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Burke says goodbye to Toronto in his own style

by Dave Lozo

To the uninitiated, Brian Burke's press conference at Air Canada Centre on Saturday may have looked like an inquisition.

There was Burke, alone at the microphone, seated in front of a slew of reporters for the first time since he was dismissed on Wednesday. There were reporters who were poised to unleash questions about his time as general manager of the Maple Leafs that was brought to a shocking close after less than four years -- and zero appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Instead, Burke spent about 10 minutes absorbing the inquiries after his prepared statements with a mix of honesty and truculence, coming out on the other side with dignity while firing back a few shots of his own.

"From my perspective, they bring you into win games," Burke said. "I didn't win enough games. I think I put some building blocks in place. I was stunned by this turn of events, no question about it. But I do believe ownership has the right to make that call and I'll move on."


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Burke was told Wednesday morning by MLSE president and COO Tom Anselmi that he was being relieved of his duties and replaced by Dave Nonis, who succeeded Burke as GM of the Vancouver Canucks in 2004 when Burke was dismissed from that job. The move coming so close to the start of the 2012-13 season surprised many, including Burke, who was on his way to a Board of Governors meeting in New York when he was asked to return to the office to receive the bad news.

Seventy-two hours later, Burke was still absorbing the news and his new role as senior adviser to the board, a position without much day-to-day hockey involvement.

One of his inquisitors asked when Burke would be ready to become the general manager of another club.

"Tomorrow, if I can," Burke said. "I don't think I'm done from a hockey perspective. I am definitely in the job market, no question.

"You have to understand that sometimes when you get fired, you can 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. This one here was like a 2x4 upside the head to me."

Asked about the reason behind the timing of his firing, Burke said, "Why don't you ask the people who made this decision why the timing was what it was? I did not get a satisfactory explanation for that and I'm not in a position to offer it."

Burke joined the Leafs on Nov. 29, 2008, which was 12 days after he stepped down as GM of the Anaheim Ducks, whom he helped guide to a Stanley Cup a little more than a year earlier. Burke inherited a Leafs team from John Ferguson (with Cliff Fletcher as interim GM bridging the gap) that hadn't reached the postseason since 2004.

Despite the hand Burke was dealt when he took the job, he wouldn't blame his predecessor for his current predicament.

"I think people stand up here when they are let go and say, 'Look at the mess I inherited,'" Burke said. "That's not fair to John Ferguson. The players John left me, we managed to turn into some pretty good players. And I don't expect Dave Nonis to stand up here in five years or whenever he gets the ax and say, 'Look what I started with.' That's another excuse.

"I knew what the roster was when I came here. There was no secrets about it. I'm not ducking that one, either. I'm not going to say, look at what I had when I got here. That's not fair to Fergie."

The Maple Leafs' best finish during Burke's tenure was 10th in the East with 85 points in 2011. Last season, the Leafs slipped to 13th in the conference with 80 points and were set to enter this season with the acquisition of James van Riemsdyk from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for defenseman Luke Schenn as the biggest offseason move.

"From my perspective, they bring you into win games. I didn't win enough games. I think I put some building blocks in place. I was stunned by this turn of events, no question about it. But I do believe ownership has the right to make that call and I'll move on." -- Brian Burke

The rampant speculation since the end of last season was the Leafs were interested in solving their goaltending issues by acquiring Roberto Luongo from the Canucks. Burke on Saturday didn't speak directly about negotiating a trade for Luongo, but seemed happy that he wasn't going to have to concern himself with it any longer.

"The good news is that's not my problem anymore," Burke said. "As of 48 hours ago, it's someone else's problem. We were exploring opportunities to upgrade at a lot of different positions. I believe that had we not been able to upgrade, I believe in James Reimer and I think I'll be borne out on that one.

"But that's someone else's problem now. Clearly goaltending was an issue here. It's not for lack of trying different solutions that we weren't able to solve it, but we weren't able to solve it. I still believe if James Reimer hadn't gotten hurt (last season), it wouldn't have been an issue."

Burke's legacy off the ice while in Toronto will be remembered far more positively than the results on it.

As a member of the advisory board of the You Can Play Project, a campaign designed to ensure equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation, Burke supported the rights of gay athletes in all sports and preached tolerance. You Can Play has received backing from several major sports, including the NHL and the American Hockey League.

Burke also marched in the Toronto Pride Parade to honor his late son, Brendan, who was openly gay and intended to march in the parade before he was killed in a car accident in February 2010.

Nothing will change for Burke when it comes to being active in the community with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in sports, but he admitted his diminished position could result in his words having less of an impact.

"You lose your voice, literally and figuratively sometimes, in this job," Burke said. "What I felt was, you could use the job title, the muscle behind the job, to drive some of the charitable initiatives I worked in. It's not going to change my focus or my commitment. I think it carries less weight if it's Brian Burke, senior adviser, than it does if it's Brian Burke, general manger. But I don't intend to change anything I do community-wise. That's in my DNA. That's not going to change."

Burke said despite the lack of success during his time as GM of the Maple Leafs, it was an experience he will cherish. But after losing his job twice now after changes in ownership with the Canucks and Leafs, he said he wouldn't mind a more stable situation if he gets another crack being a general manager.

"I'd like to go to work for a team that doesn't get sold next time," Burke said. "I've got a pretty poor track record on that, Vancouver then here. Somebody buys the team, they have the absolute right to have their guy. I have to pick better next time. But I wouldn't trade the experience. I wouldn't trade the ability to work here for as long as I have and live in this city. I wouldn't trade that for anything.

"It's about what I expected. It's the Vatican. It's the biggest stage in pro hockey, maybe pro sports. It's exactly what I expected. It's the pressure I expected, the stage I expected. … I'm not changing. I'm not going to change how I do things. That's not possible. I'm Irish, we're stubborn. I have to find someone who likes that brand, I guess."


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