TORONTO — Brian Burke’s colourful tenure as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs was never short on drama.
So it only seemed fitting his departure from the team would shock the entire hockey world.
The Leafs dropped the bombshell Wednesday, announcing they had relieved the fiery Burke of his duties as president and general manager and replaced him with his right-hand man, Dave Nonis.
While the Leafs had never reached the playoffs during Burke’s four seasons at the helm, the timing of the move was surprising given it comes just days before the start of the lockout-shortened season.
But Tom Anselmi, the president of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, said the decision had been talked about for months following an extensive review of the hockey club by Anselmi and the new ownership group. MLSE was officially taken over by Rogers and BCE in August.
“The news is coming as a shock but I don’t think the decision has happened overnight,” Anselmi told a packed, hastily assembled news conference at the Air Canada Centre. “It’s a conversation that’s been ongoing and we came to a decision.
“Once we got to that decision I’m a firm believer it’s only fair to make the decision and move forward.”
Anselmi said Burke, 57, will remain with the team as a senior adviser. The decision caught even Nonis by surprise. The 46-year-old native of Burnaby, B.C., was with Burke on Tuesday night watching the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs edge the Toronto Marlies 2-1.
“I came in (Wednesday) morning and was informed of the decision,” a solemn Nonis said. “This is a shock for a lot of people.”
The daunting task of ending hockey’s longest playoff drought now lies with Nonis, a close friend and protege of Burke’s.
One of his first priorities will be to sort out the club’s goaltending situation. Rumours that the Leafs are in talks with the Vancouver Canucks to acquire Roberto Luongo have been floating around for several months. There was talk Wednesday that a potential Luongo deal may have been a factor in Burke’s dismissal.
Anselmi said that wasn’t the case.
“No, no, not at all,” he said.
Nonis said he couldn’t discuss any pending transactions.
“First of all, it doesn’t help get a deal done and second of all we’re not permitted to do so,” said Nonis. “Players that under contract to other clubs remain off limits in terms of commenting.”
Ironically, Nonis replaced Burke as Vancouver’s GM in 2004 and acquired Luongo from the Florida Panthers two years later.
Vancouver GM Mike Gillis was shocked to hear of Burke’s firing but added he doesn’t believe it will have any impact on a potential Luongo deal.
“Not in my mind, no,” he said.
Gillis expects things will heat up on the Luongo front once the collective bargaining agreement is fully ratified. The owners approved it Wednesday and players are slated to vote in the coming days.
“The window (to speak with other GMs) wasn’t open until (Wednesday),” he said. “Until the players vote on it, that’s when I think the activity will pick up.”
Burke, meanwhile, didn’t return an email from The Canadian Press. But there’s no doubt the outspoken GM’s dismissal came as a shock to just about everyone in hockey.
“I know Burkie well. We were talking yesterday about hunting,” said Washington Capitals GM George McPhee. “I don’t know what happened. It is too bad.”
Burke’s son, Patrick, also spoke about his father on his Twitter account.
“Brian Burke did more charity/community work than any GM in NHL history. And the Burke family will always, always be proud of that fact,” Patrick Burke tweeted.
Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul had no idea it was coming and said the players are partly to blame.
“At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility,” Lupul told reporters outside the Leafs practice facility. “He put faith in us and we didn’t get the job done last year and now he’s paying the price.”
During Burke’s reign, Toronto was 128-135-42 and finished a disappointing 13th in the Eastern Conference last season. They haven’t made the post-season since 2004 and own the NHL’s longest playoff drought.