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10 things the Maple Leafs (and other NHL teams) can do to show respect—and pay the fans back a bit…

Thanks to those who have been back and visiting VLM on a regular basis this week.  It's good to have hockey to talk about, not egos, money, contract language and politics.

As in the past, there has been tremendous and very respectful discussion, including with regard to the controversial decision by MLSE's new owners to fire Brian Burke.  That kind of thoughtful dialogue where we try to respect one another's views is hopefully the hallmark and standard we have established here since September of 2009 when I launched Vintage Leaf Memories.

One additional note to yesterday's piece:  as I have said here many times, my comments regarding the Burke decision to trade for Kessel in Burke's first year here have to do with my view that Burke's error was not necessarily in wanting to trade for a young, emerging star in the making.  Rather, it was that he so mis-read his team, and thought they would finish much higher than they did in the standings. When that did not happen, we all know the result (Seguin and Hamilton in Boston).

Those who follow VLM know that my views have always been clear on that.


Those brave individuals who followed VLM during the dark days of a prolonged lockout heard me opine on a number of lockout-related subjects over the past few months.  They will know that there is one thing I said many times:  the NHL—and its players—do not “owe” us, the fans, hockey.  The NHL owners have the right to run the business as they see fit.  They make the investment.  It is huge and it is risky in many ways, especially (obviously) in certain markets.

They can shut the game down if they want, because it is their league.  And in locking out the players, they did just that.

In the same breath, the players can strike, or they can sit out while fighting for every last dollar they can garner in a new contract agreement.  Which is precisely what they did once again in the most recent lockout.

The owners and the players are uneasy partners, and they “run” the NHL.  It’s their league. We are largely anonymous bystanders, entertained by the players that we  pay to help them (and the owners) make their millions.  But they do not owe us.

All that said the lockout did not enamor the players or owners to most of us.  Many of us remain quietly angered, jilted somewhat because the other two parties in this three-way “relationship” broke what we feel, fair or not, is a sacred trust, a kind of unspoken agreement between us—at least in sporting terms.  So we remain, in many cases, left feeling happy that the game we love is back, but also uncomfortable with what has transpired.

Will fans return?  I sense most will, certainly in Canada.  Some will stay away forever, sure, and understandably so.  Some will return right away but on principle will not purchase NHL merchandize. Still others will boycott initially, but when their team runs the table on a nice winning streak, they may find themselves casually glancing at the sports ticker—and ultimately coming back to watch or attend the games.

I’ve said that the league and the players (some of whom obviously aren’t listening) should avoid empty apologies and hollow gestures.  The players claim this whole fiasco was not their fault, though the greed was highly apparent on both sides of this simmering dispute.  The league tried to say “thank you” last time, but similar attempts to say “we’re sorry” or “thank you” (which Bettman tried this week) won't likely be warmly received.

In my mind, anything the league does to try to “win back” fans should not be a one-time thing, or short-term only.  If they are serious about doing something for fans, they should do it across the board, in all markets, to varying degrees.

I’m no marketing specialist and certainly not a promoter, but my view is there are some specific things the league could do that is more than “talk”.  In our own backyard, where the Leafs will always be the biggest game in town for many of us, there are some concrete actions that the Leafs (or the Leafs, in conjunction with the League)  could initiate locally and that could be replicated in other markets where applicable:  (side note:  I don’t doubt some of these “ideas” have already been expressed elsewhere!)

