The thought of Wayne Gretzky showing up as a front man for a new owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a pleasant one, a wonderful talking point in a town with four daily newspapers, two major sports television networks, two sports radio stations plus the various and sundry web sites and other forms of media.
But as Gretzky and his spokesman pointed out Thursday night after Sportsnet’s John Shannon broke the story, that’s all it was – talk. Some of the U.S.-based groups kicking the tires on the 79.5-per-cent of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment held by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan asked Gretzky if he would be interested in being the front man. Gretzky says the answer was no, not at this time.
If you are one of those equity funds or big corporations whose knowledge of hockey, never mind the tortured state that is Maple Leafs hockey, stops at there’s ice involved, then bringing in Gretzky makes sense. Hey, if you’re one of several competing bids, although everyone with any knowledge of Teachers’ efforts to sell says there is no bidding war shaping up, maybe having Gretzky gives you a leg up on the competition.
The reality, though, is that no buyer needs Gretzky. He will not sell one more ticket, he will not wring one more dollar out of an auction for the broadcasting rights. Okay, maybe those number 99 Leaf sweaters with his name on the back will sell a little more briskly than the Wilf Paiement ones, but that’s about it.
Even if he were inclined to take an active role with the Leafs, history showed Gretzky’s coaching and management work in the NHL needs improvement, to put it mildly. But Gretzky is not inclined to take up a full-time job because even 12 years after he retired as a player he remains one of the top two or three NHL celebrities. He has a busy schedule of endorsements and personal appearances. He is also expected to spend a lot of time watching his son Trevor play baseball in the Chicago Cubs organization.
Then there is the little problem of the NHL sticking it to him when the league was forced to buy the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy. When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly essentially told Gretzky to pound sand and forget about the $8.2-million he was owed, the Great One was not amused and remains not amused.
However, there is even one more reason Gretzky is not willing to dive in as celebrity front man. When it comes to his name and image, Gretzky has the cold, ruthless eye of a beancounter.
As former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes and many others discovered, Gretzky does not come cheap. People who have done business with him can tell you Gretzky has a number in mind when it comes to lending his name to a venture and it is not a cheap one.
Another former Coyotes owner, Steve Ellman, the architect of that whole disaster, essentially paid many millions of dollars to Gretzky for the privilege of being allowed to call him a minority owner. Then he let Gretzky and his buddies run the team. When Moyes had to bail out Ellman, he followed suit. We all know how that worked out.
So if one of those U.S. groups actually got beyond the tire-kicking stage, chances are it would think twice about the value of bringing in Gretzky.
Besides, MLSE already has a front man, even if many rail about the faceless, unaccountable Teachers beancounters. It’s chairman Larry Tanenbaum, who owns the other 20.5 per cent of the company. The trouble is, he isn’t much for talking to Leafs Nation.
Given the silence surrounding the efforts to sell Ontario Teachers’ shares, there will likely be more red herrings to distract the sporting public. In the meantime, maybe the Teachers minions should be asking the investment banker they hired to peddle their interest, Morgan Stanley, why it has not been able to generate even a lukewarm bidding war over one of the most profitable sports companies in the world.
Finally, in a story that features almost nothing but uncertainty, I would wager this is one certainty – a Leafs executive whose initials are Brian Burke is really, really unhappy about all this Gretzky talk.