Tod Leiweke says attending Markus Naslund’s party would be “self indulgent,” so the chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Lightning will not be at Rogers Arena when No. 19 is retired in a pregame ceremony Saturday.
The former Canucks executive, who has gone on to be one of North America’s most respected sports businessmen, is too preoccupied with the rebuilding Lightning, even if he would “like nothing more than to walk into that building with Steve Yzerman.”
And in a way, it’s fitting.
While Leiweke and Naslund were critical to the NHL franchise’s turnaround, the former is The One Who Got Away. He watched Naslund forge his excellent career from Seattle, often inviting the team captain to watch the NFL’s Seahawks at Qwest Field.
“More than once, he sat in my seats,” Leiweke said. “The Canucks were my hockey outlet during eight seasons with the Seahawks.”
Since departing Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment, the former owner of the Canucks and NBA’s Grizzlies, Leiweke has been a part of the Minnesota Wild’s 409-game sellout, created the Seahawks’ 12th-man tradition, and launched the wildly successful Seattle Sounders FC of Major League Soccer.
It was enough of a résumé to command an equity stake in the Lightning from owner Jeff Vinik, whom he first met in Vancouver during February’s Olympics. By July, the 50-year-old had resigned as head of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Sports conglomerate, which includes the Seahawks, Sounders and NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, to follow his hockey heart and join forces with Yzerman, Tampa’s new general manager.
“That wasn’t the first call, and I have actually gotten pretty good at saying ‘no,’ “ Leiweke said.
The Canucks called twice in the past fours years during executive searches. Leiweke would only agree to join an advisory committee in August, 2009, when general manager Mike Gillis was handed the president’s title, and when Victor de Bonis was handed the business-operations reins.
But to this day, much of Canucks Sports and Entertainment’s model is the remnant of Leiweke’s tenure as Orca Bay executive vice-president from 1994-99. He bolted after being bypassed for the company’s top job, amid a rocky ownership period, but within a few years, the Canucks would emerge as a strong business under new owners, the Aquilini family, who remain his close friends.
“They had a vision, not of what it could be, but of what it should be,” Leiweke said.
On the ice, a wise trade from the Leiweke era would prove a catalyst. In 1999, the Canucks acquired Naslund from the Pittsburgh Penguins for forward Alek Stojanov. Naslund would go on to become Vancouver’s career scoring leader, and the key member of the West Coast Express, hockey’s most dominant line, which triggered the club’s active streak of 321 consecutive sellouts.
“Markus was one of those transitional players, who took the Canucks from a time when they weren’t selling out, to a point where you couldn’t get a ticket,” Leiweke said.