Tim Leiweke stood before all of the Air Canada Centre staff on Monday afternoon, delivering some of his first words to the on-the-ground employees just before the Toronto Maple Leafs preseason home opener.
The new president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment wanted it known this was a new era for the organization, one the 56-year-old St. Louis native intends to be much more fruitful on the ice than any in recent memory.
“Strange,” Leiweke said of the feeling sitting in the ACC’s platinum seats behind the Leafs bench for the first time. “I was 19 years in LA and this is the first home game. I’m just learning my way around the arena and experiencing it.
“When you’re in hockey, no matter what team you’re with, you look at the Leafs and you look at that sweater and you understand the history and the tradition here. So it’s a little strange to be sitting here and realizing I’m a part of this team now.
“It makes me understand the pressure here.”
Leiweke enters the picture with expectations sky high for the organization, as the Leafs are coming off their first playoff appearance in nine years and made several big bets (David Clarkson, Jonathan Bernier, etc.) in the off-season.
He admitted to feeling odd in the spotlight at the ACC – even for an exhibition game where the stands were half empty – as he realized just how highly visible he’ll be to the organization’s most well-heeled followers each night.
With the Los Angeles Kings, Leiweke had put his own money up for season seats in the corner of the Staples Center, where he faithfully watched games tucked away with a group of friends he’d convinced to buy into hockey in California.
The sell job in Toronto is remarkably different, and now, as the replacement for the often unpopular Richard Peddie, he is one of the celebrities for fans to catch a glimpse of.
“Sitting that close to the bench, I’m not used to that,” Leiweke said. “Being here, sitting where I’m sitting, is a little weird because there’s no hiding here. With the pressure and the accountability, I guess I understand why they put those seats where they are: Everyone knows where to come and yell at me if it’s not going well.”
One key change he already has an eye on is ensuring fans in his area of the arena get back to their seats when the intermissions end, as the swaths of empty seats behind the home team’s bench that appear on Hockey Night in Canada each week have become a running joke in the rest of the country.
Leiweke wants to see that particular tradition end, even if it means needling those paying $400 a night to become more invested in what’s taking place on the ice instead of their catered suites under the stands.
“One thing I’ll do is get back out there,” he said. “Out of respect. That’s one thing we’re trying to tell everyone. I think it’s hard for these guys when they come out and the seats are all empty. From my standpoint, I’ll probably be more focused on the environment we’re creating for the team and maybe that’ll be a good thing.”
Even though Monday night was only one preseason game, Leiweke said he already can tell he is a long way from Los Angeles, where he had a hand in building a Cup winner in a market with its attention spread in so many other directions.
In Toronto, the Leafs are once again the city’s focal point, and by extension, he’ll have to get used to sitting front and centre, win or lose, in the best seats in the house.
“It’s very, very different,” Leiweke said. “But it’s exciting and thrilling.”