Whenever Wayne Gretzky’s name comes up in relation to a hockey job, especially among terminally obsessed Toronto Maple Leafs fans, the resulting furor is understandable.
But ask yourself this: What exactly would The Great One do for the Maple Leafs as president?
The title may be vacant because it was one of the ones held by Brian Burke when he was fired a few weeks ago but this is president of the team, not its corporate overseer, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. Even though there are separate presidents and general managers for some NHL teams, the president in most cases is really the GM.
And the Leafs just happen to have a GM, and a pretty good one, in David Nonis. The MLSE board handed him the job when a couple of the directors managed to get their way with Burke and declared Nonis the permanent GM. He has the rest of this season plus three more years on his contract. The GM’s box at the Air Canada Centre is also bursting at the seams with Leafs hockey executives.
In some cases, the team president handles the business side of the operation. That has never appealed to Gretzky. And the Leafs just happen to have a long roster of business executives starting with MLSE president Tom Anselmi.
There is another vacant title over at 40 Bay Street, chief executive officer of MLSE but that, too, is not Gretkzy’s thing. Nor is the board likely to hand over the reins of a $2-billion company to someone who has no interest or experience in guiding a corporate ship no matter how many hockey fans love him. If that job is ever filled, it will go to someone such as NHL marketing guru John Collins or Tim Leiweke, who runs Philip Anschutz’s sports empire.
Since it is their company, the MLSE directors could install Gretzky as president and tell Nonis he now has someone above him to call the hockey shots. Gretzky has experience at this, as he served as part-owner, director of hockey operations and then head coach during his eight-year association with the Phoenix Coyotes.
From that standpoint, certainly, Gretzky would feel right at home with the Leafs. In seven of the eight seasons he was with the Coyotes they missed the NHL playoffs. In his four seasons as head coach, from 2005-06 through 2008-09, his record was 143-161-24 and he never made the playoffs. Oddly enough, this was despite the fact he hired a bunch of his buddies for key jobs.
But by the time he quit in September of 2009, Gretzky was making $8.5-million a year, although he did get stiffed by the NHL when it bought the club out of bankruptcy.
So let’s say Gretzky leaves the hockey operations to Nonis. What else could he do for the Leafs? Unlike in Phoenix, where it was hoped his presence would sell tickets, Gretzky could do that in Toronto. There’s just one problem – the Leafs don’t have any to sell.
Much of the blather about this, from the radio show where it started to social media where it exploded, was about the credibility Gretzky would bring to the Leafs. That, too, is vastly overstated for the reasons just listed and more.
The Leafs do need more respect at the NHL governors level where their economic might has never been matched by their clout with commissioner Gary Bettman and the other club owners. However, Gretzky is not likely to fix this.
A lot of NHL owners do like hanging out with celebrities. When it comes to respect in the boardroom, though, that is reserved for people who can make them more money.
Finally, this whole affair shows just how much fun it’s going to be with MLSE now owned by two media giants, BCE Inc., and Rogers Communications Inc. Sources close to the board dismissed the notion and Gretzky himself told CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada Radio show there was “absolutely no truth to it.”
It appears one or two MLSE directors might have discussed this on their own. The social-media firestorm started after the idea was floated on a radio show owned by Rogers.
This will no doubt be the first of many such explosions in the wake of a corporate bigshot’s spit-balling filtering from the BCE or Rogers executive hot tub down to the talking heads. Well, what the heck, the Leafs have always been a circus. Why stop now?