Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment killed three birds with one stone on Monday: naming Dion Phaneuf captain and reaching once again for its fans' pockets by unveiling a new jersey for the diehards and launching a new dining establishment for swells on the west side of the Air Canada Centre - right across from Real Sports Apparel. One MLSE executive looked at all the gleaming metal in the bar and remarked the revenue generated might be akin to a 10-per-cent increase in attendance. He was smiling, as well he should: Happy hour never stops when you're MLSE unless it comes to winning titles.
This - all this stuff, the new captain and new bar and 9,000-square feet of accompanying retail space - was not all about marketing, I was assured by Richard Peddie, the president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. "But," Peddie noted, "marketing is not foreign to Brian Burke. He was the president of the Vancouver Canucks, and had marketing reporting to him."
This was a seminal moment for Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, and head coach Ron Wilson and their tag-team battle against "blue and white disease."
So what if Phaneuf's first official act as captain was to read a dry, robotic prepared statement instead of dropping some inspiring, off the cuff bon mots? You ached for "Remember the Titans!" and instead received "Remember the teleprompter!"
Marketing? Of course this was all about marketing. The faithful would have gobbled up their blue-and-white goodies without new jerseys or a new captain. But Burke needed to do something concrete to show fans things really have changed in his two years.
"We've waited long enough for a captain," said Wilson, who admitted he'd tested Phaneuf's loyalty in his own way in their 26 games together.
Peddie, of course, is the focal point of the fans' anger at the manner in which both the Maple Leafs and the NBA's Raptors punch well below their weight. Blue-and-white disease refers specifically to what Burke saw as a sense of entitlement that existed in the dressing room when he took over, but Peddie didn't seem surprised when I suggested he is the person whose face most often pops up in fans' minds whenever the phrase is used. Has he ever felt like telling Burke to, you know, stifle it?
"I didn't mind it at all," Peddie said. "I'm not in the dressing room. I don't know about blue-and-white disease."
The event did not start out providentially: As the assembled walked in to the bar, most of the TVs were showing a sports item detailing the travails of Raptors malcontent Hedo Turkoglu. Yikes! The channel was quickly changed, and Peddie made clear that the Leafs expect to make the playoffs next season.
"Brian said last year he felt we were capable of doing it, but this season? We expect it," Peddie said. "The tearing down is done. Now we're building up with youth and adding some players in free agency this summer."
Some of the 199 high-definition televisions peered down at George Armstrong. So did the 39-foot high-def screen. In an upper deck, one of the features of a new, 900-capacity Real Sports Bar & Grill at Maple Leaf Square, season-ticket holders and corporate partners stared back.
"Joe," the last Toronto Maple Leafs captain to hoist a Stanley Cup said to emcee and the voice of the team Joe Bowen, "I feel about as comfortable here as you would be playing hockey with me right now."
Armstrong said that when he was named captain of the Maple Leafs it was a little different. "As I recall, when I became captain it was a little bit different," Armstrong told the audience. "I went in to play our first game and saw the 'C' was on the sweater and that was it."
But that was when the Maple Leafs were only an NHL team. Not a "brand," which is what Burke called them Monday, knowing full well the team no longer just bears the MLSE brand - but more than ever his own brand, too.
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