  1. Fans love watching hockey on television.  Offer the NHL Center Ice package for free for the remainder of the 2012-’13 regular season. If that is not possible, offer Leafs TV free for six months.
  2. Offer the Center Ice package free for the first month of the regular season for the next five seasons. (Same with Leafs TV.)
  3. The Maple Leafs could create those big old-school team calendars—you know, with the classic team picture on the front, schedules, photos, and things that appeal to fans throughout.  Sprinkle in some special autographs every few hundred calendars.  Distribute these calendars for free at home games to all kids 15 and younger and also make sure the calendars are distributed to hospitals, schools and through Big Brothers and Big Sisters.  Hopefully more than crass promotion, it would be given as a memento to thousands and thousands of kids (in Toronto’s case, across the GTA and the province).  If a kid mails in and asks for a calendar, ship it for free.
  4. Going forward, one game a season should be not for season-ticket holders.  Instead, the gates should be open to a lottery system for that one game, with a focus on getting kids (especially needy kids, who would likely otherwise never get to a Leaf game—I’ve posted on this concept before) to the games.  What I’d like to see here is ensuring that adults, families and underprivileged kids who can’t afford tickets most of the time could get to a Leaf game.  I’m sure season-ticket holders would survive 1 game out of 41 not being at the ACC.   MLSE should pick up the tab.  (Season-ticket holders could still sit in the lounge at the ACC.)  Can you imagine the noise at the ACC on a night like this, with “real” fans in the building—every corner of the building?
  5. Special Leaf team practices should be open to the public free of charge once a month, with free soft drinks and snacks for all.
  6. Free autograph days should be held once a month at the ACC or at the Leaf Lakeshore practice facility. The Leafs could rotate a set of four players, say, at every “event” after a practice, and these guys would sign until the last youngster has had a chance for at least one autograph.
  7. Free draws could be held for free season tickets annually.
  8. Schedule regular “shinny” games at the ACC against Leaf players on off days with selected fans (again, a lottery system could be used).
  9. Do the Willy Wonka thing.  Create a special Maple Leaf candy bar.  Sell it inexpensively as a charity fund-raiser, but as in the Willy Wonka story, give a big cash prize out to those handful of fans who happen to buy the candy bar with the “golden ticket”. 
  10. Your choice!  You fill in what you think would be a neat idea...

There are plenty of ideas better than what I’ve cobbled together above, and by all means share your thoughts.

Again, I’m not suggesting these are great or terribly creative concepts.  But if teams, including the Leafs, adopted some of these ideas and continued to run with them as regular “programs” for years to come, it might help re-establish a trust that has been lost.


  1. Michael,

    That was excellent top to bottom. I would endorse all of those ideas. The jaded cynic in me says fat chance the suits would do anything to hurt their bottom line. Here's hoping that they take your advice, and the advice of others I have heard since the lockout ended. They need to do exactly this.

  2. Thanks Jim. I have no idea how realistic any of the above might be, but I honestly feel teams (especially the Leafs, who truly have devoted fans and have had loyal support for generations) should not have to be nudged to think "outside the box" and come up with ways to respond. And not just for a few days, or weeks - but years.

    I remember how arrogant the Toronto Blue Jays were on the baseball side after they won those World Series in the early '90s. Filled stadiums, lousy service at the Dome. If some poor kid fell on the field trying to grab a foul ball, he'd be thrown out of the stadium. Then the labour dispute and they still haven't fully recovered...

  3. Your concepts are good, but reality strikes in their face. Leafs do not need marketing apologetics because the fans won't go anywhere en masse.

    Those would be great incentives in lesser markets that struggle to make the ends meet. However, those markets can ill-afford to give out freebies. Most of these are the expansion markets conceived by Bettman & co. The markets that were poorly researched and their struggling are a major reason these lockouts happen every time the CBA goes its course.

    And I completely reject the notion of "their league". Make no mistake, the owners are not, generally speaking, here for anything more than a PR gig. Their earnings lie in bigger, better businesses. Even the owners in South Florida completely know what they're in for once they decide to take on a franchise. Or maybe they don't.

    Maybe they figure "I'll just buy a new hobby, it'll be good for community PR at least, right?"

    Then they notice it's just a huge money sink, I'm shoveling tons and tons of money at these toothless Canadians nobody even wants to see here, oh why oh why did I ever authorize payments to these people, I'll probably won't be able to afford a new solid gold Hummer for my youngest son's 3-year birthday party next summer without letting go some of my illegal immigrant slaves, namely the toothbrusher, the buttwiper and most importantly, the asskisser! Just because I have no knowledge of this "sport", where the Canadian people beat each other senseless on a slippery surface, which is mildly amusing, shouldn't mean I should have an equal chance to win at least, right? And while you're at it, cut the salaries of those toothless canucks whose names I didn't even bother to learn.

