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New Leaf ownership: does it matter if the owners aren’t Canadian?

The Predators played pretty much as we expected: a hard-working game, though they made plenty of mistakes.  The Leafs just could not convert the chances they had.  Rinne played well and that was enough on a night when the Leafs had shots, but not enough firepower.

A few observations:
  • It's funny, isn't it.  Franson can't find a spot with the Leafs (though he might now if Komisarek is out), but in Nashville, he'd play significant minutes, probably top-four. The Leaf announce team suggested during Thursday night's game that the Preds would love to have him back.  But even though the Preds are a better team than the Leafs, Franson can't play here.
  • Schenn did some good things, as he continues to get better as the season wears on.  He'll be criticized for a blue line "pinch" that didn't work, but those things happen.  There are other guys on the ice who need to fill in, too, and back him up.
  • Phaneuf continues to try and make things happen, but he seems to be in a streak where things just aren't working as successfully for him as they were when he was wheeling and dealing earlier in the season.
  • Komisarek, Franson and Liles were not on for any goals against.
  • Even though the Preds were looking to shut Kessel down by employing Suter and Weber against him, I thought he was still the most dangerous Leaf on the ice.  That said, he finished the night a minus 4.  So much for stats some nights, eh?
One key for the Leafs will be not to use injuries as an excuse going forward- and I'm sure they won't.  (Fans might, but the Leafs won't.)  As I mentioned often in this space last season and early this fall, they were very fortunate last season.  While other Eastern Conference teams saw guys dropping like flies, the Leafs were generally very healthy.  This season they are being stung, but this is where our alleged depth has to rise to the surface.

Saturday night is Game 20, that's when we can begin to analyze things more seriously.  The Caps come to town on the heels of a loss in Winnipeg.


Let me start by saying I have listened to the arguments for why it makes absolutely no difference who owns the Maple Leafs and whether they are Canadian or not.  That well-argued position states that it indeed makes no difference, as long as the new owner/owners can bring success to the franchise.

My own position is a bit different, I guess.  It does matter to me who owns the team.  And I would strongly prefer—from the perspective of a fan who has followed this franchise with great interest since the late 1950s—that the new owners bring not only a Canadian background but some other qualities as well.

To be clear, I have no compelling “business” argument to present as to why a new owner or owners must be Canadian.  I will acknowledge fully that my wishes are no doubt largely sentimental, which has little place in the world of logic, business or “bottom-lines”.

It is important, though, to take a step back and understand that Leaf “history” dates back to Conn Smythe way back in the 1920s or so.  He held on to majority ownership until three younger men, in the early 1960s (his son Stafford, media magnate John Bassett (Sr.) and Harold Ballard), formed the next partnership to own the Maple Leaf hockey Club, acquiring the franchise from the senior Smythe.

That lasted until Bassett stepped out and sold his shares, leaving the younger Smythe (pictured at left) and Ballard in charge at Maple Leaf Gardens. In and around the time the two remaining owners were facing some legal issues (problems that eventually landed Ballard in jail for a period of time in the early 1970s), Stafford Smythe became ill and passed away.

My understanding, as I recall, is that Ballard had the first right of refusal on Stafford’s shares, and he exercised that option, no doubt with help from banks and various smaller investors, etc. to complete the transaction.

Unfortunately, the Smythe family was left out in the cold.

In any event, Leaf fans know that Ballard ran the club (some might say almost into the ground, especially through the turbulent—and largely unsuccessful—1980s) until his death in 1990.

I don’t recall all the nuances of how the succession went from there, but I believe that long-time Board member Don Giffen ran the team for a time before Steve Stavro, a fellow Board member, wrested away financial control of the business.

The Teachers Pension Plan grew its ownership stake along the way and Stavro eventually sold-out/ was pushed aside.  In recent years we have what is referred to as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in control of the hockey club (as well as the Raptors and Toronto FC), with the Pension Plan still in charge.

When they ultimately sell their stake, it will mark a significant change in many ways, one would think.  If you have an owner like Ballard, George Steinbrenner (or in more modern terms, Mark Cuban or Jerry Jones, both in Dallas but in other professional sports), you have active owners who play an actual decision-making role in trades, personnel moves and are in many ways the face of the franchise.

That can be good or bad (or both), depending on the owner—and one’s point of view.

Here, the Teachers Pension Plan has been largely invisible, relying on CEO Richard Peddie to disseminate their corporate messaging.  While I won’t be disappointed to see Peddie leave the building, or the Pension Plan ownership group for that matter, I am mildly concerned when we hear that American business interests were seemingly interesting in pursuing ownership of MLSE. (Wayne Gretzky's supposed "role" as front man/part-owner does not alleviate my concerns...)

I would probably have the same hesitation if any major Canadian company was lost to foreign business interests, I suppose, unless it was the only way to preserve jobs and keep the business running.

