By Rolf Sturm
The time between Brian Burke’s introduction as the Leafs’ new sheriff in 2008 to his farewell this month was four years and two months, give or take.
That sounds about right as far as an expiry date goes for the Leafs’ former president and GM. The media, fans and more importantly, the new ownership at MLSE had about all it could take of Mr. Burke and his argumentative, abrasive defences of his underwhelming hockey club. His act had grown stale and the goodwill and confidence once bestowed on him by the hockey-loving multitudes had all but dried up.
True to form, he came out as he came in: Truculent and unapologetic, saying the only reason it had come to this was because his hockey club didn’t win enough games.
Well yes and no.
Had the Leafs made the playoffs under his watch and were headed there again, he most certainly would’ve hung onto his job in this rump of an NHL season. But all bets would be off if the Leafs got off to a lousy start, lost again in the wilderness and being led by the blustery, proud general who’d fend off all attacks against his troops. It just wouldn’t work.
Only shepherding a perennial contender would allow Brian Burke to be Brian Burke; anything less and the folks in the expensive suits, not to mention fans and media would ask, “Remind me again why we’re putting up with this angry guy who hasn’t gotten us in the playoffs yet?”
Had he shown an inkling of contrition to soften his defence of his lousy record and sometimes controversial deals, perhaps the new ownership group could’ve allowed him to remain at wheel for the 48-game season. Of course there was no guarantee but Belligerent Burkie made it easier for them to pull the plug.
It was obvious from the presser that Burke didn’t know or care how far out of favour he’d fallen with his new bosses. In hindsight, it seems obvious they were desperate for a fresh face and message; not wanting another season of a GM and President at war with the hockey media and a thin skin that couldn’t contain his contempt for critics. It just wasn’t going to be part of the game plan going forward.
Many question the timing of his firing — just days before the season began. To the ”Why Now?” questioners, maybe we’ll never really know as Burke himself didn’t appear to grasp the exact reasoning for his sudden redundancy.
That lack of personal insight is often the Achilles Heel of the Great Man (GM). But having a GM for a GM – as Toronto found out — may not be all it’s cracked up to be. They’re often at a loss to see the error of their ways until it’s too late. History is littered, both good and bad with such individuals. What is so plain to others seems to escape the Great Man out of denial or hubris. He thinks himself too big to be brought down by something so middling as personality.
And Brian Burke is kind of a Great Man.– one of the few larger than life individuals remaining in the sport today. But we’re in era where men like that are being phased out. The ever-changing management culture and tightening political correctness has put a straight-jacket on these fellows. They’ve become the Mad Men of yesterday – movers and shakers whose outstanding abilities as executives are under fire because people no longer like the packaging. It makes it nearly impossible to separate the all-important message and branding from the messenger. As colourful as Burke was, most had tuned him out — and that’s never a good thing.
For BB not to see how his approach was an immense image problem for his media bosses was a fatal oversight of his own self-knowledge. Or maybe he just didn’t give a crap; too old a dog to learn new tricks in a changing reality. You could just picture it in the boardroom: “Boss, I am what I am, take it or leave it. If you don’t like it, you can shove it up your Armani boxers where the sun don’t shine. No one’s going to tell me how to run my hockey club.” Or something like that.
He remains with the Leafs as a Minister without portfolio; a hockey consultant for the team who’s bosses say he won’t have anything to do with hockey operations. In other words, no-man’s land. He’d really do himself a favour by stepping away and take a break rather than hang around in a job that technically doesn’t exist.
One thing’s for sure. It just shows how quickly things can change when ownership decides that the face of a franchise needs a total makeover and you’re the face.