Maple Leafs' former GM Dave Nonis looks back at time with team in first interview after firing
The meeting was called for early Sunday, the morning after the NHL regular season had ended. At first, Dave Nonis thought nothing of it — he thought it would be a continuation of his Saturday conversation with Brendan Shanahan. At first, he figured it would be business as usual.
“A part of me thought we were going to move on to the next phase of our plan. That was my first thought, but a part of me knew it was coming,” said Nonis in his first interview since being fired as general manager of the Maple Leafs, an almost hour-long conversation with the Sun.
The meeting was brief and professional.
“He told me he was making a change. I pretty much knew what he was thinking ... I understand the reasons behind it. I’m not mad at Brendan. He’s still a friend of mine. But still, I was disappointed.
“There’s no hard feelings or ill will. I understand why he decided to make the change. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen. I thought we got along very well throughout the year. But I’ve been in the game a long time. I understand why you do this.”
More than once, he called it the dream job, being GM of the Maple Leafs in the most intense, chaotic, suffocating, reactive market in all of hockey. He was a quiet man in a noisy place and he liked being in the background. But none of this past season seemed much like a dream at all.
“When you’re the manager of a team, you wake up every single day and your first thought is: ‘How can I make my team better today?’ It can consume you. You’re not thinking about the house, or whether it’s your wife’s birthday or anything else going on in your life. It’s ‘How I can make this team better?’
“And when things aren’t going well, that’s all you think about. Personally, it does affect you. It affects you physically. It affects you mentally. It’s not healthy, necessarily. The tradeoffs come when you have success. That’s the profession we’re in. It’s like a drug. It takes over your life. You live for that success and it’s the reason we’re in this.”
Nonis didn’t realize how drained he was, how hard he worked over the final two months of the season, how much time was spent working until after he was let go. He went to the Bahamas for a week on vacation. He entertained a lot of phone calls and text messages from friends and colleagues in the industry. Mostly, he’s kept to himself, outside Toronto, at home in New Hampshire with his family.
“We went away for one week,” he said. “I probably should have gone for longer.”
What he doesn’t have to worry about is getting paid. He has three years remaining on his contract with the Leafs. He was handsomely compensated, as all GMs in hockey are. He has somewhere in the neighbourhood of $6 million still coming to him.
He wishes that the victims of Bloody Sunday — the scouts, front office people, Leafs friends — were as well taken care of as he will be.
“You never want to see people lose their jobs,” he said. “A number of those people were not in high-paying positions and they need to work. I feel for them and wish it had gone differently for them. I know there’s some good hockey people and they’ll find positions elsewhere. You know when you sign a contract to work for an NHL team that (getting fired) is a possibility. But when it’s friends and colleagues and people who worked for you, that hurts.
“I’ve always prided myself as a manager and having relationships with the people who worked for me. I thought it was important to know what they did, what their kids did, what their wives were interested in. That kind of thing. That’s what makes our business special. There’s a lot of people I’d call family — they’re friends of mine and will remain friends of mine.”
So who does Nonis blame for the demise of his hockey club? Not any one person. Not himself. Not his staff. Not the coaches. Not the players. That may be part of why he is no longer with the club.
“It’s a combination of everything,” said Nonis. “I wish I could pinpoint all the reasons of what went wrong. I know people put the collapses together. But I don’t. The last three were different. There’s a lot of blame to go around. But I still don’t think this is a bottom-four roster. There are a lot of assets here. And with the draft picks we’ve accumulated, hopefully a lot of assets going forward.”
The signings that mark Nonis’ stint as general manager were the long-term deals given to Phil Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf. They have proven over time to be Leafs albatrosses.
That’s the public view and the media view. Nonis doesn’t share that opinion.
“When we signed Phil, and I don’t have the numbers in front of me, I think he was the third-highest scoring player over a three-year period,” he said.
But what about his lack of leadership, his conditioning, his quit?
“I don’t think they have to move Phil Kessel,” said Nonis. “You only move him if you decide the return is worth it. If you don’t get value for him, you’re only hurting your team. I believe the baggage that comes with Phil is overblown. Are there things he has to change? Absolutely. But I can assure you of this: Whatever team wins the Stanley Cup this year will have a Phil Kessel in the lineup. I can guarantee that.
“Does he have things to work on? Yes. But he has something other players don’t have. He does have pride and he does want to win. He has to learn to focus some of those characteristics and do a better job. But he’s not a player they have to move.”
Nonis’ view of Kessel might have cost him his job. He has a similar view of captain Phaneuf.
“I could have traded Dion at the deadline. We had a deal, it wasn’t a great one, but it was a deal. I look at Phil and Dion and I still think they’re elite, upper-end players. They both could be traded, but it’s not like the Leafs are stuck with them if they’re back. I think they can come back and help them.”
At least five NHL teams expressed interest in Phaneuf at the trade deadline. “A lot of teams like him,” said Nonis. There has been less interest in Kessel.
And a lot of teams look at the Toronto situation and think it’s impossible.
Impossible to win.
Impossible to deal with the demands of media.
Impossible to deal with a divided ownership group.
Again, Nonis sees things differently. And despite how it ended, he calls his time in Toronto a mostly positive experience.
“People talk about the fans. It’s pretty hard to understand the level of commitment from the fans. The loyalty and interest in unmatched anywhere. And from an ownership standpoint, everything was exceptional. I know people don’t believe this, but the owners want to win. Larry Tanenbaum is one of the most supportive and generous owners I’ve ever met. As an owner and as a friend, it’s something I’ll never forget.
“I believe the team can win in Toronto. It’s just going to take some patience and some time. To say you can’t win in Toronto because of the media is an excuse. If the Boston Red Sox can win in Boston and the New York Yankees can win in New York, why can’t the Toronto Maple Leafs win in Toronto?”
Nonis won’t go over the many moves he made as general manager, but says he made far more good ones than bad. He is particularly proud of the deals that sent Cody Franson, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik and Olli Jokinen packing around the trade deadline in exchange for draft picks and prospects.
“We had 13 picks going in, we now have 18,” he said. “We put in the first phase of our plan and I think we executed it well.”
He didn’t think that kind of execution would end up with him not being party to the next phase of the plan.
If he knows who the next general manager or coach of the Leafs is going to be, he isn’t saying. And he said no determination was made on which player the Leafs will select with the fourth pick in the June draft.
“None of that is my decision any more,” said Nonis. “There are some good hockey people there. Brendan has strong opinions on how he wants his team to play. Mark Hunter was a great addition. The young guys (Kyle Dubas and Brandon Pridham) are tremendously hard-working and smart, getting better every day. The next GM has a real good staff around him.”
So what’s next for Nonis?
“I’m not good at sitting around,” he said. “I want to get back in the game as quickly as possible. That’s the plan.”
His next move is changing the message on the cellphone-answering machine.
“This is Dave Nonis of the Toronto Maple Leafs,” it says.
“Yeah, I’ve kind of avoided doing that,” Nonis says. “I guess I’ll do it tomorrow. I need something to do tomorrow.”
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