More stunning than the collective-bargaining talks finally coming to a conclusion around the crack of dawn last Sunday was the Maple Leafs ownership decision some 72 hours later to remove Brian Burke as general manager.
Dave Nonis, 46, a former University of Maine Black Bear captain, was promoted to Burke’s spot, with former Bruin Dave Poulin his lieutenant.
In Burke’s four years on the job, the Leafs never qualified for the playoffs, which undeniably factored into his dismissal. Winning is essential to career stability. Such is the world of pro sports, especially in a town where hockey owns most of the eyeballs, wallets, and hearts.
“We didn’t win enough,’’ Burke said Saturday afternoon, addressing the media at the Air Canada Centre. “That’s why we’re here today.’’
But the turfing ultimately reached the tipping point over a personality conflict between Burke and part of the club’s new Rogers-Bell ownership group. Bell chief George Cope had Burke in his crosshairs from the start, and ultimately Cope won the front office tug-o-war with the Rogers bosses and minority owner Larry Tanenbaum.
Burke noted during the presser that ownership spelled out the reasons for his dismissal, but he preferred not to reveal details. Again, he emphasized his inability to deliver a winner, the club going 129-135-42 during his tenure.
“There’s some times when you get fired,’’ said Burke, who had just returned from a lengthy scouting mission in Ufa, Russia, site of the World Junior Championships. “You see the vultures circling and you understand it’s coming. You’re not sure when you’re going to drop dead in the desert, but it’s coming and you can see the vultures. This one here was like a two-by-four upside the head for me.’’
With this season and next remaining on his deal, Burke for now will remain with the club as a senior adviser/consultant, much as Harry Sinden has done ever since Bruins owner JeremyJacobs finally changed the drapes and opened the windows on Causeway Street in the summer of 2006.
Slim bet, though, that the 57-year-old Burke will remain long in the new role. He’ll be on the short list of any club looking for new leadership, be it as team president or GM. Or, provided he is willing to take a substantial cut in pay, he could take safe harbor in a broadcast booth or studio. A Mike Milbury-Burke tandem during NBC broadcasts has pay-per-view potential, with a dash of Jeremy Roenick perhaps playing an accelerant to the broadcast bonfire.
Overall, the move by Leafs ownership was reminiscent of the tempestuous, capricious Harold Ballard days in Toronto. The word that immediately comes to mind: erratic.
Fine, give Burke the gate, but three days after an embarrassing and damaging league lockout that lasted 113 days? And with a mad-dash-to-the-end 48-game season just about to start? Make that word: lamebrained.
If this is the kind of guiding hand ownership will show Toronto fans — the most loyal and highest-paying customers in the game — perhaps they’d be best to petition the NHL for an expansion team just up the road at that planned fancy new rink in Markham, Ontario. How delicious it would be to see the new club operating with Burke directing the front office, trying not only to beat his old team on the ice, but also trying to chisel market share away from the Blue-and-White monolith?
Another potential landing spot for Burke, who won a Stanley Cup as Anaheim’s GM in 2007, would be Buffalo. The Sabres have never won a championship, and new owner Terry Pegula knows his franchise forever has been a weaker sibling to the Big Brother Leafs. Some 100 miles and maybe $200 million in annual revenue separate the two franchises.
None of that might change with Burke in charge, but he would sure make it fun, especially in the head-to-head encounters between the divisional rivals.
In an e-mail here last Wednesday, Burke reported that he was “stunned’’ by the events, and he made it clear during the news conference Saturday that he was still reeling over what happened. Both of his adult children live here in the Hub, and he’ll be in the stands Sunday at Foxborough for the Patriots-Texans playoff game.
How soon would he like to be directing another club in the Original 30?
“Tomorrow,’’ he said. “I don’t think I’m done from a hockey perspective.’’
LIKE OLD TIMES
48 just fine in earlier days
A 48-game season, such as the one starting next weekend, was de rigueur in the NHL beginning in the 1931-32 season and running through 1941-42. The Bruins twice won the Stanley Cup in those days, in 1939 and then 1941, with Hall of Fame center Bill Cowley typically leading the charge.
