Last summer, Larry Tanenbaum was congratulated for cutting himself quite a deal. Today, he must be wondering what he got himself into.
Tanenbaum parlayed his 20 per cent of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., into 25 per cent by stepping aside in the fight between BCE Inc., and Rogers Communications Inc., for the majority share of the company. Even though he had the right of first refusal on the 80 per cent of MLSE owned by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan Board, Tanenbaum decided not to muster his own bid and let BCE and Rogers settle their fight by splitting the majority stake.
In return, Tanenbaum hung on to his title as MLSE chairman (when a nosy reporter suggested to someone on the board this would be chairman for life it wasn’t denied) and received a nice little bump in his share of the pie. There was the little matter of BCE chairman George Cope and Rogers chairman Nadir Mohamed forging an agreement that their combined four votes on the six-person MLSE board would always vote as one to prevent Tanenbaum from playing one communications giant against another, but that seemed to be no big deal at the time.
This week, Tanenbaum found out just what that deal meant. It means you are essentially an employee. It means you are summoned to do the dirty work when the corporate boys – Cope in particular we’re told – find Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke a little too brash, a little too loud, a little too abrasive. Not good for the brand, they say.
Since the suits rarely like to get their hands dirty with this sort of thing, the job was passed along to Tanenbaum. He and his lone ally on the MLSE board, Dale Lastman, were told to carry out the execution along with Tom Anselmi, the president and chief operating officer of MLSE. They did so early Wednesday morning.
By mid-day it was clear Tanenbaum and Burke’s replacement, his long-time right-hand man David Nonis, were almost as shocked as Burke. Tanenbaum arrived in New York at the NHL’s board of governors meeting to approve the new collective agreement to find a group of reporters waiting on the sidewalk.
Was this your decision, he was asked.
“It was a decision of the board,” Tanenbaum said. “And I’m on the board.”
Then he looked desperately around for an escape route.
Back in Toronto, Anselmi and Nonis were also groping to answer the obvious questions – why now? Why get rid of a general manager days before the start of a new season?
There was no sign of Cope or Mohamed. Within a couple of hours, though, their part in the nasty business was being laid out by sources close to MLSE.
Just after BCE and Rogers officially took over MLSE last August, Cope and Mohamed were said to have taken a quick dislike to Burke. They did not like being told to butt out of the Leafs business.
Toronto being Toronto, and the Leafs being the major preoccupation of Toronto, the big bosses also didn’t like hearing the incessant rumours about Burke’s personal life.
By September, Cope decided Burke had to go but the deed wasn’t done until Wednesday for some reason. One source hinted this was because of some final blow-up with Rogers and BCE and there are lots of hockey people who are sure Burke’s lack of enthusiasm about trading for goaltender Roberto Luongo played a part but Anselmi said no.
“It’s not a product of any one incident or any one thing,” Anselmi said. “It’s about a whole bunch of things. I don’t want to get into specifics.”
In the end, it’s about fitting into the corporate mould not about doing a good job. Burke made it a little easier because the Leafs still did not make the playoffs in his four and a half seasons on the job but they were finally showing promise. NHL executives with other teams said if they got a goaltender the playoffs would be in reach.
That may still turn out to be true if Nonis, who is much more keen to get Luongo, is able to follow through on that deal. And if the Leafs do make the playoffs they will be a team built by Burke.
But he wasn’t given the chance every other GM around the NHL does to show his program will work - a minimum of five seasons. No, he wasn’t buttoned-down enough, so now he’ll work off the last two years of his contract as all such dismissed executives do, serving as a “senior adviser,” the corporate equivalent of being sent on a fact-finding mission to Baffin Island.