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Culture change and the state of the Maple Leafs…

For me personally, there is little that is more tiring to hear about as a Leaf fan than the subject of “culture change”. That the current MLSE leadership (read Tim Leiweke) have continued this trend of public discussion on the topic is disconcerting but not surprising, I suppose. Promising change is as old as anyone can remember.

My question for you today is straightforward:  as a Leaf supporter, is there a requirement to somehow change the culture of the organization (I assume this includes the players most prominently), or are you, like me, fatigued at the thought of hearing that kind of corporate speak?

This is but one of the subjects, by the way, that we touch on during the most recent “Maple Leaf Hangout” show.  Our guest on Episode 29 is Sean McIndoe, the creator of the extremely popular “Down Goes Brown” blog site and the top hockey writer for ESPN’s Grantland site. (Check out The Maple Leaf Hot Stove site for an archive of all this season’s episodes.)

Sean is not shy to tackle the issues that he sees confronting the Leaf front office and provides a clear and strongly-worded overview about where he sees things in Leafland these days.

I hope you enjoy the show and if you have any thoughts on the discussion, or on my question of the day, as always, I look forward to hearing from you.


Some recent posts:

-Can Leaf fans become Hab fans at playoff time?

-Your favourite all-time Leafs

-Carlyle stays: what about the players?


  1. Hi Michael

    I heard an interesting talk a few years ago by a guy who described himself as a corporate anthropologist. One of his observations of businesses over the years was that culture is more rightly considered to be a verb than a noun: an organisation is continuously "culturing" rather than possessing it as a trait. Given that, the biggest mistake a hot head exec like Lieweke can make is assuming they can impose a culture as if into a vacuum.

    I say, get the team winning, it's habit forming. Have a clear strategy that includes on-ice performance, player development and drafting and make sure everyone knows what it is. Culture will take care of itself

  2. You've expressed it well, KiwiLeaf. I look at organizations like the Patriots in football and the Red Wings in hockey and see strong ownership- ownership that in turn hires capable executive leaders who bring in outstanding coaches. Those franchises establish an ability to win, and over time that is how they are perceived: as organizations with a winning culture.

    1. When I think about it, I misspoke myself above. Winning plainly wasn't habit-forming for our boys this year. Maybe what is habit-forming is beating other teams; being obviously better at hockey than them and turning that into a certainty of success and lighting the lamp. I think a lot of our winning this year was, for lack of a better word, lucky and not about us being dominant.

  3. Like you. I'm tired of hearing about "culture change" from the Leafs management. I want to SEE culture change. I've never been as fed up with the team and its direction as I am now. By any yardstick, the coach and his staff should have been fired after the disastrous year we had last year. And I'm not swayed by the "we almost backed into the playoffs" talk, either. This team has had 10 years to rebuild, and remans a non-contender. We are what James Reimer called "a team with no chemistry". WE have a general manager who seems to be building a team for, oh, 2004. We have coaches who are befuddled by the failure of the players to execute the master "plan", we have players who are either not disposed to carry out the "plan" or just don't have the skill set and hockey smarts to do so, or are just befuddled by it as well. From folks I know who are familiar with the team, there is dissension in the dressing room.
    All of this is evident on a per game basis. Many of us here at VLM have commented on it throughout the year. So - no more TALK. If we were really about winning, Randy Carlyle would be coaching somewhere else today. Despite the blinkered and unwarranted optimism of the dyed-in-the-wool Leafists, we are not close to contending. There is no accountability at the coaching, management, or ownership level - as long as the bucks keep rolling in and the the suckers - known as ticket buyers - keep ponying up for another year of befuddlement and excuses. And I want a team that DESERVES to be in the playoffs, not one that backs in because other falter.

    1. No question, Gerund O', Leaf supporters want less talk and more in the way of results. We're well past the point where making the playoffs is enough. Fans want to see a team that can contend for a championship.

  4. Michael,

    Very interesting topic, and a great discussion with Sean on the Hangout. More of this please, I was eagerly anticipating the Bob McKenzie interview that Declan had intimated about. Sad, that it never came about.

