Despite what Tim Leiweke says, the NHL will have a second Toronto team if it wants

Ken Campbell
lieweke-edited

It’s probably safe to say NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has no problem with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Tim Leiweke taking down pictures, planning parade routes and comparing Toronto mayor Rob Ford to Tommy Boy. In fact, if he has a sense of humor, he’d find that last one pretty funny.

But when it comes to Leiweke sounding off concerning league business, specifically expansion, I’m willing to bet there’s a fair bit of steam coming out of Bettman’s ears this morning. Leiweke has come into Toronto with his guns blazing to be sure, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but those who know Bettman say he absolutely abhors when anyone steps out of line and comments on things that are out of their purview. Look at the last lockout. Nobody stepped out of line with comments. Do you hear any other executives ever talking about expansion? Didn’t think so.

The Leafs seem to think they have some kind of veto over whether or not a second team can be placed in their geographic area, but they’re the only ones. The league will tell you that if it wants to put a team in suburban Toronto, the Leafs will have one vote among 30, nothing more. Of course they can flex their muscles, but once a building is constructed, as it is expected to in the suburb of Markham, it will be up to the will of all the league’s governors, not the Leafs. Yes, the Leafs could challenge it in court, but deputy commissioner Bill Daly has gone on the record a number of times saying the league believes it has an iron-clad legal right to put a team in Toronto if it sees fit.

So when Leiweke tells the Empire Club of Canada, as he did yesterday: “Economically, I can tell you flat out there is not a second team coming to Toronto anytime in the near future,” not only is he giving the Leafs too much credit for their standing in the league, but he’s also making life more difficult for Bettman. And Bettman doesn’t like that at all.

But that wasn’t all Leiweke had to say. He clarified his comments later by saying the opinions were his only, but for somebody who spoke for himself, he certainly used the “we as a league” parlance a lot.

First came the doozie. “I think we owe Quebec another shot,” Leiweke said. “They’re way ahead of anyone else as to considerations (sic) because we took a team from Quebec. And like we did in Winnipeg, where we felt an obligation to return to Winnipeg…do we not as a league owe Quebec another start if they get a new arena?”

Leiweke also said Quebec City is taking “a spec risk of privately building an arena.” Really? Is that why the private sector is contributing just $13 million of the $400 million it’s going to cost to build the new facility?

Among Leiweke’s other pearls:

• “I think we as a league have to get back to the Pacific north west. We have to. We have a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put hockey back in the Seattle-Portland marketplace and I think we have to make a commitment toward that.”
Come back to the north west? When was the NHL ever in the north west in the first place? If Leiweke is referring to the Seattle Metropolitans, who won the Stanley Cup almost 100 years ago, he should check the history books. They played in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Seattle has never had a team in the NHL. Ever.

Leiweke is right in that Seattle is likely first in line for expansion. In fact, some in the industry think the groundwork to get Seattle into the NHL is being done right now. But that won’t be at the expense of another team in Toronto or anywhere else.

• “Long before we talk about a second team in the Toronto marketplace, I think we have to be observant of how as a league we need to properly expand our fan base, our eyeballs, our distribution network and continue to grow the sport in places where we haven’t been or need to go back to.”

Leiweke even mentioned Kansas City and Las Vegas, for goodness sake, “where they’ve already built NHL arenas.” Hmm, must have missed the construction of that NHL arena in Las Vegas. He pointed out that Kansas City has had an arena for five years, “and has an NHL hockey locker room already built there.” He really said that. He really suggested the NHL should expand to Kansas City, in part, because the arena has an NHL locker room in it.

What Leiweke didn’t mention is that he was president and CEO of AEG when they built the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Of course he thinks the league should be there. So far, the NHL hasn’t exactly seen it that way.

• “Seattle, Kansas City, Quebec, Las Vegas, they’re way ahead of any conversation anyone ought to be having in this community.”

Leiweke, it seems, is one for bold proclamations. Most of them are hot air that have no risk of accountability attached to them. Really, is anyone going to storm the Air Canada Centre if Toronto FC isn’t a playoff team next season? Are people going to stop going to Maple Leaf games if they don’t win a Stanley Cup?

No. Just like the NHL isn’t going to go to Quebec, Kansas City, Seattle or Las Vegas or stay out of Toronto just because Tim Leiweke said so.