New ownership won’t change what happens on the ice.
That was Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke’s main message on Friday – first to his team, and then the media – after the news broke the NHL club’s parent company, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., was on the verge of being purchased by media giants BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc.
“Our job is to win hockey games,” Burke said in a press conference in Washington, where the Leafs were preparing to face the Capitals. “Ownership issues are something that’s beyond our control. I just told the players: you’re not going to see a difference.”
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, however, made it be known he was interested in what perks could come with the majority owners being two telecommunications companies.
“I’m secretly hoping for some free cable [TV]or something like that,” Wilson joked, “because the cable bill is pretty steep and the Internet bill to go with it.”
Burke said he expects the Leafs to use their financial might as much as ever, with the team’s large executive and scouting staff to remain the same as it was under outgoing majority owner, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.
He also took time to defend Teachers, saying the oft-criticized group has provided the NHL team with everything he asked for since he was hired three years ago.
“They’ve been a joy to work for,” Burke said. “All they’ve tried to do is win. … Every single time I’ve turned to them and asked for something, the answer has been yes.”
The players echoed those sentiments Friday, adding they were pleased to see MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum would stay on with a sizable stake in the team.
(Under the deal – which still must get regulatory approval, plus the NHL’s consent – BCE/Rogers will split 75 per cent of MLSE, while Tanenbaum increases his share to 25 per cent from 20.5 per cent. MLSE owns the Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors of the NBA, Toronto Marlies of the AHL, and MLS franchise Toronto FC.)
In many ways, Tanenbaum has become the face of ownership to the players during Teachers ownership, as he has a seat near the players’ bench during home games and is frequently in the dressing room after games shaking hands.
“I’m glad Larry Tanenbaum is still involved,” goaltender James Reimer said. “He’s the guy that really cares about this team and what’s best for the team. He’s treated us really well.”
“He’s an unbelievable human being,” defenceman Luke Schenn added. “He’s a class act all the way. He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and one of the greatest owners you can ask for.
“Larry is always around. He comes to all the charity and team events, and he’s a guy that you could just talk to about anything. Having been here for four years, he’s been awesome to me. I think the whole city of Toronto and the community thinks very highly of him.”
To end his press conference, Burke acknowledged Friday that Bell and Rogers may have a few suggestions in terms of how to improve what the Maple Leafs are doing as an organization.
While he’ll retain full control over hockey decisions, Burke said outside input could be valuable, calling the incoming execs “very creative and very bright people.”
“That’ll be the first meeting I have,” he said. “Can we do better? Can we do more? But the risk when you talk like that is the implication is somehow Teachers didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, and that’s simply not fair.”
THE LEAFS GET NEW OWNERS
Brian Burke: “I’m perfectly willing to listen to what they have to say. If they’ve got some ideas, maybe there are some things we can do better. … I’m open. These are very creative and very bright people.
“We are Big Blue. We have been provided with great asset support by ownership, and I expect that will continue. We do have a large scouting staff, we do have a large front-office staff. Where they have been able to commit non-[salary]cap dollars, we’ve done it.”
Ron Wilson: “It’s too early for me to digest all the details of it, but with Larry Tanenbaum still being involved I think that’s really important for the continuity of our organization because we’re making huge strides as a team and we’re headed in the right direction.”
Luke Schenn: “[Larry Tanenbaum]does great things, anything we need as players, he’ll come in sometimes after a loss and shake everyone’s hand and say, ‘good game’ and he’ll be there after a win too. He cares a lot about his guys and his players and I’m sure the whole management and organization.
“You meet a few people here and there from the Teachers pension fund, but you don’t get to know them too much. There might be a familiar face, but it’s not as personable as with Larry.”
Dion Phaneuf: “To be completely honest I don’t think it affects us as players. The Teachers did a great job when they owned the team. We’re excited about the new ownership, but as players, it’s the business side of the game that is out of our control. But we’re excited about the new ownership and what they’re going to bring.”
James Reimer: “The past owners, they’ve done a great job. Things have been great around here; I have no complaints. I expect moving forward that it’ll be more of the same. I don’t think it’ll affect us too, too much. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the past and the future.”