    I am on the same side as the rest of you seem to be. Talking of a culture change, or a winning atmosphere, whatever the ego-maniacal buzzwords of the day happen to be, has grown old. It happened to me as well in the corporate world, some new leader, same tired catch phrases. We would see them once a year, or less, and from a foreign head office they were set out on the task of changing the culture somewhere else. The absurdity of the meetings and putting a good face on things, inspired no one. We did however get time away from working, the thrill was short lived as we still had the same work waiting to be finished after, we now had fewer hours to complete it. Win, win, corporate culture change. I would like to see more of the corporate entities at MLSE, mainly to see if they have the same mannerisms that I had witnessed in other places. The funniest thing to me was when they were visiting, or touring our operation, how abnormally fast they walked around. There was absolutely nowhere for them to go, nothing for them to do here, yet they walked as fast as humanly possible without running.

    It has become quite clear that the Leafs are no different than any other organization in sports. The ones that have a winning culture have one. The ones that don't, don't, and they have no idea why. They just spout the endless stream of words that sound like they know precisely how to fix the problem. When Theo Epstein left the Red Sox for the Cubs, he was supposed to bring the winning culture to Chicago, turns out the Cubs still suck. Go figure, it seems as though it is more complicated a problem than can be summed up in a media soundbite.

    I have always said in this forum that any player should be available depending on who you get back. So I agree with Sean that our GM is in no position to ignore phone calls. It comes down to whether or not Nonis is able to get the better of others in his position when dealing away picks and players. Every executive has trades that bomb, signings that sucked, draft picks that plummet. If Nonis has more successes than failures, he should be afforded the opportunity to keep his job. What astounds me is the number of times these guys get fired for sucking, then get re-hired somewhere else. All I ever hear is that he's a good hockey guy, deserves another chance. Usually spouted by another good hockey guy, currently waiting for his umpteenth chance to captain a ship into an iceberg. Coaches, GM's and executives are constantly recycled into jobs, often immediately after getting canned somewhere else. The lack of any kind of new idea, or innovation is startling to me.

    I am unsure what to think of the roster going forward, and rightly scared. Panic moves are made by these guys all the time. Nonis campaigning to keep Randy, seems to me like Dave playing his last card here. If the team he goes to camp with next season is terrible, Randy, Dave, and the rest of the ostriches in the front office will be shown the door. Shanny will bring in his friends, and compadres, and the rebuild will continue. My only real hope for this team is that they don't trade the future for the immediacy of a playoff berth. Nonis has said he won't, I have trouble believing him. The pessimistic Leafs fan in me, shines through, I guess.

    Again, how is it acceptable that a team that spends to the maximum under the cap, finishes twelfth, and there isn't a housecleaning in the executive suite? Even the dumbest people can't blame this on Reimer and injuries to Bolland, can they? Probably the same people that see Randy as a proven winner, and not a guy who lucked into a jackpot of generational talents, and won.

    1. Your reference to Epstein and the Cubs got me thinking, Jim. Can one individual "change the culture" of an organization just because he was a winner before?

      My guess is there are very few Leafs would Nonis would not at least listen to offers about. I think they need to keep Reilly and there are some young players here who I would be reluctant to move. But they need to get better- for now and for the future. Thanks Jim, great post.

    2. I would suggest that the right person in charge can change the culture. I feel that the difference is in what they do, vs. what they say. Leiweke changes nothing by what he says, a great executive makes the right changes. A great GM knows who to keep, and who to jettison, think Stan Bowman. He won a Cup, made huge changes, very good players were traded, others kept. They go on to win again last year with the same core, and are back knocking at the door again, this season. It can't be luck that he has made changes twice to a winning roster and is again challenging the League to beat him. The Sharks have as good/great a roster as Chicago. Why is Chicago's able to find the right mix? The same can be said for Boston, made huge changes, still great.

      Some fans of your site will make comparisons to Torontos' core, I won't. I see a vast world of difference between players like Bergeron, and Bozak. It's fine to like the home team, but Sean pointed this out, we need to stop telling ourselves and each other what we want to hear. The same is entirely true of the Leafs management team, the we are on the right track thing, especially. Many of us, don't think they are, and we are saying so, loudly.

  5. Hi Michael. We all like "Hangout" and this was a good one.

    I have thought since Carlyle was awarded the extension that this was a warning to fans that we had better not expect the organization to listen or react to anything we think. They may go out of their way to do the opposite. Actually they have.That's scary... I guess we are to keep our mouths shut-- the failure of this organization will be all our fault. Being the lowest by far on this totem pole, in spite of providing them with a hefty paycheque, I'm surprised they didn't just fire us.

