Brian Burke was fired by the Maple Leafs on Wednesday morning, just a few days before the team’s training camp was to open this weekend.
The move came as the NHL and the Leafs are preparing to return from the 113-day lockout, and certainly caught everyone in the hockey world by surprise.
Burke was entering the fifth year of a six-year deal, but the landscape with the Leafs ownership, and the immediate need to end seven years out of the playoffs, apparently led to an out-of-nowhere decision.
Joffrey Lupul, one of the few Leafs who would comment on Burke’s firing, told the Star’s Bob Mitchell that he was “completely shocked by the sudden and unexpected news.”
Lupul was one of about a dozen Leaf players who skated at an unofficial practice at the MasterCard Centre. They learned of the GM’s firing through Twitter, while in their dressing room, about an hour after they finished their skate.
“Why did this happen? Well, we haven’t made the playoffs in seven years, but I can tell you, all the players feel responsible for this because we didn’t get the job done on the ice,” Lupul said.
Leafs ownership changed last winter when Bell-Rogers purchased the majority shares offered up by the Teacher’s Pension Plan. The official closing on the deal came on Aug. 22, 2012. Bell-Rogers paid $1.07 billion for a 75 per cent share of the franchise.
Burke, according to rumours at the time, was told by high-ranking officials within the new ownership group that he had a year to turn things around with his struggling club.
The Leafs held a news conference to make the announcement.
“The last 18 months a lot of change has been driving our organization, including the sale of the company and transitioning to new leadership. As part of that I spent time with our board looking at the direction of our team and as a result of that we decided to make a leadership change,’’ said MLSE president and COO Tom Anselmi.
While there has been no official word from the Leafs, it’s expected assistant GM Dave Nonis will take over the GM reins on an interim basis.
Nonis was Burke’s assistant in Vancouver and took over as GM when Burke was relieved of his duties by the Canucks.
Burke, 57, from Providence, R.I., was introduced as the Leafs general manager on Nov. 28, 2008.
Burke’s Leafs teams posted a 128-135-42 record during his tenure as Leafs GM.
Newly acquired forward James Van Riemsdyk was almost at a loss for words when contacted by the Star.
The 23-year-old former Philadelphia Flyer had been Burke’s big off-season acquisition, in a trade for popular Toronto defenceman Luke Schenn.
“He had confidence in me as a player (trading for him), but it’s the nature of the business,” Van Riemsdyk said.
Leafs forward Mike Brown never saw Burke’s firing coming.
“It’s part of the business,” Brown said. “It’s sad to see this happen. I’ve known him for a long time. Team do what they have to do. I wish him the best and thank him for everything. But as a team we now have to do what we have to do. It was definitely weird timing. I’m going to do my job as I always do and do what my coach tells me to do,”
Other players such Phil Kessel, Tim Connolly, David Steckel, Clarke MacArthur and Colton Orr quickly walked past reporters after leaving the MasterCard Centre refusing to comment on Burke’s firing.
Burke became Leafs GM, taking over from John Ferguson. He won the Stanley Cup in 2007 as GM of the Anaheim Ducks, the pinnacle of a management career that began when he was hired by Pat Quinn in 1987 to be director of hockey operations for Vancouver.
Burke spent a season in 1993 as GM of the Hartford Whalers before taking a post as director of hockey operations with the NHL.
Burke returned to the Canucks in 1998 but did not survive an ownership change in Vancouver in 2003-04.
Burke’s star was brightest with the Cup win in 2007, but he stepped down in 2008 to join the Leafs.
The Leafs are said to be still very much in the running on a trade with the Canucks for goalie Roberto Luongo, despite Burke’s surprise exit.
Questions surfaced almost immediately in the wake of the Burke firing, especially with Kessel, the player he gave up two first round picks for in a move that haunted his tenure in Toronto.
Many insiders are now wondering with Burke gone, then Kessel may be next to depart. Kessel has two more seasons at $5.4 million (cap hit) each before becoming eligible to be a free agent in 2014-15.