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Can we talk playoffs now? And would Leaf fans want a Terry Pegula as owner?

It's one thing to get the puck deep, it's another to keep it there when the game is on the line.  The Leafs did that to virtual perfection in the final 90 or so seconds of Thursday night's game in Montreal.  Their fore checking was immaculate as the Habs couldn't get out of their own end, much less set up shop in the Toronto zone.

Another win for Reimer.  Lebda, plus 2 on the night.  Was that his best game as a Leaf?  Bozak with a break-out evening.  Two more for Kessel as he enjoys his current "hot" streak.  (Is he playing any differently now than he was when he was getting all those chances a few weeks ago and the puck just wasn't going in?)  Throw in Armstrong's tenacity, power play success and all the important little things that make the difference in a close game and it added up to another win for the blue and white.

Playoffs?  If you want to read about another time when the Leafs had no business making the playoffs and came from way back to make it in 1958-'59, click here...


I’ve often posted over the last year and a half or so (showing my age, I guess) about some of the wonderful—and not so wonderful—aspects about the ‘olden days’ of hockey.

Well, something that occured recently (billionnaire and long-time hockey fan Terry Pegula buying the Buffalo Sabres) triggered thoughts on the ownership of the Leafs, such as it is, and some of the organizational history in that regard.

I guess what I've been wondering is whether Leaf fans like the current "style" of ownership, or whether they would like an individual, like Pegula, to step in and give a more passionate ownership identity to the Leafs-with all the good and bad that that can bring.

Going back to the early days, Leaf ownership lost some of its traditional style and class when Conn Smythe sold out to his son Stafford along with John Bassett and Harold Ballard back in the early 1960s.  While the senior Smythe was no saint, he brought a certain kind of mental and practical discipline to the running of the hockey club—and the team’s business affairs.

The Leafs eventually fell back in many ways when the new guard came in, including in terms of on-ice performance and how fans, employees and others were treated (often with contempt). 

The team itself was initially still successful on the ice, but things seemed to go downhill over time under the new regime.

This is not to say there weren’t some happy employees and good times for many individuals, simply that making money by any means possible seemed to be the clarion call of the then new ownership group.  Such was their approach to business that Bassett wisely sold his shares before Smythe and Ballard did some unorthodox bookkeeping, which led to each of them facing jail terms for a variety of allegedly illegal dealings.

Stafford Smythe died in the early '70s and Ballard carried on after his time in jail.  Players were sometimes harpooned publicly by Ballard, and it really wasn’t until after Ballard’s death that the Leafs started to repair relationships with fans and some former players, as well.

Since Ballard ran things solo and loved the limelight, he was the guy most often quoted by the media.  He was the “crazy”, colorful, cantankerous, 'never-know-what-he’s–going-to-say' owner—in an era when you could say just about anything and get away with it.

So, where once the Leafs had class and style in the senior Smythe era, they moved to loud, brash and often tasteless during Harold’s reign.

As current fans know, the team is now operated by a major private investor (Tanenbaum) and the Teachers Pension Fund, which essentially provides an often faceless, very corporate kind of leadership.  Fair enough.

I have neither great regard for—or a feeling of deep criticism toward—the corporate ownership reality, be it in Toronto or any other sports market.  (Though, I should add, I have little regard for the way Richard Peddie, as the decision-maker/meddler for that ownership entity, handled the sports and communications aspect of his role as essentially the senior spokesperson for MLSE these many years.) 

Different owners clearly bring different styles of leadership.  Al Davis has been the face of the Oakland Raiders seemingly forever.  He’s the bad-ass maverick.  He's seen Super-Bowl success, but also much recent failure.

Mark Cuban is loved by many, disliked probably by just as many.  Opinionated, "out there", “one of the guys” as the owner of the NBA Mavericks.

But he is certainly, as Ballard was, in the news, just as George Steinbrenner became famous as the owner and face of the baseball Yankees from the early 1970s onward.  (As I recall, Steinbrenner bought the team from CBS, a corporate owner who had let the proud franchise fall into the doldrums.)

Wealthy individual owners sometimes “buy” a team because they can afford an expensive toy and/or because they want to be around athletes, or perhaps because they see it as a good business investment. Sometimes it works out for them, for the team, and for the fans. (Bob Kraft and the Patriots may be a good example of an individual owner who has built a classy and successful organization.)