    We visit sites like yours, MLHS, PPP, Hope in the Big Smoke, Down Goes Brown, Mirtle , Katsaros to hear different news, views and opinions. I like to think that, with every single site discussing and agreeing on several issues, that we might know a little something. The Leaf organization doesn't think so. The fact that they all speak to us like Mr.Rogers is so insulting. I have not listened to the latest presser, they might as well just play the same recording year after year. What an arrogant bunch they are! And so ridiculous.

    I hoped things wouldn't get nasty this Spring since I expected Randy to be gone anyway. I see now that booing a coach or GM out of town may be the only way fans will ever have a voice. This is not a sports organization, it's a political party. What we think, what we want is irrelevant.

    Was it Bergevin in Montreal (I think it was) who stated -if you want success in the NHL you need to start listening to your fans. The Habs are doing pretty good...

    I doubt there are fans that spend more time discussing management than we do. On good teams, they are in the background doing their jobs. They are competent. I envy hockey fans who can enjoy just talking about their team, the games, the playoffs. I want that too. CN

    1. It's interesting, Colleen. Coaches often quote the old saying, "If you listen to the fans, you'll end up sitting with them..". But I understand your point and I think I know what you're saying. It's not as though we are trying to coach or manage the team. But organizations do need to listen to their fans on one level, to ensure there is not a growing disconnect, which sometimes is the case with the fan base here and MLSE.

  6. It seems there's a consensus here that the only way to establish a winning culture is to win. Saying every summer how oh-so-very much you want to win isn't the same thing. I think the organization knows this as well. Brendan Shanahan talked about it in the "winning solves a lot of things" portion of his opening-day press conference. You can't buy the label "winner" or craft it in the media -- you have to go out and earn it. I believe the organization wants to get there someday soon, but I don't think what guys like Lieweke are saying is that the Leafs are starting the summer as losers, but through corporate bravado and managerial saavy they will be winners by September's end.

    You can't change your record in the offseason, but you can change your attitude. That's the sort of culture change I think they're talking about. The team has had two end-of-season collapses now. The management has gotten to observe how different players handled that. Who were the guys moaning, "oh, no-- not again..."? Ship those guys out. Who were the guys gritting their teeth and saying, "not on MY watch!"? That's the attitude to foster. This team lacks confidence. I have no idea how a bunch of middle-aged men in suits are going to inject swagger into their line-up, but it sounds like that's what they're aiming to do. They hope to craft a sort of pre-winning culture that will eventually translate into success. A "winning culture" will follow in time.

    Who knows? Maybe they can pull it off with the right roster-massages. The Avalanche gained a ton of swagger in a single off-season (albeit with changes of both manager and coach). It's not outside the realm of possibility that the Leafs could, too.

    Regardless, the team's culture is one thing; the fanbase's is another. I think at this point, after so many broken promises, we'll believe it when we see it. Alleged confidence matters not -- we want the wins. On that front, there is absolutely nothing the management can say or do that will satisfy us until next season starts. We might as well be patient until then.

    1. Hi E.C.- I see Leaf fans on the one hand as incredibly patient, yet also understandably feeling as though management has under-delivered too often in the past. You're right- the Avs shifted the front office and seemed to inject the organization (i.e. the players) with a jolt of self-belief and confidence.

      It's hard to know what comes first: proving you can win which leads to that inner belief, or some kind of management/coaching approach (along with players who lead the way) which creates a winning atmosphere.

      Bottom line, most fans will hope but won't believe until we see legitimate success where it counts- on the ice. Thanks E.C.

  7. Leiweke was only making noise and blowing smoke and the only thing it did was adding to the pressure instead of doing something good.

    I am very fatigued by that kind of talk and that kind of person.

    There is a need for a change. Every single player has to get better consistently.
    Have you seen the Rocket Richard movie? There is one scene Dick Irvine said he wants players that hate to loose.
    The Leafs have too much players who seemed to be not embarrassed enoughed by loosing.
    And I do not name names but I am not talking about Phaneuf or Kessel.
    And I think like Shannahan said they can help players to better leaders. They can instate the confidence that helps to find a way to win.

    But that is what everybody has to do if they want to be a winning hockey club.
    Yes there is need to change. But there is for every team because the game develops consistently.

    Yes there is need to change. But there is no need to blow it out of proportion by that kind of corporate speech.

    1. If the Leafs (or any team) have players that truly hate to lose, then that will usually be a pretty good team. The old Canadiens did indeed hate to lose, from the '50s through to the '80s (and they had some pretty talented players too, of course) and that made beating them awfully difficult.