New MLSE president Tim Leiweke, seen here in 2012, isn't staying quiet through his first stretch on the job. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
It kind of goes without saying that a guy who can plan a Stanley Cup parade route for a team that hasn’t even made the final since cars had tailfins has a healthy amount of chutzpah. But the fact remains that new Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Tim Leiweke can have the temerity to plan 50 different parade routes for the next 50 years and it is just white noise. It simply doesn’t matter.
Leiweke, who took over MLSE and, by extension, the Maple Leafs on June 30, offended and shocked fans and hockey observers on a number of fronts recently. The first was his disclosure that he already has the parade route planned for when the Leafs win the Stanley Cup. Well, nobody has come into Toronto with guns blazing like that since, well, Brian Burke. And we all know how that turned out.
But Leiweke will not be judged on how many parade routes he plans, how many brash statements he makes or how much he tries to downplay the franchise’s history. Leiweke will succeed or fail with the fan base on one very simple criterion: whether or not he is able to build and deliver championship teams. And for the team’s owners, he’ll be judged on that and whether or not he can double the value of the company the way he said he intends to.
And, you see, that’s precisely where the Maple Leafs and those with the vision for the team have fallen down most spectacularly over the past half century. One of the biggest misperceptions in the hockey world is that the Leafs simply want to reach into their customers’ pockets, pull out as much money as they possibly can and run off to the bank. Yes, the Maple Leafs really, really want to make money. But so do the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins and the Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers and the Phoenix Coyotes. What most people don’t realize is that for decades, the Leafs have done everything in their power to produce a winner. The problem is that at the corporate level, they haven’t had a clue what they’ve been doing.
This is an organization that spent wildly on players until the salary cap came into being, then has basically spent to the cap ever since. When Burke was running the hockey department, he had more highly paid lieutenants than the leader of the United Nations Security Force. From a historical perspective, the Leafs once purchased an entire minor hockey association so they could get their hands on a young Frank Mahovlich. This is not an organization that does things on the cheap.
What the Maple Leafs need most is someone with a clear vision of what it takes to be a truly elite team in the NHL on a yearly basis. Is Leiweke that guy? It’s impossible to tell, but he does bring with him from Los Angeles a pretty impressive string of championship teams. The problem with the Leafs when they were majority owned by a teachers’ pension fund was that there was no clear leadership when it came to the product on the ice. There is now in Leiweke and that’s certainly not a bad thing.
Which brings us to the second thing Leiweke has done to enrage people, suggesting that basically the Maple Leafs’ past success is, well, a little too far in the past and, well, kind of irrelevant. Again, more white noise really. I can’t imagine that guys like Carl Gunnarsson or Phil Kessel are moved one way or another when they see pictures of George Armstrong and Dave Keon celebrating a Stanley Cup that was won 46 years ago. The legacy, good or bad, has little to do with what happens on the ice. If it didn’t, the Canadiens wouldn’t have just completed their 20th year without a Stanley Cup.
And whether Leiweke feels the Leafs must take ownership over their own legacy, the fact of the matter is the Leafs’ history as champions is not all that rich. In almost 100 years, the team has won 13 Stanley Cups, with all but four of them coming in the 1940s and 1960s. They have not won a Cup since the days of the Original Six, when it was almost impossible to go lengthy periods without stumbling your way into a championship. It was a six-team league in which two of the teams, the New York Rangers and Bruins, were perennial bottom feeders.
And despite having almost unfettered access to the most talented players in Canada’s most populated province, the Leafs didn’t win all that often. Two of the most dynamic and talented players of their generations - Howie Morenz and Bobby Orr - were taken from right under the Maple Leafs’ nose and the franchise has not produced even one Norris Trophy winner in its history. The Canadiens, meanwhile, have won 10 Stanley Cups since the last time the Leafs hoisted it in 1967.
When you look at the entire body of work, it is stunning in its mediocrity. But somehow, the Leafs are deified into being something they never have been and have been credited with a rich history that really hasn’t been there. They’re a franchise that has won a few Stanley Cups along the way, but for the most part has squandered decades with bad management. Leiweke is right about all this and there’s not all that much to celebrate.
Surely you can’t blame a guy for having a bold vision and for wanting to change the culture when you view it through that prism. Burke, for all his talk of changing the culture, did nothing of the sort and, in fact, gave his players more excuses for failure and overpaid more marginal players than almost anyone in the history of the franchise. So it’s about time somebody came in with the kind of thinking Leiweke has demonstrated.
Within a few years, we’ll be able to determine whether or not Leiweke is doing a good job. And it won’t have anything to do with bold parade proclamations or taking down historic photos. It will have everything to do with the quality of the product on the ice.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.