    Whew. Ok, maybe I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But the fact remains, this is OUR league, the fans' league, first and foremost. The owners and the players owe us everything. Without the fans, there wouldn't be hockey markets at all. And we, the fans, cheer for the players. So they're allowed their share of the proceedings. The owners? Let's face it, there are no hockey billionaires, nobody out there made their immeasurable fortunes by buying a hockey franchise. Most owners got in there to make a PR stunt. For some it has been a more successful venture than others. But while we balk at the insane salaries of the players on ice, we should always remember that their paychecks are signed by people who barely recognize the difference it makes on their bank accounts.

    So, your suggestion is awesome. It would signify a semblance of societal conscience, and it would mean so much to the less-fortunate fans who can barely make the ends meet.

    Will it happen? Will it f...

  4. I would love to feel that the NHL is indeed "our" league, CGLN. Because in my heart, I do feel that way.

    But just as you speak about "reality", the business reality is that the individuals or corporations who put up the money own the prize. And without owners, there is no league. Just as without players, there is no NHL either.

    Of course, without us, the fans, neither of the first two groups even exist. So there should be a mutual need at play, and in fact, there is. I raise these points not to debate, because I'm with you- just my way of accepting the reality of our "status".

    As for the ways teams can give back, yes, any of the above would have to be tailored to what the local market can handle. But I sense you agree there are tons of ways, large and small, that every franchise could make a sincere effort to restore good will.

  5. Doing even one thing from your list would be a great gesture by the Leafs' bigwigs. It would mean much while taking so little off their bottom line.

    But I just can't see it happening. I know players get pumped up when people are cheering them, I can actually remember it rather vividly from my days of junior hockey. The bosses won't care if a single fan even manages to make it to the ACC, as long as the affiliates stay happy. The noisy fan will probably be thrown out if he bothers the suits, as nobody would want that, right?

    I actually think that owners could give some sort of league-wide handout to the fans with the rich paying the fees. Leafs could easily afford it, so could the Habs. Rangers and Red Wings, as well. Philly has a strong market, but no freebies for Boston, because of Jacobs. Wouldn't have to be anything grand, even, just hand out a team banner to everyone who shows up to watch the first home game. That alone wouldn't likely mobilize the fans, but even it would be better than nothing. And they absolutely owe us SOMETHING, whatever that is.

  6. Like you, CGLN, I truly hope something is done- at least in Toronto, and in some other markets as well.

  7. Hi Michael, excellent ideas all and a very good read as usual.

    It seems to me though, that you missed one item on your list: "be truthful with the fans about the reasons for this firing or - if you can't do that - tell us that directly." I think MLSE, if it knows what is right for itself, should realize that there is a special bond between a hockey team like the Leafs and its customers/fans; we want to understand what is going on to assist us in following along with the team's progress. All of Tom Anselmi's doublespeak about "style" and "leadership" raises more questions than it answers about the reasons for the firing, especially when - as you have elsewhere pointed out - the hockey people left behind are all Burke hires who are likely to pursue similar hockey strategies. I don't feel like the team has levelled with its fans about the reasons for making this move at this time.

    I think it behooves a company in the entertainment business such as MLSE to use press conferences like Wednesday's to speak clearly to an audience that is desperate for information: "Here is what happened and why, to try to help you know what to expect in the future." Instead, we got doubletalk and a hundred talking heads who can't agree - Burke wanted to trade for Luongo; no, Burke refused to trade for Luongo; no, Burke used foul language and upset the sensibilities of telecommunications executives; no, Burke made himself the brand instead of the team; no, Burke's personal life was a potential embarrassment, and on and on and on.

