SBD/January 10, 2013/Franchises

Burke Ousted As Leafs' GM; Poor Relationship With New Ownership Cited As Key Factor

Burke's brash management style was not completely embraced by new ownership
The Maple Leafs' new ownership conglomerate of Bell Media, Rogers Communications and MLSE Chair Larry Tanenbaum yesterday "pulled the plug" on team President & GM Brian Burke, "shocking the hockey world," according to James Mirtle of the GLOBE & MAIL. The "curious timing of the decision came after months of soul searching by new ownership." MLSE President & COO Tom Anselmi said that ownership came to a "conclusion that Burke’s bombastic leadership style was no longer a good fit." Anselmi then "officially appointed" Senior VP/Hockey Operations Dave Nonis the 14th GM of the franchise. Burke "will be kept in an advisory position for the time being, but Anselmi made clear he will have no role in hockey operations." It is "widely expected Burke will only hold such a role until he found another job with either the NHL’s head office or another franchise." In explaining the timing of the decision, Anselmi said that the ownership change and lockout "complicated matters." He said, "There's no good time to do this. Once you get to a decision on something like this, it’s really only fair to act upon it. ... You can’t fake it" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/10). Anselmi: "I don’t think the decision has happened overnight. I think this is a conversation that the board and myself have been having for several months that ultimately came to a decision recently. ... It was really looking for a different voice and a different leadership approach." The GLOBE & MAIL's Mirtle & Robertson in a front-page piece note despite the Leafs' "poor record" under Burke, the firing "caught the players and staff by surprise." That shock "played out at the afternoon press conference at the Air Canada Centre." A "subdued" Nonis appeared to be "emotional after he was introduced as GM and sat next to Mr. Anselmi" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/10). Nonis said that he was "shocked by the decision to fire Burke." He "thanked Burke for 'everything he has done for this organization.'" Nonis said, "We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go" (TORONTO STAR, 1/10).

NONIS SHAKEN? Nonis admitted that his style "will likely be much different than Burke's." Nonis: "If there’s one difference (between us) it’s I would say I’m a little more patient in how I approach things." The GLOBE & MAIL's Mirtle in a separate piece writes, "The plus side of Nonis taking over is that he was already intimately involved in hockey operations." He has the "reputation of being bright and well reasoned" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/10). TSN's Jonas Siegel wrote Nonis was "clearly shaken and worn sitting beside Anselmi at the incredibly awkward news conference" (TSN.ca, 1/9). YAHOO SPORTS' Greg Wyshynski wrote Nonis "looked as grim as imaginable during the Wednesday presser," like he had "lost a mentor, a friend, a father" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 1/9).

WHAT'S NEXT FOR BURKE? ESPN.com's Craig Custance looked at "Four Possibilities For Brian Burke's Future," two of which are to "join the league offices" or "run another team." Yesterday's news "may have been a stunner for Burke, but there are certainly plenty of good options for him going forward" (ESPN.com, 1/9). The GLOBE & MAIL's MacDonald & Blair write to his critics, especially those of his tenure in Toronto, Burke "is the guy who talked a good game but failed to deliver." But outside of hockey, in Toronto -- and other cities like Vancouver -- a "legion of fans applaud his work in countless charities, where they say he is a tireless supporter of gay/lesbian rights, soldiers fighting overseas, hospital boards, and rink construction in his Leaside neighbourhood, not to mention a staunch critic of bullying among youth" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/10). The header of an online TORONTO STAR story read, "Fired Brian Burke Cheered By Fans For Gay Rights Support" (THESTAR.com, 1/9).

HOW IT'S PLAYING: TSN's Bob McKenzie said, "Not very often I'm at a loss for words, but today I am." ESPN/TSN's Pierre LeBrun said, "For him to be fired before a single game played is nothing short of shocking, especially given his role in the CBA negotiations" (TSN.ca, 1/9). Leafs RW Mike Brown said, "It's definitely weird timing." In Toronto, Brendan Kennedy writes the team's execs "appear to have lost their appetite for Burke’s bluster, especially as the team’s on-ice fortunes continued to sag." Anselmi said, "The news is coming as a shock but the decision didn't happen overnight" (TORONTO STAR, 1/10). The GLOBE & MAIL's David Shoalts writes Burke's "abrasive and loud public style long rubbed BCE and Rogers suits the wrong way." Tanenbaum, who informed Burke of the decision yesterday morning, "seemed as gobsmacked as everyone else." Burke "deserved better than this" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/10). The CBC's Elliotte Friedman wrote he had never seen Tanenbaum "try to avoid talking to the media like he did" yesterday in N.Y. at the BOG meetings. He "looked more uncomfortable than ever." Tanenbaum: "This was the decision of the (MLSE) board. And I'm on the board." Friedman: "But his heart wasn't in it with his friend fired hours earlier" (CBC.ca, 1/9). 