In any event, I sometimes wonder what Leaf fans are hoping for next?  Rumors persist that the Rogers media enterprise will buy the Pension Plan shares, though Tanenbaum has the first right of refusal.  That would create a huge sports business empire for Rogers to go along with their ever-growing media empire.

But I’m sure some fans would like to see a single owner, someone with personality (like Pegula), someone who knows hockey, someone who would respect the fans and hire good people and let them run the business and the hockey department, too. (In fairness, since Burke arrived, he has seemingly been able to run the hockey department without interference.)

I sometimes think back to an individual who was a true maverick in his day—the old owner of the Kansas City, then Oakland Athletics- Charlie Finley.

Finley, like Ballard, was considered a bit “crazy” and cheap, too, but he sure brought a lot of energy and pizzazz to a sport when it was largely dying on the vine in the 1960s. (I seem to recall Finley was one of those indirectly responsible for baseball free agency, because of a contract dispute that went to arbitration, but I could be wrong.)  But he was an ideas guy, a marketing genius and entertaining, for sure. (Maybe not a Bill Veeck, exactly, but different than other owners of his era, for sure.)

How?  Well, he tried, for example, to introduce orange baseballs for night games.  He gave his players nicknames.  He made them grow mustaches.  They wore flashy, colorful uniforms and spikes when other teams were still wearing the boring grey flannel uniforms on the road. (His NHL Oakland Seals also wore yellow and gold skates for a while, as I recall.)

One Oakland A’s player, Bert Campaneris, played all 9 positions one night.  I think that was the first time that was ever done in baseball.  Finley brought back the legendary Satchell Paige, then in his late ‘50s, I believe, to pitch in a major league game for several innings.

But more than all the great marketing things he did (and also finding and signing outstanding talent, and seeing his team win three World Series in a row in the early 1970s), there is something else I remember about Finley as an owner that you just don’t see happen very often today.

Though he was considered “cheap” as I mentioned, and reluctant to give big raises in new contracts prior to (or after) free agency was introduced in 1974, he did some neat things.

If a guy pitched a shutout, he would, for example, buy the pitcher a new color TV. (Believe me, that was a big deal in the 1960s, even for athletes, who weren’t making anywhere near the kind of money they would be earning just a few years later.)

If they pitched a no-hitter they may get a new car from Finley.  There was often some little thing he would do, above and beyond what was already in a guy’s contract.  It was neat, it was different.

I remember discussing this aspect of Finley with Vida Blue when I was a young guy in broadcasting in 1979.  Vida had played for Charlie through most of the successful ‘70s era, and agreed with me that there was a side to Finley that was not nearly recognized enough.  Finley did do things for his players, but eventually, as labor versus management became a real thing in baseball under union leader Marvin Miller, this part of the boss-employee relationship slipped quietly away. (I know, I know, athletes would rather earn millions of dollars than get a color TV…)

That’s why, though, is was still good to see the Detroit Tigers give Armando Galaraga a new car after he just missed a deserved no-hitter this past summer.  It was spontaneous and didn’t lead to a union grievance because it wasn't in his contract.

We’ll never see a Charlie Finley again, I don’t imagine.  And I can’t quite picture an individual owner with personality buying the Leafs.  Jim Balsillie's name is easy to raise as a possibility but that will never happen, certainly not in Toronto.

(Could you see Balsillie giving Kulemin a blackberry after a hat trick, or some other technological gadget when Reimer earns a shutout some night…?)

As a fan, would you prefer a faceless, corporate ownership to continue in Toronto, a dispassionate individual owner, or a return to an individual owner with personality?  (Pegula certainly has the latter, and the city of Buffalo has fallen in love, at least for now.)

Send your thoughts along…

1 comment:

  1. Mike, Just a small correction. Although it would have been a nice gesture by the Tigers, they did not give Galaraga a car. GM gave it to him as a pure public relations move to piggyback on the publicity he was getting in the news and advance their own reputation coming out of bankruptcy. I suspect they also "rewarded" Mike Ilitch for his support of GM and the other US car manufacturers. GM has a big advertisement in center field at Comerica Park. When they were heading into bankruptcy, they told Ilitch they were not renewing their ad because they had no money. Ilitch waived the fee for the year and also added free advertisements for Ford and Chrysler in centerfield that year as well
    Ilitch is highly regarded in Detroit as the owner of the Red Wings and has won four Stanley Cups in his tenure. However his true passion is the Tigers, having played in their minor league system long ago. He has yet to win a World Series though, losing to St. Louis in 2006.

    Gene M.