SBD/January 14, 2013/Franchises

Maple Leafs' Burke Denies Personality Clash Played Role In Dismissal As GM

Burke says that Maple Leafs ownership had "every right to fire him"
Former Maple Leafs President & GM Brian Burke said that his dismissal was due to "results on the ice, not his bombastic personality," according to Bob Mitchell of the TORONTO STAR. Burke: "I did not accomplish what I set out to accomplish here. That’s absolutely clear. We didn’t win enough. That’s why we’re here today." Mitchell noted Burke on Saturday held a press conference, and was "contrite, gracious and diplomatic." Burke "thanked everybody connected with the Leafs, including some who were directly involved in his firing." While it was "obvious that he was still shocked," he said that the new Bell-Rogers ownership group "had every right to fire him." Burke: "I still believe the ownership group here is committed to winning, and they’re entitled to have [newly appointed Leafs GM] Dave Nonis here instead of me if that’s what they want. When you own a team, you get the right to change the people and put who you want in place. I have no issue with that." Meanwhile, Burke "offered to remain as a senior adviser, which he took to mean helping Nonis," but he has since "been told he’d report directly to the board, not the hockey side." Burke: "They wanted a little more distance. That’s fine. They’re entitled to it. I’m not big on cashing paycheques and sitting around doing nothing, so if I can help in any way I will" (TORONTO STAR, 1/13). The CP's Chris Johnston wrote it "still isn’t clear" why the Leafs parted ways with Burke just 10 days before the new season. Burke said he had not received a "satisfactory" answer to that question. He "would relish the opportunity to run another NHL team." Burke: "I don’t think I’m done from a hockey perspective. I am definitely in the job market, no question" (CP, 1/12).

SHOULD HE STAY OR SHOULD HE GO? In Toronto, Joe Warmington wrote after Burke's "goodbye performance Saturday," Maple Leafs owner MLSE would be "wise to fire him again -- this time from his 'special advisor' role they generously agreed to swallow." The Leafs "extended him the courtesy to help him save some face while they pay out his contract and, for some reason, it did not occur to Burke that they were only trying to be nice." But now that he "admitted he is available for a new GM’s job 'tomorrow' the board would be justified to take away his pass card and his Bell and/or Rogers cellphones too." They "might be wise to keep him away from Nonis who’s focus should not be on his inevitable demise but on trying to win a Stanley Cup" (TORONTO SUN, 1/13). Also in Toronto, Rosie DiManno wrote under the header, "Maple Leafs' New Ownership Gives Knife In Brian Burke's Back Another Twist." Burke was "under the impression that ... he would remain as something substantially more than a mushroom kept in a dark room, occasionally sprinkled with manure." However, "the leash is much more constricting than anticipated -- extending to the board and COO Tom Anselmi only." Hockey operations "are a no-go zone." The first scenario "put to Burke -- take a paid leave -- he rejected outright." Burke "thought his ongoing capacity within the organization was settled, if not specifically defined," whereas now he is "befuddled and further wounded" (TORONTO STAR, 1/13). 

FOR THE RECORD: The TORONTO SUN's Steve Simmons wrote, "Sure, the record was part of the evaluation of Burke." But that "wasn’t why he was fired," and Burke "knows that." He is "not comfortable going public with the information -- and neither is the new ownership -- because it’s hard to explain why someone didn’t like you." His feuds "have been many," including his "public image." Burke "liked to call the Leafs the Vatican of pro hockey," but Maple Leafs ownership "didn’t want him to be Pope anymore." They wanted to "quiet the storms and take a new stride under new management" (TORONTO SUN, 1/13).

PARTING SHOTS: The CBC's Tim Wharnsby noted when Burke's "not-so-favourite member of the local fourth estate, Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons, asked Burke if he would continue in his GM role with the USA Hockey's Olympic team, he ended his answer with bluntness." Burke responded, "The best part of today is that I don't have to talk to you again, Steve." Meanwhile, Burke's "thank-yous on Saturday were reserved for former MLSE CEO Richard Peddie and board chairman Larry Tanenbaum and his wife Judy." Tanenbaum "had to be convinced that firing Burke was the right move," but Anselmi "was not included" (CBC.ca, 1/12).

CULTURE CHANGE: The GLOBE & MAIL's Robertson, McNish, Trichur & Shoalts cited sources as saying that Burke's dismissal is "part of a longer-term series of strategic changes" by Rogers Communications and Bell Media. Their ambition with MLSE is to "rebuild a sports organization that they hope will deliver bigger audiences for their portfolio of television and wireless customers, and more profit to their bottom lines." For Bell and Rogers, each with "millions of customers in the heart of Leafs country, the public-relations stakes are somewhat higher." Losing "could rub off on their brands." A source said, "We are hitting the reset button." Nonis "has been handed the GM reins, but that is more of a battlefield promotion than a deliberate succession plan." The move is a "restructuring of a company designed to bring more accountability to MLSE." Firing Burke "not only points to new management of Maple Leafs, but also to an act of solidarity against an MLSE shareholder who has been a dominant force on the board for years." Facing off against Tanenbaum "is another key shift," as at most corporations, his smaller ownership stake would "limit" his influence. A source said, "There is a war going on at MLSE right now." It remains "an open question which direction Rogers and BCE are headed." But they are "showing signs of wanting swift action" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/13). The GLOBE & MAIL's Jeff Blair wrote, "With Rogers Communications and Bell Media now in charge of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd., board, there is a new culture taking hold." These are "companies with a wider range of interests than the previous board movers" (GLOBE & MAIL, 1/13). SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL's John Lombardo writes under the header, "Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Sets New Course With Unique Ownership Structure" (SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL, 1/14 issue).
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