From upsetting alumni by pledging to remove photos of past Leaf greats from the Air Canada Centre, to calling star winger Joffrey Lupul “Jeffrey”, the new MLSE chief is fast becoming a laughing-stock before the season as even begun
When former GM Brian Burke was fired back in January, Maple Leafs fans could have be forgiven for thinking the bluster years were over at the Air Canada Centre. They thought wrong.
Burke’s bombastic, self-promotional style had become a grating issue for his superiors at MLSE, especially when it was combined with no playoffs in four years.
6 months later, the man who fired Burke, former CEO Richard Peddie, has been replaced by someone clearly cut from the same cloth as the fiery Irishman.
Since he took office as President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Leiweke has driven a bus through the idea that what the Leafs needed was a quiet, reserved and politically astute man at the helm of the most scrutinised hockey club in the NHL.
He’s been brought in to make an impact, to rescue the ditch-laden Raptors and sad-sack Toronto FC as well as reverse the fortunes of the Maple Leafs. The man who lured David Beckham to Major League Soccer in 2007 is not afraid to dream big, and his employers clearly view him as the messiah needed to electro-shock all three organisations into the top echelons of professional sports.
Ambition, which Leiweke has in spades, is not to be sniffed at and cynicism and pessism are attitudes that, whilst well-earned, have infected Toronto sports fans for too long and Leiweke himself would argue that needs to be blown out of the water.
But before the season has even started, Leiweke has produced a series of blooper reel moments that are doing little to dampen to the sense that whilst a successful and ambitious businessman, he has little time for attaching himself to the club for any other reason than to tear down – literally – the faces of the Leafs past and replace them with his own.
It started when the former LA Galaxy CEO was forced to apologise to Leafs alumni – and any fans who were offended – after saying he wanted to “get rid” of commemorative pictures and photographs of past leaf greats and glories from the corridors of the Air Canada Centre.
“You want my opinion of it? He’s lost his brain,” said 94-year-old Leaf Stanley Cup-winner Wally Stanowski. “You can’t bury the past.”
Other commentators suggested Leiweke may have lost his brain after handing GM Dave Nonis a five-year contract extension last month, after a Leaf team mainly assembled by Brian Burke managed to make the playoffs, only to choke monumentally in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. Some questioned what, exactly, Nonis had done to deserve another 5 years on the back of a moderately successful 48-game season.
Away from hockey, Leiweke was forced to apologise again, this time to Bryan Colangelo after he stripped the Raptors GM of his duties a month before the latter chose to leave the team at the end of June.
Then, in an extensive interview with the Toronto Star, he threw his two cents into the oldest and least funny of all hockey jokes – the planned parade for the Leafs next Stanley Cup win. Only he was serious.
“If Chicago got one million, Toronto will have two,” he said, referring to the crowds, before actually mapping out the route. It will end at the Waterfront, because it’s nice in June, in case you were wondering.
The latest screw-up, emitted during a conversation over the tight cap situation the Leafs face in trying to sign RFAs Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson (an issue, by the way, Leaf fans need not panic over) was calling Joffrey Lupul “Jeffrey”.
“I don’t think what motivates Jeffrey Lupul is another celebration on the ice – while he sits on the bench – celebrating 50 years ago; and something that happened in 1962 and 1963.” A fair point – the interminable pre-game ceremonies at the ACC are a good way of basically reminding the Leafs how poor they’ve been over the last few years, whilst helpfully stiffening their muscles – but “Jeffrey” might also find motivation in a team owner who, you know, actually knows who he is.
Like Brian Burke, Leiweke is entering a market where you are judged not on the bluster, on the star names you bring into your team, and not lofty promises. The Hollywood approach that Leiweke wants to bring to MLSE will only work if it results in success.
Brian Burke had the more reserved Richard Peddie as his senior – now, the roles are reversed, with the quiet man working under the loud man. But Leaf fans will not care either way. If the team cannot sustain a run in the playoffs, if the Raptors remain in the doldrums with Toronto FC next to them, Leiweke will writing himself into history for all the wrong reasons.