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Tyler Bozak #42, Tomas Kaberle #15 and Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate Kaberle's goal against the Detroit Red Wings during a preseason NHL game at the Air Canada Centre October 2, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Abelimages/2010 Getty Images)
Tyler Bozak #42, Tomas Kaberle #15 and Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate Kaberle's goal against the Detroit Red Wings during a preseason NHL game at the Air Canada Centre October 2, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Abelimages/2010 Getty Images)

STEPHEN BRUNT

MLSE execs feel the pain, too, fans Add to ...

It is maddening.

For the frustrated masses who love the Toronto Maple Leafs, arguably the largest single fan group in this country, and the smaller loyal bands which live and die with the Toronto Raptors and Toronto FC, there is no healthy, natural outlet.

Sure it's a straightforward consumer relationship. You buy your ticket and you take your chances. Sure it's an entertainment business - and no one goes gunning for the studio head when they hate what they just saw at the local multiplex.

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But at its core, the economy of professional sport is based on emotion, on commitment that can extend through generations, on a sense of shared purpose, however illusory all of that might be. Winning is the goal, championships are the ultimate, and losing, especially if there's any hint of cynicism attached, can be interpreted as an act of betrayal.

Sports fans care. They really care. It's not a rational, arm's length thing (and if it was, the whole industry would surely come tumbling down). So if you are attached to one of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment's teams, just who do you blame when it falls short year after year? To whom do you stick it when they miss the playoffs, when they seem to defy the laws of probability as other teams from other places enjoy a predictable cycle of failure followed by success?

Elsewhere, the answer would be The Man (or in rare instances, The Woman, when there's a Georgia Frontiere or Marge Schott around). There is the coach, the general manager, there are the star players with gaudy salaries, but in the modern world of professional sport, paying customers are savvy enough to understand that the buck invariably stops with ownership.

For the long-suffering supporters of the Buffalo Bills or the Oakland Raiders, at least there are geriatric Ralph Wilson and Al Davis to kick around as the franchises flounder. Leafs fans in ancient times could rightly focus on Harold Ballard, given his obviously contrarian, eccentric, destructive ways. Dan Snyder is the Washington Redskins and Jerry Jones is the Dallas Cowboys, and Mark Cuban and the fortunes of the Dallas Mavericks are inextricably linked. George Gillett was the public face of the Montreal Canadiens (and still is, very uncomfortably, of Liverpool FC), and now Geoff Molson has taken on that hot-seat role.

But when your teams spend pretty much every nickel they can under salary cap systems (the Raps unwillingness to enter luxury tax territory is at least a debating point), when they hire very well-regarded, very expensive people to run the show (Mo Johnston and his Toronto FC flim-flammery are the exception there), there are no obvious red flags, at least when it comes to any suggestion of being too cheap to win.

And when the ownership is a faceless corporation, when the pension fund that is the majority underwriter of the enterprise doesn't think it really owes the paying public an explanation, where to focus all of that enmity? Where to let off steam? How can you enjoy Two Minutes of Hate when there's no Emmanuel Goldstein up on the screen?

Until Monday, it's a good bet that hardly any Leafs or Raptors or TFC fan knew the name of Erol Uzumeri, quoted in The Globe and Mail's three-part series on MLSE, who for three years represented the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan on the company board. And if they didn't know Uzumeri, what of his anonymous replacement, Glen Silvestri? They do know smiling Richard Peddie, the company's CEO, and have happily made him a whipping boy, but he is by definition an employee, not the guy who signs the cheques.

Both of them, logic would suggest, were just doing their jobs. Both of them were trying to build the business and max out the return. Both of them would have been thrilled with greater success on the ice, on the court, on the pitch, because it would have resulted in added revenue with little or no added cost, because it would have had all kinds of spin-off benefits, because it would have enhanced the core brands, providing payoff for years to come.

Plus, it would have been a whole lot more fun than being attached to a succession of losers.

So, Leafs, Raptors and TFC fans, be comforted by the fact that behind the great corporate wall, there are folks who share your pain, who also want desperately to win.

Feel better?

Not so much, you say.

Understood.

 

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