Brian Burke held his final press conference as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ organization at noon Saturday, the hosting of which is a bizarre decision at best on the part of his still-employer and, at worst, a welcome dose of some universal justice to the fans who still aren’t feeling all that great about this. I sort of eulogized his tenure on Thursday and thought that would be the end of it. Today’s session, however, did offer a few salient points worth a brief follow-up.
First off, the press conference in and of itself was a surprise. That Burke was granted a public forum to discuss the personnel change without restriction is – I can’t decide – either a curious move of refreshing transparency or an additional indication of utter corporate incompetency on the part of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. But “Lots of fans love him, his press conferences pull huge ratings, and what can he say that will really hurt us?” just doesn’t seem like logic enough.
The organization was under no obligation to allow this. And given the lack of reasoning for aspects of Burke’s dismissal thus far, I sort of want to believe they just naively thought, “Sure, give him one more.” But I doubt it. This is still a corporation with calculating PR efforts in place. There has to be a conscious benefit for them.
The only possible explanation I can offer is that today was potentially an attempt at mitigation of future Burke wrath on MLSE’s part. Once he’s free contractually from the company, I’d imagine he’ll be a bit more willing to discuss this week’s events with more of his trademark candor. The MLSE board may have felt that, in offering Burke today’s forum, they’ve taken away future ammunition on his part that he was muzzled in any way and demonstrated some compassion for his “personal brand” that may affect how favourably (or how not unfavourably) he speaks of them in the future.
But that’s purely a guess. It was solid entertainment, and that’s the business they’re in, so maybe it’s as simple as that.
A handful of relevant points.
- Burke’s first jab at his employer came when he expressed that he’d have preferred to have been informed of the decision prior to his recent Russian travels, if only to avoid the cold he picked up. 4 out of 10 for subtlety.
- Has Burke technically been fired? Relieved of his GM duties, sure. But on paper, this is more of an organizational re-org than an outright dismissal. Semantics, I know. But something I keep wondering about.
- The “senior advisor” position Burke now holds was his suggestion, made through a call to Dale Lastman (this guy, he’s on the MLSE board, and was in the room with Tanenbaum and Anselmi when Brian received the news) on, apparently, Wednesday or Thursday. Exact comment:
I suggested a role as a senior advisor might make sense. [Lastman] said it did. I thought that’s what we were doing, I was informed yesterday (Friday) that the senior advisor role is to the Board and Tom and not hockey operations. That was not my understanding, but that’s fine. We’ll go from there and see what that involves.”
- Burke’s obviously indicating that he wanted to be involved on the hockey side, and was implying as much during his initial suggestion. Subsequently, the Board or a combination of its members decided that his position is, essentially, not in any way involved with that. He’s not happy, and we shouldn’t be either. Say what you will about Burke’s performance in the role – he’s a valuable hockey mind, and paying him $3 million next year to not put it to use for you is like buying out ninety-seven Colby Armstrongs.
- I mean, really – yeah, I’m gonna belabour this with multiple bullets – how do you explain that to a shareholder? The same shareholders who apparently have the power to influence the decision by complaining about a lack of winning are entirely fine with the company pissing away $3+ million on a personality conflict? Why isn’t a non-Burke head going to roll for that?
- Burke clearly wanted to convey that conflict with the new ownership (either in general, or with specific members) was a factor, but without actually saying it. The closest we’ll ever get to Brian Burke firing back against the Board publicly will be: “I’d like to go work for a team that doesn’t get sold next time.” 2 out of 10 for subtlety, and 8 out of 10 for how rhetorically clever that is.
- It’s his final press conference, so you knew he had to give us one plaque-mountable Burke-ism. “The best part about today, Steve, is that I don’t ever have to talk to you again.” I’d bet anything Burke thought of that Wednesday afternoon, and spent most of the first ten minutes of his press conference praying Simmons would ask something.
- Burke slid in a final ownership jab right at the end. During one of his repeated efforts to deflect ownership (see what I did there?) of answers to the people who actually made the decision (what a concept!), he rapidly – but clearly – indicated that he wasn’t given a satisfactory reason for his dismissal. Disguising it as a subset of feigned ignorance (Concept, not quote: “It’s not up to me to answer that question, because they made the decision, and I can’t anyways because they never really fully explained it”) is another rhetorical trick that’s a trademark of excellent communication and public speaking skill. Much as I’m hopeful about the Nonis era, I’m gonna miss that stuff. A lot.
In summary: Burke didn’t go out guns blazing, but in (what I think more fairly approximates) true Burke fashion with a fair, honest, measured, and very calculated exit that communicated his displeasure in semi-subtle ways without openly attacking or professionally degrading anyone not named Steve.
“Genius how he towed the line, called the decision BS without directly saying it or ducking his own accountability.” – Alec Brownscombe.