The Truth Behind the Firing of Brian Burke - By: Mike Toth
There's no question Tom Anselmi, president of MLSE, is a media savvy, fan friendly guy. But during today's media conference to announce the shocking firing of Leaf GM Brian Burke, Anselmi really let the fans down. No matter how hard he was pushed by reporters, Anselmi kep replying that he "didn't want to get into specifics" about the reason for Burke's sudden dismissal. Anselmi did mention the Leaf's late season collapse last year that saw them miss the play-offs again - a place they've never visited under Burke's watch. But that fold job was nine months ago, so why wait until ten days before a lockout-shortened schedule to bring out the axe? The lockout, by the way, is another reason why Anselmi owed the fans more answers. Like all NHL teams, the Leafs are trying to win back fed-up fans coming out of the labour war and keeping them in the dark regarding the reasons for chopping the leader of the franchise isn't exactly inspiring your most important shareholders (the people in the seats) to keep buying tickets and over-priced hot dogs.
So, since Leaf fans deserve more answers about why the team said bye-bye to Burkie, read on.
Over the summer, there were published reports that Burke was having marital problems, and a lot of hockey insiders also say he's never been the same after the death of his son a few years ago. In fact, there was talk a few months ago that Burke might step down because of all the stress in his life, although that obviously didn't happen.
With the above in mind, however, at today's newser I asked Anselmi if Burke's personal life or his many well-documented blow-ups with the media (including going off on our very own John Moore of "Moore in the Morning") had anything to do with the firing. The media angle is relevant, of course, because the Leafs are now owned by the Bell and Rogers media consortium. However, Anselmi claimed Burke's dismissal was not due to either of those issues.
Why, then, was Burke let go?
Well, as Anselmi said, it was "a combination of factors". But again, since he refused to get into specifics, let's fill in the blanks. The Leafs losing ways were definitely a factor, especially when you consider the team isn't much different than a year ago and there's not much hope of snapping their 8-year play-off drought this season. Meanwhile, Despite what Anselmi says, I do believe Burke's frequent media meltdowns (and based on that, who knows how he dealt with his own employees around the office?) were a factor in today's decision.
Don't underestimate the Blue Jays and Alex Anthopoulos angle. AA is a young, media friendly guy who's the toast of the town right now for building the Jays into a contender in quick and dramatic fashion, while Burke and the Leafs muddle down near the NHL basement. The Jays, remember, are also owned by Rogers and I believe they and their Bell buddies simply came to regard Burke as being more trouble than he's worth; a losing team with a crusty boss who was becoming increasingly unpopular among both the fans and media mob.
In Burke's replacement, former assistant GM Dave Nonis, the Leafs have a bright, young Anthopoulos-type clone whose already been a fulltime GM in Vancouver. Nonis isn't exactly "Mr. Personality", but he's not going to blow up at reporters and publicly embarrass a media-savvy company who wants to be more fan-friendly, especially post-lockout, while also icing a winning team to keep those TV rating points headed in the right direction.
With that in mind, Burke's firing might also help the Leafs in their rumoured quest to bring veteran netminder Roberto Luongo to Toronto. Among Burke's many adversaries? Canucks GM Mike Gillis, who Burke has a long history of feuding with, and there was no way those guys were ever going to hook up on a deal. Yes, Gillis took over in Vancouver after Nonis was fired by the Canucks in 2008. But Nonis is a lot more even-keeled than Burke and should be able to do a better job of breaking bread with Gillis to potentially get Luongo in a blue and white jersey.
Another guy Burke had issues with?
I was upset with Burke for dressing down my good buddy John Moore on Newstalk 1010, after John asked Brian a perfectly legit question about his future as Leaf GM. In an exchange of emails with Burke, I said "Brian, you're a good hockey man but I don't like how you bullied John." Out of respect for Burke, I'll keep his reply private; suffice to say it didn't exactly express any regret for his outburst.
But as it turned out, John's question about Burke's job status did have merit and in the end, maybe a big bully got what was coming to him.
Written By: Mike Toth