was safe.
“Randy is a quality head coach and we’re fortunate to have him,” Nonis said. “We think as a management group that the youth of our players and the direction we want them to head requires a coach like Randy Carlyle.
“We need a coach like that to push players outside their comfort zone. That’s what we’re expecting when the puck drops.”
Before being named Toronto’s GM and president in November 2008, Burke spent three-plus seasons managing the Anaheim Ducks and guided them to a Stanley Cup win in 2007.
He also previously served in the NHL front office as senior vice-president and director of hockey operations and as general manager of Vancouver and the Hartford Whalers. The native of Providence, R.I., was also GM of the 2010 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team.
Burke arrived in Toronto as a somewhat divisive figure. Some fans hailed him as the saviour of the franchise, while others worried he wouldn’t be capable of rebuilding the club and leading it back into the playoffs.
Burke wasn’t afraid to make some big moves during his time with the Maple Leafs.
He landed Dion Phaneuf in a seven-player deal with Calgary in 2010 and the defenceman was named team captain. But Burke’s most hotly debated trade was a 2009 deal with Boston, when he acquired sniper Phil Kessel for two first-round draft picks and a second-round selection.
The Bruins used the picks to select star forward Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight.
Nonis won’t have much time to prepare.
The league and union reached a tentative agreement to end the 113-day lockout last weekend. Pending ratification from both sides, the NHL is targeting a 48-game season that would begin Jan. 19.
Nonis said while has some work to do improving Toronto’s roster, fans shouldn’t expect major changes.
“We need to continue building the team, it’s not starting from scratch,” he said. “We have some decisions to make on some players, we have some decisions to make on contracts, we have some decisions to make on our style of play and how the players we have will fit into it.
“To turn around and gut the franchise now would set it back a long way and that’s not something I think anyone has any interest in doing.”
And while Nonis and Burke have an extensive background together, Nonis said he will take a different approach than Burke in rebuilding the Maple Leafs.
“I would say I’m a little more patient in how I approach things, maybe evaluate things a little bit longer,” Nonis said. “But at the end of the day how the team should play and expectations, those are very similar.
“You’re not going to see a massive turnover, it’s impossible to do so in today’s game and improve your team. We’ve been fairly fortunate to add players mostly through trade that have been upgrades and helped our team. We’re going to continue to add building blocks and pieces like we have in the last 18 months or so where we’ve had some success doing that.”
And Nonis said Burke’s fingerprints will remain on the Leafs’ franchise for years to come.
“Four or five years from now I think people will say a lot of the things Brian Burke did were very, very positive and helped this team become successful,” he said.
—With files from Chris Johnston in New York.