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(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail) (Fred Lum/The Globe and MailNewspaper)
(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail) (Fred Lum/The Globe and MailNewspaper)

David Shoalts

Change is on tap at MLSE Add to ...

One scene defines the legacy of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan as owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors.

It was at a news conference on Feb. 11, 2003, to announce that the bean counters in charge of the pensions of the province's teachers had bought out Steve Stavro to become the majority owner of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. A host of reporters wanted to know if this meant, in the pre-salary-cap days of the NHL, that Teachers' was willing to spend the kind of money necessary to make the Maple Leafs a Stanley Cup champion.

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Richard Peddie, MLSE's president, suggested the best person to answer that question was Robert Bertram, the highest-ranking Teachers' executive on the MLSE board. Bertram did not advance to the podium and the press conference quickly ended. He bolted from the room, practically running down the hall to escape a mob of interrogators.

And so it went with the group's ownership of Toronto's professional hockey, basketball and soccer teams. The Teachers' executives were a faceless group quite happy to milk the MLSE cash cow but felt no responsibility to answer to anyone, least of all the paying customers, for the repeated failures of its teams. That was the job of the hired help, like Peddie, part of whose job description became taking regular abuse from a disaffected fan base.

Nonetheless, some of those working around the Air Canada Centre were sometimes heard to remark about how much those Teachers' guys (and they were all men) loved the perks of their position like prime seats at all the games, the posh directors' lounge and seats on the Leafs' charter flights come playoff time. Whoops, better strike that last one. Once Teachers' took control, there were only two playoff years, the last coming way back in 2004.

It is safe to say hardly any of the Leafs' or Raptors' fans will be sad to see the last of Teachers', if indeed it gets the price it wants for its shares and decide to sell. Among the employees at the top of the MLSE totem pole, emotions may be mixed.

Peddie and Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke always speak highly of their Teachers' bosses. Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo may not, considering a report in the Toronto Star suggested Glen Silvestri, one of three Teachers' representatives on MLSE's seven-member board of directors, is holding up the basketball boss's new contract.

The big question, though, is who will take over? The most likely answer is Tanenbaum, who will consider his options in the months this thing will take to play out. Contrary to some fans' wishful thinking over the weekend, it will not be BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie, whose attempts to put an NHL team in Hamilton made him toxic to the league's governors, who get to approve any new owner.

Those close to Tanenbaum say he has not made a decision because he wants to study the alternatives before deciding what is best. Certainly, he would like to become the majority owner since his strategic buying of MLSE shares that went on the market were aimed at putting him in position to have the right of first refusal on enough shares to give him control.

But buying that control is an expensive proposition - those in the know say Teachers' wants $1.5-billion for its 66 per cent of MLSE. Tanenbaum can try to find his own partners to raise the money, go to a lending institution or form a partnership with the media conglomerates expected to be the hottest bidders - Rogers Communications, BCE or Shaw Communications.

By the way, don't you think there is some sweating going on in the executive sauna over at CBC headquarters? If one of the media companies lands this plum, how long before CBC's grip on Saturday night Leafs games on Hockey Night In Canada will be threatened? Then again, the CBC could have partnership plans of its own with one of its competitors or vice-versa.

No matter what happens, change is going to come. Along with the three Teachers' directors, Peddie is also on his way out via retirement at the end of this year, which removes four directors from the seven-person MLSE board.

By the dawn of 2012, MLSE will have a new president, three new directors and maybe even a new chairman depending on Tanenbaum's decision.

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