Cowley ranked third in league scoring (8-34—42) in 1938-39 and then topped the field in 1940-41 with 17-45—62, eclipsing No. 2 scorer Bryan Hextall of the Rangers by 18 points — a substantial 41 percent differential not unlike the way Wayne Gretzky blew away the field in his heyday.
“Cowboy” Cowley played his NHL rookie year with the St. Louis Eagles, but joined the Bruins the following season (1935-36) when St. Louis folded and Boston GM Art Ross took him in the dispersal draft.
Music to the ears of all Bruins fans: The Canadiens never won the Cup during the 11 seasons of the 48-game era. The Montreal Maroons won it in 1935, but their in-town rival Habs never even made it to the finals. Les Glorieux twice failed to qualify for the postseason.
The Bruins, Red Wings, Leafs, Blackhawks, and Rangers all won the Cup twice during the 48-game era, with the Maroons, led by the likes of Hooley Smith and Baldy Northcott, winning once. Hard to find names like “Hooley” and “Baldy” in today’s game.
Star Boston defenseman Eddie Shore was the league MVP (Hart Trophy) four times (1933, ’35, ’36, ’38) during those years, and Cowley won it in ’41. Boston’s Tiny Thompson was a three-time winner (1933, ’36, ’38) of the Vezina Trophy as the game’s top goalie, followed by fellow Bostonian Frank Brimsek in 1939 and ’42.
The league increased the schedule to 50 games starting with the 1942-43 season, and the only other 48-game schedule ever implemented was in 1994-95, the season of the NHL’s first lockout. The Bruins went 27-18-3, but were bounced in Round 1 of the playoffs by the Devils, the eventual Cup winners.
Push will be on to sign ’em up
It shapes up as a very busy and pricy week in some NHL cities, with a handful of high-end restricted free agents yet to ink contracts. Case in point: the Canadiens, who couldn’t get star blue liner P.K. Subban to sign on the dotted line prior to the lockout. For all his juvenile bombast at times, Subban is a special talent and should command $5 million a year or better from the Habs. Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto, another RFA, is probably more in the $3.5 million-a-year range. The priciest of the bunch could be Colorado center Ryan O’Reilly, who connected for 18-37—55 last season and has yet to pack his bags in Russia (Magnitogorsk) to make his way home to Denver. Other unsigned RFAs include Jamie Benn (LW), Dallas; Dmitry Kulikov (D), Florida; Cody Franson (D), Toronto.
A few former Bruins remain unrestricted free agents, still in search of deals as training camps finally open. Up front, Marco Sturm, Brian Rolston, and Mike Knuble are still available, along with defensemen Sean O’Donnell and MilanJurcina, “The Scoring Machina.” Highly doubtful that Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli will give any of these golden oldies a sniff, although Rolston, who turns 40 Feb. 21, provided some much-needed offensive spark here last spring when the Bruins snagged him from the Islanders at the trade deadline. Frankly, he provided far better than what the Bruins got out of Tomas Kaberle the previous season. It’s possible all five ex-Bruins will retire — casualties to the lockout, in part, as well as their advanced odometers.
They earn their stripes
The NHL’s vastly underappreciated referees and linesmen will meet in Toronto Wednesday though Friday for their annual preseason mini-camp. Terry Gregson, the director of officiating, will direct the guys in stripes, bringing them up to date on rule changes and enforcement, and no doubt reminding them how to filter out all the yakkity-yak-yak-yak from the stands and benches. As a bunch, these guys are subjected to far too much noise from fans, players, and coaches. Not much they can do about vox populi, but they deserve far less grief from coaches and players.
Pensions get a boost
The Players Association said prior to the lockout being settled that it again would pay in its $2 million — matching the league’s contribution — toward the Senior Player Benefits program, essentially a pension enhancement for former players 65 and older. With the CBA now settled, the league has decided to increase its funding to $3 million per year for the duration of the new CBA (be it eight or 10 years). According to a source with direct knowledge of how the benefit is funded, the league also has “invited’’ the NHLPA to do the same. But as of Friday evening, the league had yet to receive a response to that invitation. This year, some 325 former players, including Bobby Orr and Brad Park, will receive SPB payouts. Each player receives nearly $1,800 for each season he played, money that is vital for some retirees, especially given the modest pensions received by those who were part of the Original Six and even the 12-team league.
