TORONTO – Excitement was palpable in the city of Toronto four years ago.
Brian Burke and his Stanley Cup ring had been lured from Anaheim to join the Leafs as president and general manager, replacing interim manager Cliff Fletcher and the much-chagrined John Ferguson Jr.
"Rebuilding this team is not going to be easy," said Burke from a grand introductory news conference at the Air Canada Centre. "It's going to take some time and some patience."
Four-plus years later and it appears all that time and patience has run its course.
Famously dismissive of the five-year rebuild, Burke will not get to five years in Toronto, relieved of his duties on Wednesday morning. His resume will land far short of the lofty expectation which surrounded his celebrated arrival. He spoke gloriously that day in November of 2008 about the religion of hockey in Toronto, aspiring to bring Stanley Cups back into the holy fold. Unfortunately for Burke, the Leafs did not make the postseason once in his tenure – they finished as high as 10th in 2010-2011 – a stinging failure that will surely define his legacy.
"It's not easy to fix a team that's broken," said Burke last April. "And I had no illusions or delusions about that except that I watch general managers in all sports get up there the first day and they say 'We've got a five-year plan' and they're just buying five years right out of the gate. And I don't respect that. My view is I was hopeful we could do it quicker."
Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment President and COO Tom Anselmi refused to offer specifics regarding the stunningly-timed dismissal of Burke – who remains again oddly, as a senior advisor – noting only the need for a "different voice" and "different leadership" style. Anselmi hinted at dissension between Burke and the organization's new ownership group – Bell and Rogers taking control this past summer – but again declined to get into specifics.
Stubbornly impatient throughout his tenure in Toronto, Burke will be replaced at the helm by Dave Nonis, a friend and colleague who also supplanted him in Vancouver. Clearly shaken and worn sitting beside Anselmi at the incredibly awkward news conference announcing the change in course, Nonis noted the primary difference between himself and Burke.
"I'm a little more patient," said Nonis, who was informed of the decision on Wednesday morning.
Burke was notorious is his attempts to fast-forward the process of transformation in Toronto – one that had seemingly bottomed out under John Ferguson Jr. only to fall further under Burke – most notably with the much-debated Phil Kessel trade, which sent three draft picks to Boston in exchange for the talented, but mercurial winger. As the face and voice of the Leafs, he engineered some astute trades, but struck out in most of his free agent attempts. Under his direction, the quality and depth of the organization did improve – with the acquisitions of Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner, the recently-drafted Morgan Rielly and some other prospects – but none of the acquired talent could push his Leafs into the playoffs.
The most prominent failing of his tactical tenure in Toronto was his inability to land a number one goaltender, amid constant speculation at the moment regarding a possible trade for Roberto Luongo. Like in Vancouver, goaltending during Burke's reign was increasingly unstable. He was also unable to acquire a number one centre, a long-stated goal while at the helm.
Rules often defined Burke's time in Toronto. He was firmly against offer sheets and long-term, back-diving deals, declining either avenue as a means for improving his hockey club.
Burke boasted on the day of his hiring that he wanted to change the culture in Toronto, removing the so-called "blue and white disease" that had so consumed the organization, while delivering a team busting of pugnacity and toughness. He was unable to build a roster matching such a description, compounded by the desire of then-head coach Ron Wilson's preference for skill over truculence. Burke replaced Wilson with Randy Carlyle in March, changing course back to a black-and-blue style with the coach who led his Ducks to a Stanley Cup in Anaheim.
His tenure will stand defined by brash rhetoric and bold statements, but short on the results those declarations require. His hope was to transform the Leafs into a perennial Stanley Cup contender, a goal that never materialized with even hints of the post-season absent. He acquired pieces to the puzzles, but failed to string together a collection capable of finding success.
Burke did not live up to his billing with the Leafs and will be remembered as such.