Brian Burke’s firing may have been bad timing, but a look into the past reveals the Maple Leafs have a habit for dismissing their GM under strange circumstances.
Toronto Maple Leafs fans expect a circus whenever major personnel moves are made. Though the timing of Brian Burke’s dismissal as general manager on Wednesday may be questioned, it isn’t anywhere near as embarrassing as the moment the axe fell on two of his predecessors.
Hap Day bled blue and white. One of the few players owner Conn Smythe kept when the Toronto St. Patricks became the Maple Leafs in the mid-1920s, Day went on to win five Stanley Cups during a 10-year coaching stint. Though Smythe was general manager on paper during the early 1950s, Day unofficially ran the Leafs, as the lingering effects of injuries sustained during World War II affected Smythe’s health. When Smythe handed the team’s full managerial duties to Day in 1955, their business relationship extended beyond hockey—Day managed and was a major shareholder of Smythe’s gravel and sand business north of the city.
As the 1956-57 season ended, the Leafs were in turmoil. Missing the playoffs confirmed the decline of a team which hadn’t seen a Stanley Cup final since Bill Barilko’s heroics in 1951. Waiting in the wings was Smythe’s son Stafford, who awaited the day he would be appointed to run the club.
At the same time, Smythe was battling the formation of an NHL players union, which he viewed as an act of disloyalty. He ordered Day to bench one of the union’s most vocal advocates, defenceman Jimmy Thomson.
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On March 17, 1957, Smythe left his Florida home and called a press conference at New York’s Hotel Commodore. He booked a train to bring Toronto sportswriters to the Big Apple, where he apologized for the team’s play and criticized Thomson’s union activity. While he didn’t explicitly acknowledge his discontent with Day and coach Howie Meeker, Star columnist Milt Dunnell found it telling that Smythe referred to his GM as “Mr. Day” instead of “Hap.” Dunnell looked at Day and Meeker’s grim faces and observed that the “targets are not even sure they’ve been hit.”
While Smythe hoped Day would understand it was time for Stafford to run the club, the GM believed the two men should have discussed the matter privately. “My legs have been cut out from under me,” Day said, as he began to ponder his options. During a March 23 “Hot Stove League” session on Hockey Night in Canada, Smythe claimed he was waiting to hear if Day was “available” to continue running the club. Two days later, a furious Day confronted Smythe. When Smythe confirmed his recent statement, Day’s response was blunt: “It’s strange that I should be asked if I was available, after 30 years. But since I have been asked, I don’t want the job anymore.” Day cleared his desk and moved to St. Thomas, Ontario to run a tool handle factory.
Smythe soon felt guilty about his handling of the situation. Offered a chance to return, Day replied, “There’s no chance of that happening.” Thankfully, time healed the rift between the old friends. Day admitted to Dunnell in a 1975 interview, “As it turned out, I left at the right time. It was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.”
After a year’s interregnum, Punch Imlach became the Leafs’ GM. While his first tenure ended in a straightforward firing after an early playoff exit in 1969, his second tour of duty a decade later ended rather messily.
The controversy during Imlach’s second stint involved him feuding with or trading away popular players as the team sank in the standings. During rookie training camp in St. Catharines in September 1981, Imlach suffered his second heart attack in a year. While recovering at Toronto General Hospital, a nurse asked if he was losing his job, as she saw a Sun story claiming Harold Ballard wanted to let him go. Imlach reassured the nurse that the egotistical Leafs owner constantly “fired” employees in the press.
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Imlach underwent triple bypass surgery and soon received a clean bill of health to return to the Gardens. Ballard told the press he was worried about Imlach’s health and preferred employing him as an advisor, in order to avoid “[being] the guy who puts him in the box.” During Imlach’s hospitalization, Ballard opted not to send get well cards and even forbade employees from visiting. Ballard then dodged several scheduled meetings with Imlach to determine his future, which fit perfectly with Ballard’s dislike of firing anyone in person.
Imlach confronted Ballard on November 17, 1981. When asked about the press rumours, Ballard replied, “Ah-h-h, don’t believe half of what you read in the paper.” When Imlach inquired about the other half, Ballard asked him to stay on as an advisor. Imlach refused, noting, “If I’m going to be your advisor, the first thing I advise you to do is put me back as general manager.” Ballard noted, “I won’t accept your resignation,” then smiled slightly as Imlach replied, “I never offered my resignation!” Imlach insisted on remaining GM while he was under contract, and Ballard soon attempted to force Imlach’s resignation by telling the media that he had quit. When a CFRB caller asked Ballard why Punch couldn’t return to work like others who had similar heart surgery, he replied, “I don’t want to have someone that’s a cripple here.”
Imlach continued to show up for work, but he was effectively removed from the position. To make the point crystal clear, Ballard removed Imlach’s parking spot in early December. While Imlach was paid for the rest of his contract, chief scout Gerry McNamara assumed acting GM responsibilities and was given the reins full-time at season’s end.
Additional material from Maple Leaf Blues by William Houston (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990), Heaven and Hell In the NHL by Punch Imlach with Scott Young (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1983), The Lives of Conn Smythe by Kelly McParland (Toronto: Fenn/McClelland & Stewart, 2011), If You Can’t Beat ‘Em in the Alley by Conn Smythe with Scott Young (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1981), the March 25, 1957 edition of The Globe and Mail, and the March 18, 1957, January 31, 1975, and December 3, 1981 editions of the Toronto Star.