THE HISTORY: The GLOBE & MAIL's Mirtle & Robertson report days after acquiring the team, the new owners met with Burke "to hear his plans for revitalizing the losing franchise." The first impression "did not go well." Sources said that execs of Bell and Rogers found Burke "defensive and brusque -- difficult to work with" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/10). In Toronto, Damien Cox reported at least half of the new MLSE ownership team in Bell "was seemingly prepared to fire Burke during the summer." Bell President & CEO George Cope "reportedly disliked Burke's management style and brash public comments, and thought he was 'bad for the brand'" (THESTAR.com, 1/9). The NATIONAL POST's Bruce Arthur cites sources who said that the decision to fire Burke "was made months ago." It was a "clinical corporate bloodletting, not a moment of fury." The new owners essentially "didn't trust Burke" and sources said that at least one board member "complained when Burke used profanity in a board meeting" (NATIONAL POST, 1/10).

WHY IT HAPPENED: In Toronto, Rob Longley wrote it was Burke's "style without substance that likely forced his new employers" to make the move. By the end, the team's new owners, with "their many platforms to amplify Burke's message -- had tuned out" (TORONTO SUN, 1/10). The CBC’s Tim Wharnsby wrote owners “learned over this time they needed somebody willing to work with them” (CBC.ca, 1/9). Anselmi: “This has nothing to do with Brian’s personal life.” In Toronto, Steve Simmons writes the move “does come back to image as much as it comes back to hockey.” And the image is one Leafs ownership “was uncomfortable with.” Ownership in the end “didn’t want Brian Burke as the face or the voice of their franchise anymore” (TORONTO SUN, 1/10). The GLOBE & MAIL's Bruce Dowbiggin writes the move to dismiss Burke might be "remembered as the requiem for an old school style of hockey executive being squeezed out by the billion-dollar demands of running a modern team." Dowbiggin: "The NHL has changed." With $100M contracts, owners no longer can "stand back and let their managers handle the money." GMs now manage "up." It has "become a buttoned-down corporate job more than ever in the NHL" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/10). Former MLSE President & CEO Richard Peddie, who hired Burke, said, “I think Brian is still the best general manager in the NHL. ... I’m disappointed for him. I wish he had more time” (NATIONAL POST, 1/10). Peddie: “There were times I did suggest that (Burke tone it down). ... He‘s pulled in his horns a lot lately. He hasn’t been as combative publicly. I think he was listening to people” (TORONTO STAR, 1/10).

WHAT IT MEANS ABOUT MLSE: The GLOBE & MAIL’s Jeff Blair writes MLSE is “no longer run by a benign pension plan; it is controlled by two media conglomerates that have signalled they intend to play an activist role on the MLSE board, with a clear sense of image and product.” Still, it is “hard not to see Wednesday’s move as a positive sign.” The “simple fact is the people who own MLSE thought they deserved better than what Burke had delivered” (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/10). The GLOBE & MAIL's Eric Duhatschek writes Burke's removal is "further proof that the corporate image makers hold sway" at MLSE. Burke "was loud and brash and unkempt and opinionated." Under the new corporate umbrella, which features a marriage of "curious partners" -- Rogers, Bell and Tanenbaum -- it "wasn't going to work" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/10). In Toronto, Joe Warmington writes there is “no reason Burke had to lose his dream job like this,” but that he did “was his own doing.” As the pressure of “this very difficult job of being the Maple Leafs’ GM mounted, it seemed as if he melted down” (TORONTO SUN, 1/10). But ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside wrote the “fact that it took from the time the ownership group took over in August to four days before the start of a post-lockout training camp illustrates in many ways why MLSE has such a track record of making money but apparently knows nothing about putting a winning organization on the ice.” Burnside: “Disgraceful. Too many suits and not enough hockey sense” (ESPN.com, 1/9). In Vancouver, Cole & Pap write the move is “a piece of lunacy entirely consistent with the standard established long ago by the tall foreheads" at MLSE. Burke was “not the corporate type,” as he was “too blustery, too blunt” (VANCOUVER SUN, 1/10). YAHOO SPORTS’ Nicholas Cotsonika wrote this is “another corporate ownership group giving another example of how to do hockey business backward” (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 1/9). SI.com’s Stu Hackel wrote in the NHL’s “biggest hockey-oriented market, the Leafs -- the league’s most lucrative franchise -- continue to be an embarrassment, now having missed the playoffs seven straight seasons” (SI.com, 1/9). 
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