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Toronto Maple Leafs fans wear bags over their heads. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Maple Leafs fans wear bags over their heads. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Jeff Blair

Keep calm and carry on, Leafs fans Add to ...

Why not American owners for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.?

The face of the Toronto Maple Leafs is an American-born general manager, the head coach under fire is a dual citizen and leading scorer Phil Kessel’s American-born, too. Even the lousy goal song is by a band from Madison, Wis.

Canada’s team? Piffle. As any 52-year-old raised in a Manitoba town can tell you, the Maple Leafs ceased being Canada’s team outside Ontario in the 1970s.

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Expansion of both the NHL and television, Bobby Orr, the Edmonton Oilers, the WHA and Hockey Night in Canada’s pro-Toronto bias all combined to lay waste to that quaint notion – and now there is a second generation of hockey fans that scoffs at it.

A published report in which sources say U.S.-based Providence Equity Partners LLC had looked into purchasing the 80-per-cent stake of MLSE held by Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan has been shot down by other sources. (I’ll see your anonymous sources and raise you my anonymous sources.)

So for now at least, stow those plans about occupying the Air Canada Centre and remember two things:

First, nothing’s done until MLSE chairman/part-owner Larry Tanenbaum exercises his right of first refusal. Really, there ought to be an app to insert that paragraph automatically into any story about MLSE (which owns the NHL’s Maple Leafs, NBA’s Toronto Raptors, AHL’s Toronto Marlies, Toronto FC of the MLS, and the ACC).

Second, considering what MLSE is and how much money it’s worth, it would be far-fetched to imagine United States- or China-based financial concerns hadn’t looked into the Teachers stake. And if sheiks and the like can buy English Premiership soccer teams, why not a money-maker such as MLSE? You’d like to think somebody’s talked to them. If not, get off your ass and do it, Morgan Stanley.

You will have to look elsewhere for how market dynamics have impacted a potential sale or whether the whole process will end up with some kind of new partnership as opposed to one owner, with one of Canada’s media companies not necessarily in the lead but with a significant equity stake as a means of running some kind of new all-sports TV channel.

I’d rather focus on what having a foreign owner might mean to, ahem, Canada’s team.

It’s a cheap way of pandering to the uber-nationalists like CBC hockey analyst Don Cherry – think of the apoplexy if the Maple Leafs were owned by overseas interests; imagine Cherry calling them “good Kuwaiti boys” – and you know there would be a deep suspicion any potential owner out of America’s infected financial system would be playing with somebody else’s money and not their own.

But two things to keep in mind as you mull over the possibility of foreign ownership of MLSE and, by extension, the Leafs:

One, somebody other than Gary Bettman will be doing due diligence here, so there is no chance of the NHL commissioner’s Keystone Kops dredging up another of those make-believe owners.

Two, the notion of the Maple Leafs being run by Yankees is not as outrageous as the notion of the Montreal Canadiens being run by an American, which is of course what happened when George Gillett Jr. purchased the club in 2001.

You want a team that means something to people? The Canadiens aren’t just one nation’s team; they’re two nations’ team – and there are linguistic and societal overtones that simply doesn’t exist with any other pro franchise in North America.

Gillett’s interest in the team, first reported by myself and then-colleague William Houston, was so inconceivable at first we thought we were being played. Where were the lions of Quebec business who would step up and defend their birthright?

There were segments of the Quebec media that thought the story was a total fabrication up until the day Gillett was announced as the club’s owner – and they can’t be blamed. Such was the skepticism surrounding an American owner who proved an able steward of the NHL team and its history before selling it back to the Molson family.

If the sacred flannel can fall into the hands of Americans, all bets are off.

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