I guess it comes down to simply wishing that a Canadian, Toronto-based franchise—one with a rich history and an important legacy on and off the ice—can stay in Canadian hands. (Hey, I’d like to see even more Canadians in the Canadian Football League.  Not because I’m “anti-American”, but because I would enjoy seeing more Canadian kids, including quarterbacks, have a legitimate shot at a pro career in their own country…)

Elizabeth Brinton, an author who happens to be one of the grand-daughters of Conn Smythe, exchanged correspondence with me on this subject this week.  Here was her comment to me when I asked her for an opinion:

I do not think there is a Leaf fan anywhere who would be thrilled to see another big investment group, a sort of nameless faceless endeavor, take up the reins, especially in today's climate. However, when any business has a for sale tag hanging out there, bidders will come from whomever can pony up that much cash.  Over the years, we have all wished we could buy back the Leafs, from the minute we heard the awful news, coming as it did, over the radio. Since that was not meant to be, at the very least, there has been the fervent hope and yes, prayer that it would go to a good person, or group who like us, would be focused one hundred per cent on the fans to whom we always felt we owed everything.  I am sure all past owners since 1971 wanted to win the cup. Who wouldn't? I do wonder though, if anyone could possibly have wanted to win as much as Conn and Stafford Smythe did. The best possible outcome, from my perspective, would be the OWNTHELEAFS effort, led by Darren Thompson.  A change that dramatic would clean up all negative energy, and undoubtedly, make us victorious once more.

That’s very well stated—and by an individual who was part of the family that owned the Maple Leafs when they were very good, champions, in fact, lo those many years ago.

Now, as I mentioned, there are qualities beyond citizenship that matter here, at least to me. (We could have lousy Canadian owners, or great owners from another country, of course.)

The ideal “criteria?  Well owners with class, who would preserve what is good about Maple Leaf heritage and history.  Who would continue to care for the athletes—and everyone who works for the organization.  Who would care passionately about their teams but hire the best people they can find and then let them do their jobs.

Some will argue that the current ownership group has done precisely that, though I’m not convinced there wasn’t some (a lot of) meddling until recent times on both the hockey and basketball sides.

MLSE has been a financial success, to be sure.  But in terms of on-field/court performance, it is hard to argue that the Raptors have been anything but a disaster.  Same with Toronto FC.  Bad management hires, poor coaching hires, it’s really been a mess.

The Maple Leafs, on the hockey side, had a strong management group in place but blew that up back in the summer of 2003 and have been scrambling to get back to basic respectability since.

I have no idea who a good “Canadian” owner would be.  (It’s hard not to envy what the Buffalo Sabres now have in Terry Pegula, at least in terms of the personality, passion and financial clout he has brought so far.)  But again, someone who respects the legacy and would build on the positive elements of what is in place now would be good, eh?

Does it matter who the new owner might be?  Do you care if they are Canadian?  Do you want someone like Cuban (loud and abrasive)?  Jerry Jones (who played the game a bit and therefore thinks he’s an expert)?  More corporate ownership who are faceless and behind the scenes only?

Maybe I'm narrow, or a bit too sentimental.  But I still think it's important for some French-Canadians to play for the Habs- and for a Canadian to own the Leafs.

Your thoughts?  


  1. Useless to try and be all business here, or even common sensical. I can't imagine the Leafs with non-Canadian owners. No other country has the game in their DNA as we do. Despite all the so-so teams, ticket gouging, and questionable management, I'm loyal beyond all rationality - more loyal to the team, I'd venture to say, than management has been to fans. In fact, I'm bugged that Phaneuf wears a Red Bull hat in post-game interviews.
    Purely emotional for me!

  2. We're together on this one, for sure, Gerund O'...And in situations like this, maybe sentiment should prevail...

  3. Hey Michael! It was great to see the Leafs play the Preds last night, a rare occurrence. Even watching the game on TV I could see a ton of Leafs fans in the audience at Bridgestone Arena. I hope they had a blast in spite of the end result on the scoreboard, and I hope that we get the chance to meet again in the not-too-distant future.

    As far as Leafs ownership goes, I agree with you 100%. First of all, I like that you clarify that this is an issue of sentiment rather than pure logic and rationality. We Americans fairly routinely see Canadian businessmen enter the picture when our NHL teams come up for sale. There are bad experiences and good. On one hand you have Jim Balsillie (the enemy of local fans across the US) trying to swoop in and buy teams with the express intent of moving them to Hamilton, Ontario, which he attempted with the Penguins, Predators (NOOOOO!!!), and Coyotes. That guy left such a bad taste in the mouths of Preds fans that Canadian W. Brett Wilson, who just purchased a stake in the Predators' ownership group, had to specifically make the statement that he LOVES Nashville and has no intention of EVER moving the team, even though he only bought a 5% stake (90% of the team remains in Tennessean hands). On the other side of the spectrum there's good guys like Tom Gaglardi, whose purchase bid for the Dallas Stars was approved today. He's passionate about the team and wants to grow the franchise in its home market (he has some family in Dallas as well). So as you said, you could get an American owner who'd be great for the Leafs, or not, same as a Canadian owner. Even though Gaglardi is a good guy (we hope), had a local ownership group stepped up to buy the Stars I'd certainly be rooting for them over him. That's just the unvarnished truth.

    All of that aside, the Maple Leafs are a storied franchise with an illustrious history-- a CANADIAN history. They're more Canadian than Tim Horton's coffee, since Tim Horton would never have been a household name without the Leafs. The thought of Leafs' ownership being from outside of Canada's borders is just unsettling and not right-- no amount of money or professed goodwill can overcome that.

  4. Very well stated, Jessica. I appreciate your thoughtful perspective on this issue...

  5. Echo what my good friend Elizabeth says, Darren Thompson's Own The Leafs bid would mean that we ALL as Canadians could own the team as the public trust that it deserves to be.

  6. Ownership requirements:
    1. Passion for the game
    2. Respect for the history of the team, its players, its fans and the hockey community
    3. An unwavering desire to build a winning team
    4. Lots of money to accomplish the goal
    5. Nationality - unimportant!

    I suspect a corporate ownership group (like the current Pension Plan owners) would be unlikely to meet these requirements. We need an Ilitch or a Pegula or a Conn Smythe.