TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs dropped a bomb on the hockey world Wednesday, firing general manager Brian Burke and replacing him with his protege Dave Nonis.
The surprising news comes just days before the lockout-shortened season is about to begin.
The league and its players agreed to a tentative agreement over the weekend to end the lockout. The league's board of governors is holding a ratification vote Wednesday in New York.
Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment president Tom Anselmi made the announcement at a hastily called news conference in Toronto. He said Burke will remain with the Leafs as a senior adviser.
The decision came after MLSE's new ownership group conducted an exhaustive review of all the company's properties and concluded it was time for a change in the Leafs front office.
“We've decided to make a leadership change and move in a different direction for the general manager role,” said Anselmi.
MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum, who is in New York to attend the NHL meetings said it was “a decision of the board.”
When asked if he had a role in the decision too he said “Well I'm on the board.”
Anselmi said there was not “one incident or any one thing” that led to Burke's dismissal.
“This was a decision that the board and myself collectively made,” Anselmi said. “It's the product of a conversation that has been going on for some time.”
The sale of MLSE to BCE and Rogers Communications was finalized in August. Anselmi said the operational review began sometime after that.
Nonis and Burke have a long history after working together in Vancouver before coming to the Leafs.
“I've worked for Brian for most of my adult life and he's always been a great friend and mentor,” Nonis said.
Burke held the Leafs job for just over four years. The team missed the playoffs in every season under his watch and is coming off a disappointing 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12.
They made a head coaching change late last season, hiring Randy Carlyle to replace Ron Wilson.
Before being named GM and team 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 the Vancouver Canucks and Hartford Whalers. The 57-year-old Providence, R.I., native was also GM of the 2010 U.S. Olympic men's hockey team.
He 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 a team that hasn't appeared in a playoff game since 2004.
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.
“We're going to have a very short window in order to make some decisions about this hockey team,” said Nonis. “We're going to focus on that right now.”