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President and CEO of MLSE Tim Leiweke during a press conference to introduce newest players Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley (not pictured) at Real Sports Bar and Grill. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)
President and CEO of MLSE Tim Leiweke during a press conference to introduce newest players Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley (not pictured) at Real Sports Bar and Grill. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)

Tim Leiweke denies report he’s leaving MLSE Add to ...

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Tim Leiweke knocked down rumours on Tuesday that he is about to leave the country’s largest sports concern.

“It’s not true. One-hundred per cent not true. I’m fully committed to the season at hand,” Leiweke said.

He’s got two seasons on hand. The 57-year-old was referring to the Toronto Raptors basketball season, as he is in the midst of working on a new $30-million training facility for the club. That’s expected to be announced in the coming days.

He has several other major projects on his plate – the renovation of BMO Field; the luring of the World Cup of Hockey to Toronto; the ongoing resuscitation of the Maple Leafs.

“Why in the hell would I take my eye off the ball now?” Leiweke said.

Leiweke has been a transformative figure at the corporation that controls Toronto’s NHL, NBA and Major League Soccer franchises. He is currently just over a year in to a five-year contract.  

He arrived in the summer of 2013 after leaving American sports venue giant, AEG. According to Leiweke, there is no non-compete clause with his former employer preventing him from moving on.

“I’ve had people come at me. I’ve said ‘No’ in every instance. I am completely focused on this organization.”

Since arriving, he’s been a lightning rod for local conversation, taking on such shibboleths as the Leafs’ reliance on past glories and Mayor Rob Ford (back when people still took the chief magistrate seriously).

Former NBA commissioner David Stern once called Leiweke “a modern-day P.T. Barnum.” After so many years of sporting failure, many in Toronto were fundamentally opposed to any professions of confidence or joy. Leiweke’s spent the past year winning most of his critics over with the surest cure-all – success.

He began by gutting the sad-sack Raptors at the top and luring Masai Ujiri to Canada. At the time, Ujiri was the most sought after young executive in the NBA. Eschewing the previous lawyerly style of MLSE, Leiweke went on a charm offensive that was concluded at his holiday home in Vail, Colo.

Under Ujiri’s guidance, the Raptors made their first playoffs in six years.

His next target was the moribund soccer club. Leiweke splashed out nearly $100-million on two players – Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley. The team is now on track to make its first ever postseason appearance.

The heaviest load has yet to be shifted. The Toronto Maple Leafs were fresh off their Game 7 playoff disaster against Boston as Leiweke arrived. The incoming CEO waited a full season before installing Brendan Shanahan as the hockey club’s new president. Leiweke’s watchword is “culture.” He hires people he trusts, and then lets them do their work. Therefore, the real rebuilding of the Leafs has only just started.

It’s an open secret within the organization that Shanahan is being groomed to take over Leiweke’s spot once he decides to leave. That’s why this denial rings true. It’s very difficult to believe the 45-year-old Shanahan would want that job only a few weeks into his first senior management position.

Leiweke serves several masters in ownership, including the fractious combination of telecom enemies Rogers Inc. and Bell Inc. That has famously resulted in tension at the board level.

After several freewheeling years in California, he’s also been frustrated in his attempts to maneuver around the bureaucracy of a new country.

The planned sale of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts to MLSE, and their inclusion in a reimagined BMO Field, went sideways when Leiweke could not secure federal government help with the project.

He’s been battling a faction in city council for weeks on the proposed Raptors training facility on the CNE grounds.

In many cases, he’s publicly lamented a lack of vision on the part of government at every level.

What is clear in talking to him is that while Leiweke has no current plans to leave, he isn’t envisioning a lifetime in Toronto.

Putting aside the crapshoot of the NHL playoffs, all of the projects on which he is currently concentrated will be well under way within the next calendar year. According to Leiweke, he is free to go any time he wishes.

In a mid-afternoon text, asked about the stories then swirling, he put it tellingly: “Very committed for this year.”

The inclusion of that pivotal pronoun will ensure this story subsides for now, but will not die.

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