When Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment took an obvious 180-degree turn from the flamboyant management style of Tim Leiweke, and hired anonymous Air Canada executive Michael Friisdahl to replace him as president and chief executive officer, it was easy to dismiss the brief Leiweke era as all noise and no substance.
Yes, the results of the company that owns every meaningful professional sports team in Toronto except the Blue Jays were mixed. Yes, Leiweke, who may wind up helping his buddy David Beckham put an MLS team in Florida, was prone to grand or rash pronouncements, the one about planning the Stanley Cup parade for the Toronto Maple Leafs being the favourite one his critics liked to flail him with.
If you look just at the well-documented results of MLSE’s teams since Leiweke became CEO in June, 2013, then it is easy to paint him as a loud flop. But looking a little beyond that shows he managed to make the city of Toronto a much bigger noise on the North American sports scene than it’s ever been.
In the next two years, the NBA All-Star Game will be played in Toronto, as will the World Cup of Hockey and the world junior hockey tournament. All have Leiweke’s fingerprints on them.
Leiweke had more big plans, such as an NHL All-Star Game and the entry draft to celebrate both the Leafs’ and the NHL’s centennial in 2017, capped by a Winter Classic at renovated BMO Field. But thanks to a cold relationship with his bosses, what once looked like a long run atop one of the richest sports companies in the world ended in less than 2 1/2 years.
Out the door with Leiweke goes much visibility for Toronto’s franchises in the NHL, NBA and MLS. At this point, what becomes of those plans for more big events is unknown.
The obvious culprits for Leiweke’s short run are the two majority owners of MLSE, BCE and Rogers. Executives from the two telecommunications giants cannot abide each other and there is no shortage of stories about Leiweke having to spend much of his time wrangling Rogers CEO Guy Laurence and BCE boss George Cope.
While this played a role in Leiweke’s departure – and his extended leave-taking of an extra 14 months was due to the inability of BCE and Rogers to agree on a successor – the biggest problem for him was his non-existent relationship with MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum.
Tanenbaum may have the smallest ownership share of MLSE, 25 per cent compared with 37.5 per cent each for Rogers and BCE, but he smartly negotiated a more-or-less permanent position as chairman when the two companies needed to woo him as part of buying control of MLSE.
And he is very much a hands-on chairman. He does take the time to know the people who work for him. You will never hear a remark such as the astonishing one now-former Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos made on Bob McCown’s radio show the day he was forced to walk away from the baseball team. He said that in the last couple of days of his time with the team, “I got to know [Jays chairman] Edward Rogers a bit.”
Unfortunately for Leiweke, his relationship with Tanenbaum quickly went off the rails. Since Tanenbaum rarely gives interviews, it isn’t known why this happened but a good guess is that Leiweke’s rash style rubbed him the wrong way.
Within months of his hiring, insiders say, Leiweke, who said Thursday he is not ready to discuss his time at MLSE, was not attending governors’ meetings in the NHL and NBA. One NHL governor said he never saw Leiweke at one governors’ meeting during his entire time with MLSE. Another source familiar with MLSE’s inner workings said Leiweke was “banned” from attending league meetings.
Despite this, and many an NHL and NBA governor will tell you attending league meetings is a waste of time because most things are decided by the commissioners and their inner circle in advance, Leiweke still managed to land enough big events to give Toronto its highest profile ever in North American sports.
And say what you will about them, but Leiweke leaves all three MLSE teams with hopes for the future despite the current results. Leafs fans are happy that, thanks to Leiweke, three high-profile hockey men are in charge in Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock. The Raptors had an embarrassing hiccup in the playoffs last spring, but GM Masai Ujiri is regarded as one of the NBA’s best. Even Toronto FC may finally see better soccer days with the recent hiring of successful MLS executive Bill Manning as president, although Tanenbaum’s allies may argue he had a hand in that.
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