TORONTO (Reuters) - The Toronto Maple Leafs fired President and General Manager Brian Burke on Wednesday in a shock move just days before the National Hockey League returns to action following a bitter labor dispute with players.
Assistant General Manager Dave Nonis will replace Burke, who is remaining with the Maple Leafs team as a senior advisor.
”This is a decision the board and myself made collectively,“ Tom Anselmi, president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment told a packed news conference at the team arena. ”It’s not the product of any one incident or any one thing.
“The leadership change is more about a tone, a voice of leadership, than it is about changing gears and going in a different direction.”
Burke arrived in Toronto to great fanfare in 2008, heralded as the architect who would rebuild the storied franchise to its former glory and bring the hockey-mad city its first Stanley Cup since 1967.
But in four seasons under Burke’s watch the Maple Leafs failed to make the playoffs.
The Maple Leafs, who last year were rated by Forbes as the first ice hockey team to be worth $1 billion, have not made the playoffs since 2004 and are coming off a 13th place finish in the 15-team Eastern Conference.
Burke, who was also general manager for the United States national men’s ice hockey team that won the silver medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics, won a Stanley Cup as general manager of the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
He also served as general manager of the Hartford Whalers and Vancouver Canucks.
Unafraid to speak his mind, Burke brought a swagger and fondness for a physical, hard-nosed brand of hockey saying his teams would play with truculence and be held accountable.
His managerial style was characterized by bold signings and controversial trades but ultimately could not build the winner he promised.
Burke’s time in Toronto was also punctuated by feuds with the media and personal tragedy, as he dealt with the death of his 21-year-old son Brendan, who was killed in a car accident in 2010 shortly after revealing he was gay.
In the following years, Burke became an advocate for anti-bullying and gay rights committing more and more of his time to those causes.
With his team continuing to lose, Burke came under attack for a lack of focus that reached a peak two years ago when he paid a visit to troops in Afghanistan during the crucial trade deadline.
Anselmi made it clear that Burke’s personal life played no part in his departure.
”The news is coming as a shock but the decision didn’t happen overnight,“ said Anselmi. ”This is a conversation myself and the board have been having for several months.
“Did the four years of missing the playoffs factor into the discussion with the shareholders? Sure it did ... but at the end of the day it was really looking for a different voice.”
Despite Anselmi’s insistence that the discussion had been ongoing for awhile the news came as surprise to everyone, including Burke, who learned of his firing as he was preparing to fly to New York for a Board of Governors meetings.
“It’s a shock for a lot of people,” said Nonis, who was general manager of the Canucks for four years prior to being brought in by Burke as his assistant in 2008. “We’re not going to spend a lot of time grieving ... we have things to do.”
Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Frank Pingue