    I appreciate that it may not always be possible to speak bluntly and with complete candour in these situations. If that is the case, surely there must be some way of saying - in no uncertain terms - that the Board was uncomfortable with Burke for reasons that it cannot disclose, and that the relationship was fractured as a result of recent events that the Board is not at liberty to discuss. Basically, "something unspecified recently happened that necessitated an immediate breakup."

    Nice to have hockey back to talk about, in any event. Even if it means, as DGB tweeted, we're discussing how the Leafs somehow made the right decision feel like a complete clustercuss.

  8. Be honest here its Toronto, Ownership could throw feces off the ACC and still get a sellout. MLSE will give token apologies, that is all.

  9. It's difficult to dispute anything that you wrote, Junior. Great post. As I've said before, unfortunately, decisions like these, while "defensible" as I tried to suggest in an earlier post, do reduce us to speculation, which is unhealthy and leads quite often to inaccurate conclusions.

    Agreed: so good to have some hockey to talk about, starting soon, Junior! Thanks for an excellent contribution today.

  10. Thanks, Michael. As for Sensfan90's often-reiterated point about the likelihood of sellouts at the ACC...

    Even a Senators fan (sorry, couldn't resist) must be able to realize that the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the business of selling lots more than just a few thousand tickets to each home game. Selling subscriptions to Leafs TV (and other Rogers- and Bell-owned cable network subscriptions), selling advertising time on those networks and selling the absolute crap-ton of merchandise emblazoned with the TML logo (take a look around Shoppers Drug Mart the next time you're in there and try to count the number of such items available)...all of this depends on creating Leaf fans. Not necessarily ticket buyers. Leaf fans.

    If the management of MLSE makes it a continued practice to speak over the heads of its customers because the rink sells out, to disregard the fan because they can sell a few tickets, then shareholders of Bell and Rogers ought to riot in their respective annual meetings, because it won't be a billion dollar corporation for long.

  11. I had an Air Canada Leafs team calendar from 2001 or 02 and thought it was the greatest thing in the world as a kid. They haven't done the team photos for years it seems, wish they did that still above all else.

  12. You're right, Anon. Those little things, like a Leaf team calendar, could mean a lot to a lot of kids out there- and some grown-ups, too! I still have mine from the early '60s (shown on this site's front page). Great memories, just like you mentioned from the early 2000s. Thanks.

  13. In my own case, I remember being eight or nine years old and mailing a fan letter to 60 Carlton and - weeks later - getting an envelope back, with an autographed team photo inside. I treasured that team photo for years. I'm 46 and I still have it. I have never in my life been more excited to receive anything in the mail. Think about it: even a Ballard-owned team knew enough to spend money and time on forging that bond with a kid who lived in a different city (I grew up in Windsor) and who didn't currently have any money to spend on tickets. There was no chance I'd be going to a Leaf game in the next ten years (I didn't make it to my first one until I was in my twenties), but even Pal Hal knew enough to grow the fan base.

  14. I can so relate to what you said here, Junior. And yes, even in the Ballard era, they knew what helped to build a rooting interest in the Leafs.

    I remember getting my Leaf calendar in the mail in 1962. Also sending away for Bee Hive photos. When those brown envelopes arrived in the mail with my name on it, it was the best feeling I could imagine as a kid. Those sorts of things would mean so much to today's kids, too- as sophisticated as I know they are, they're still kids- and the Leafs would create memories for a lifetime! Thanks Junior.

  15. I read that the LA KIngs are donating 1 million dollars to community projects as a thank you to fans for their forbearance during the lockout. If that's true, it's a groundbreaking gesture.
    I love the idea of a ticket giveaway, even though season's subscribers can do that any time they like, of course. It will be interesting to see what PR move the Leafs come up with, for sure. Of course, it will protect the "brand".
    Here's what I'd like: to have management forget about the brand. Just focus on a winning team, and the brand will take care of itself.

  16. I like your last line a lot, Gerund O'. Well put.

    As for the Kings, it's never easy to determine "what is enough?", but as you say, at least as a symbolic (and practically helpful as well, for sure) gesture, that's a start. And it's good.

  17. The latest from Louongo and Mike Richards:)