Hand it over
Unimaginable that Gary “Lockout” Bettman ever again will fulfill the commissioner’s duty of handing out the Stanley Cup. It has been increasingly embarrassing to watch Bettman do it in recent years, given the level of animosity that showers down upon him from the stands. The Vancouver crowd in 2011 was especially brutal. But now, with three lockouts under his belt and fans historically siding with players in labor disputes, the exercise would be not only painful to witness but potentially damaging to the brand. Far better to have the likes of an Orr, a Gordie Howe, or a Wayne Gretzky haul out the hardware. Meanwhile, Bettman on Feb. 1 will celebrate 20 years in the corner office. Can’t wait to see the customized lock-and-key set the NHLPA sends his way.
Careful on Kessel
Old pal Mike Brophy, the popular Toronto-based hockey analyst, tweeted this in his @HockeyBroph account a couple of days after BrianBurke’s dismissal: “If Dave Nonis wants to prove he is not Brian Burke II, he will move Phil Kessel as soon as possible. Needs to close door on that chapter.’’ Certainly, Burke’s trade for Kessel, which netted Boston both Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, is tipping heavily Boston’s way these three-plus years later. But Kessel, 25, is a talent, one who finished sixth overall in 2011-12 scoring with 37-45—82. In 234 games with the Leafs, he stands 99-102—201. The only guys to produce bigger numbers last season were Evgeni Malkin (109), Steven Stamkos (97), Claude Giroux (93), Jason Spezza (84), and Ilya Kovalchuk (83). He’s just not The Guy, a franchise centerpiece, much as the Sharks have found out since obtaining Joe Thornton. Toronto’s greatest shortcomings during Burke’s tenure have been in goal and at the No. 1 pivot position. Had either of those been solved, it’s likely the Leafs would have made the playoffs the last two years, Kessel (with the same numbers) would be deemed more valuable, and Burke likely would still be the lead Leaf.
In case you forgot, ex-Bruin Adam Oates is the guy behind the Capitals bench this season, his first top coaching gig. If he can teach someone in the lineup to dish the puck to Alex Ovechkin the way he used to dish it to Cam Neely, alert the Elias Sports Bureau.
The Kings designated four Los Angeles-area charities to divvy up $1 million in donations, a way of saying thanks to the community for sticking with them through the lockout. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins will offer selected free concessions (voucher necessary) during the first four home games, and also will drop prices 50 percent on all merchandise at area PensGear pro shops on those first four game days.
The NHL’s original 2012-13 schedule had the Bruins in a magnificent twin bill this weekend, with the Blackhawks at the Garden for a Saturday matinee, followed by the Bruins facing the Rangers Sunday night in Manhattan. Boston and Chicago won’t face each other now unless it’s in the Cup final . . . Defenseman Paul Mara, the pride of Belmont Hill, reported to Ontario (Calif.) in the East Coast Hockey League early in the lockout, and last week agent Matt Keator helped him find an AHL home in Houston, with the Wild’s top affiliate. No telling how the Minnesota defense shapes up beyond the projected top pairing of Ryan Suter-Tom Gilbert. In 28 games with Ontario, Mara finished 1-17—18. He last played in the NHL in 2010-11 with the Ducks and Habs . . . The Blue Jackets have to pick a captain now that Rick Nash is wearing Ranger blue. The bet here: the Pittsburgh-born R.J. Umberger . . . From the how-could-something-so-right-turn-out-so-wrong department: growing speculation in Philly that the Flyers will buy out goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, on the books for some $41 million over the next eight years, his annual cap hit at $5.667 million . . . Los Angeles will open without the services of star forward Anze Kopitar, who wrenched his right knee while playing in Sweden last weekend. He’ll likely miss the first 3-5 games . . . The Canucks are looking to land a roster player, top prospect, and a pick in a swap for goalie Roberto Luongo. GM Mike Gillis has some real tire-pumping to do for that kind of return. But unlike Tim Thomas, that’s his job . . . As of Friday afternoon, the NHL had yet to make team administrators aware of the date for this season’s trade deadline. In an 82-game season, it’s typically backed some 40 days off the end of the regular season. With games likely to cross into May this season, that would set the deadline at the tail end of March, or the first week of April. The rumor mill has it on April 3.