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First they took his job. Now they want his vitals on a platter.
Brian Burke was under the impression that, while relieved of duties as Maple Leafs general manager and president of hockey operations, he would remain as something substantially more than a mushroom kept in a dark room, occasionally sprinkled with manure.
To be clear: The choice is not his anyway. Burke no longer has a vote in any hockey matters. His face has been excised from the brand, just as his name was deleted from that eponymous hotdog stand beneath the Air Canada Centre. But the man who once commanded all things Leaf-ian did believe he still had a voice and a brain to tap as the club segues into a post-Burke era.
It was Burke who made the suggestion on Wednesday after getting whacked — a jettisoning that he admits struck him dumb. “There are some times when you see the vultures circling and you understand it’s coming,” Burke told reporters during a jam-packed exit press conference Saturday. “This one here was like a two-by-four upside the head to me.”
That proposal — how Burke envisioned his advisory role — was accepted by those present: Minority owner Larry Tanenbaum, Anselmi and board director Dale Lastman, all of whom have been in Burke’s corner during four months of corporate review about whither the no-heel GM, discussions triggered by new ownership, with key individuals critically outside the circle of love.
Indeed, the first scenario put to Burke — take a paid leave — he rejected outright. The optics could have been disastrous, with an open invitation for the media and public to play a scandalizing round of: Where’s Brian?
Burke thought his ongoing capacity within the organization was settled, if not specifically defined. Now he’s befuddled and further wounded. “I have no idea.”
This sheds lights on the clumsiness of Wednesday’s announcement. The ramifications were not considered ahead of that press cattle call.
They’re making it up as they go along, which is wretched management.
Has Burke been gagged to the extent of not even being permitted to talk hockey moves with his successor, Dave Nonis, which is surely the definition of “adviser”? Is the board so loathing — or fearful — of the shadow Burke casts that they would impose a hockey demilitarized zone inside this dysfunctional franchise family for the outcast?
“If Dave Nonis wants me — we’ve been friends for a long time — I’m available to him any time,” Burke declared. “I think the board, my understanding — and again, this came to light yesterday afternoon — is that they want just a little more distance.
If Burke is putting his faith in Anselmi — and Tanenbaum and Lastman — then the message hasn’t been absorbed. His supporters couldn’t save his hide at the board level where BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications now so clearly hold the hammer, sharing 75 per cent ownership of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. There’s thus no evidence they can salvage something of self-respect and relevance for Burke in the aftermath of the bloodletting.
If the objective is to manoeuvre Burke, a proud man, into quitting instead — presumably forfeiting the year and a half salary remaining on his contract — then it’s a nasty piece of business, assuming Anselmi, Tanenbaum and Lastman even had the authority to unilaterally agree on Burke’s job definition.
“It was a three-minute conversation,” Anselmi told the Star, about the hasty defining of Burke’s job. “He suggested this senior advisory role and we agreed, well, we’re going to be paying you anyway and you’re going to be in Toronto. But Brian’s role hasn’t been clarified. It’s not like you can tell anyone, ‘Hey, you can’t talk to Dave Nonis.’
“What I said to Brian yesterday was, until we figure it out, let’s just make it through me.”
Corporate tsars are not accustomed to having their edicts sideways thwarted. A little bit of Burke may be entirely too much Burke inside 50 Bay St.
Why would Burke want to keep one big foot inside that viper’s nest?
“I still believe in the Tanenbaums,” he said. “I still believe that the ownership group here is committed to winning and they’re entitled to have Dave Nonis here instead of me if that’s what they want. There’s no issue with that. When you own a team . . . you get the right to put those people in place.
Well, that remains to be seen because this melodrama hasn’t played itself out yet.
Burke began his press conference graciously, the doling out of thanks to colleagues, players, family members — and he largely kept to that tone. But there were spurts of obvious anger and small firecrackers — if not grenades — lobbed. Wisecracking about what he’s learned from this experience: “Well, I’d like to go work for a team that doesn’t get sold next time.”
There was one significant contradiction. Burke first said he’d been given an explanation for the firing and its bizarre timing. “They gave me the reasons why they felt it was time and the reasons why the timing fit. Ask them if they want to divulge (that). I believe that some of those things belong in the boardroom.”
Later however, he indicated otherwise, and that he remains perplexed, at least about the timing of it. “I did not get a satisfactory explanation for that. I’m not in a position to offer it.”
There has been much comment that the new board — most specifically BCE president George Cope — detested Burke’s style, the profanity and strut, preferred a more homogenized hockey executive with an off-switch they could control. As well, wild rumours about Burke’s private life have swirled for months, little of it grounded in fact. Burke denied that was a factor in his fate. “No, that was not addressed in my meeting. This is all media speculation. It was not presented to me as an issue.”
He even deflected some of the conspiracy theories away from board members portrayed as pinstriped hatchetmen. “I think it’s unfair speculation, frankly, to the people on the other side. ‘Oh, this is a personal thing with somebody.’ There was none of that presented to me, so I’m not going to respond to it. I’m not looking for a sniper behind the bush.”
Bottom line, of course, is that any perceived character flaw or personal antagonisms would have been ignored, had the Burke era been more successful on the ice. “I didn’t win enough games.” And: “You can be as obnoxious as you want to be if you’re in first place.”
By any other measure, they should have known what they were getting — except these weren’t the people that brought Burke here 3½ years ago, of course. “The people that hired me hired Brian Burke. Maybe the new guys don’t like that brand. Maybe they want somebody who’s a little more conventional, and they’re entitled to that.
“I’m not changing. That’s not possible. I’m Irish, we’re stubborn.
“Just got to find somebody who likes that brand, I guess. I’ve got to find a fit, if there is one.”
No, one-size outsize Brian Burke didn’t fit all, turns out.
A bunch of suits cut him down to size, with an axe and a shiv.