Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. may be a corporation and operate under the usual business rules for such companies, but at least two of its subsidiaries are dictatorships.
And the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs will continue to operate as dictatorships, according to someone familiar with the MLSE board of directors’ thinking, because that is the most efficient way for professional sports teams to operate. Efficient may not be a popular word right now when it comes to the Maple Leafs and their general manager, Brian Burke, but the board has no plans to fire him.
The MLSE insider, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the company, also does not expect this to change when BCE Inc., and Rogers Communications Inc., officially become the owners of 75 per cent of MLSE some time this summer. He can’t say that for sure, of course, but he also said he has no reason to think either communications giant will demand Burke’s head before his contract expires at the end of the 2013-14 NHL season.
“You have two choices: you can trust your general manager or you can fire your general manager,” the insider said. “At the end of the day, you can criticize [MLSE]for not hiring the right GM. But the decisions are made by the general manager. They really are. Brian Burke is running the show.”
And Burke, who declined a request for comment, has more autonomy in running his team than all but a few of his fellow GMs. Glen Sather of the New York Rangers and Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils are the only others whose power is absolute.
“That’s what it is,” the MLSE source said when it was suggested the Leafs are a dictatorship because that’s what works best. “[Burke]can do pretty well what he wants. Brian has no shackles of any consequence at all.”
The only way the MLSE board might step in, it was suggested, is if Burke suddenly decided he wanted to “get rid of nine draft choices to build a team.” Contractually, the only thing Burke is obligated to do with his corporate masters is inform them of any coaching change. But, the insider pointed out, “the board wouldn’t say no because that’s his call.”
Burke’s call on hockey matters is drawing fire because of the sudden collapse of the Maple Leafs. All of his decisions over the past three years are under the microscope, from trading two first-round picks and a second-rounder for Phil Kessel, easily his biggest mistake, to signing James Reimer and declaring him the No. 1 goaltender based on less than half a season’s audition in the NHL.
Blaming Burke for Ron Wilson’s sudden flameout as head coach is more difficult since he didn’t hire him. That was done by interim GM Cliff Fletcher before Burke was hired.
A look at the Leafs’ roster shows Burke’s successes to be the trade that landed forward Joffrey Lupul and rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner, trading excess baggage for Dion Phaneuf and landing defenceman John-Michael Liles. There are also the trades that brought in prospect Joe Colborne and a first-round pick and the drafting of Nazem Kadri.
On the minus side, there are the free-agent signings of defenceman Mike Komisarek, winger Colby Armstrong and centre Tim Connolly. And there is Burke’s impulsive nature, which drove the Reimer decision and the Kessel trade, although Kessel is among the best NHL scorers.
The net result is Burke still does not have the big, nasty team he envisioned when he arrived in November, 2008. He is also still looking for a No. 1 centre and a goaltender.
However, at this point the MLSE board feels Burke’s pluses outweigh the minuses. So he still wields the power.
A big reason Burke has so much power, aside from being in a tremendous negotiating position when MLSE made it no secret he was the man it wanted, is that the company tried the corporate way and also found no success. Burke’s predecessor, John Ferguson, was far more obligated to the MLSE board of directors, sometimes to the detriment of the team.
Contractually, Ferguson says, he only had to clear a coaching change with the board of directors. But as a 36-year-old rookie GM in 2003, the reality was that then-president Richard Peddie and the board had much more control over Ferguson than they do over Burke.
“I don’t want it to sound like I’m complaining but it was not the optimum way,” Ferguson said of his tenure.
Even though Ferguson was technically on his own, there were times the corporate oversight got in the way. Such as at the trade deadline one year when he was required to make a presentation to the board at noon on deadline day, three hours before the 3 p.m. deadline. Or another year when he had to make his annual state-of-the-hockey-department address one day before the NHL free-agent period began, simply because June 30 was the end of the MLSE fiscal year and that was when the meeting was scheduled.
There were problems with player contracts, too. Ferguson said he could have signed goaltender Ed Belfour to a cheaper contract in 2005 following the NHL lockout but the MLSE directors balked. Then they changed their minds close to the July 1 free-agent period but it cost more money – a two-year deal that was eventually bought out in 2006 – to keep Belfour from testing the open market.
However, even when the new masters take over MLSE one thing is still the same. There will still be several factions on the board. If any group wants to get rid of Burke, they will have to do a lot of lobbying and MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum will be the key vote between BCE and Rogers.
“In that respect it hasn’t changed,” Ferguson said. “You know from where I sat there was lots of whispering in lots of ears.”