Several companies interested in purchasing a controlling stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment approached Wayne Gretzky about taking part in such a deal, but there are no serious talks under way.
On Thursday evening, a media report that the Great One had spoken with a U.S. private-equity firm about such a bid briefly generated buzz about Gretzky’s possible return to the NHL, but sources close to the situation quickly poured cold water on the idea.
Providence Equity Partners, a Rhode Island-based company, is considering a bid, said a source with knowledge of the firm’s actions, adding that he did not know of any attempt to solicit Gretzky’s participation.
MLSE, the parent company of four professional sports franchises, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, is controlled by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, which owns 80 per cent of its shares. The pension fund has been looking to sell since last March.
At the time, various companies were interested in getting Gretzky involved, but a source said such overtures are commonplace when an NHL club comes up for sale. Nothing ever came of the contacts.
MLSE executives would not comment on the matter, saying it was between the sports property’s owners.
Prospective owners would likely be interested in bringing Gretzky on board as a front man rather than an active chief executive officer. He does not have enough personal wealth to purchase a significant position in what is expected to be a $1.8-billion stake, so potential buyers are more interested in his value as a Canadian hockey icon.
“Wayne is often approached about becoming involved in various hockey opportunities,” said Darren Blake, Gretzky’s agent. “At this point in time there is nothing happening involving the purchase of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Wayne has always said that whoever purchases the Maple Leafs is getting a great franchise in a great city.”
There are many obstacles in the way of MLSE’s sale, including Teachers’ insistence on getting its price and MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum’s right of first refusal on Teachers’ shares.
If Gretzky were to join a deal, it would mark his return to an official position in the NHL after a falling-out with the league in October, 2009.
Gretzky keeps busy with personal endorsements and family matters. His son Trevor signed a baseball contract with the National League’s Chicago Cubs and those close to the elder Gretzky say he plans to spend a lot of time watching his son play minor-league baseball starting next March.
When the NHL bought the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy in October, 2009 for $140-million (U.S.), it did not make any provision to pay Gretzky the $8.2-million (U.S.) he claimed to be owed in deferred salary. The league argued Gretzky’s employment contract was a personal-services deal with former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes so he was not entitled to any of the money it paid to buy the club.
Gretzky was paid about $8-million a year by Moyes, an inflated salary compared to other NHL coaches, but it was part of a deal that also gave Gretzky a minority-ownership position in the club in exchange for cashing in on his value as a celebrity.
As the court fight escalated, Gretzky resigned as head coach in September, 2009, saying he did not want to be a distraction, but he remained an unsecured creditor of the club. When the NHL did not include a payment to Gretzky in its purchase, his relationship with the league cooled considerably.
The NHL still owns the financially crippled Coyotes because it has been unable to sell the franchise. It is not known if the league plans to give Gretzky anything if it is ever able to unload the Coyotes.
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