On Jan. 14, 2014, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment introduced two new employees.
Hiring Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley to play for the moribund soccer team shouldn’t have been that big a deal. It wouldn’t be now.
But then MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke played it like the Second Coming. There were hundreds of fans on hand. MLSE hired out a double-decker bus. There were speeches. Leiweke paraphrased Bobby Kennedy (“There are those who look at things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ … I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’”). Then he got weepy.
When asked how MLSE could afford it (the cost of the two new players was double the team’s annual profit), Leiweke said it couldn’t.
“Financial suicide,” he called it, looking delighted with himself.
At that point, the Toronto sports landscape had been salted earth for years. Nobody went downtown to watch hockey or basketball during the playoffs because there were no playoffs to go down to. The soccer team was not just bad. One of its own stars called it “the worst team in the world.”
The city had got used to a grinding, inevitable and blanket sports mediocrity. The Defoe/Bradley unveiling felt like a circus bused in from a better sporting place. Boston, maybe.
In retrospect, Jan. 14, 2014 is the high-water mark of MLSE. Not in terms of achievement. But in terms of vision and ambition.
There were no straight lines in Leiweke’s plan. Masai Ujiri had been hired the year before to tear down the Toronto Raptors. Instead, he built around Kyle Lowry and won a championship.
Defoe was a total bust at Toronto FC. Shortly after he arrived, he was already angling to leave. But Bradley was the cornerstone of a championship in 2017.
Brendan Shanahan was hired to run the Toronto Maple Leafs three months later. It hasn’t gone to plan, but for the first time in a long time, you could at least say the hockey team had a philosophy.
For 10 years, MLSE’s teams enjoyed a golden sporting era of hope and tranquility. RIP (2014-2023). May its memory be a blessing.
That length of time looks more remarkable given how quickly things have begun coming apart.
Toronto FC’s roster still costs an absolute fortune, but the team reminds you of a line from Moneyball – “… there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.”
In return for the highest payroll in Major League Soccer, they have just about the worst team. The last time they splashed out a huge amount of cash on a player, Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne, he didn’t bother updating his Instagram page, never mind getting on a plane to say hello.
The Raptors are coming apart in slow motion. Since Kawhi Leonard took it on the arches, they’ve drifted into the murky middle of the standing. That is slow death for an NBA franchise.
The Raptors are looking for a new coach. The guy they wanted – Ime Udoka – didn’t just spurn them. As he was being debuted in Houston, he took a shot at “mid-level teams that have a … five-seed ceiling” that seemed directly aimed at Toronto.
For just a moment there, the Raptors were a model organization. Now they’ve become a cautionary tale about hanging on too long.
And the Leafs? Yeeesh.
Two weeks ago, the Leafs were a fortress. Lou Lamoriello didn’t last long as GM, but he instilled an idea in the franchise that survived him – whatever you say, say nothing.
The Leafs did not talk unless they had to, and they absolutely did not leak. Even when they took Mike Babcock’s professional reputation out behind the shed to put a bullet in it, it was a two- or three-day story. If that had been the Ballard or Teachers’ Leafs, we’d still be talking about it today.
These new Leafs had finally realized that you don’t put fires out by blowing on them.
It’s an effective philosophy that presents one difficulty. It can only be maintained through total discipline. Everyone must be quiet all of the time.
Here’s how the Leafs of five years ago would have handled the firing of Kyle Dubas: “Hello everyone. We want to thank Kyle for his service and wish him the best of luck. Thanks for coming out and have a great summer.”
Instead, the Leafs decided to cosplay House of Cards. Shanahan did at least take his shots in public. The things reported since are notable for two things – they tend to favour Dubas’s perspective, and some are hard to credit.
Did the MLSE board interfere in hockey decisions? I’m not sure most of the MLSE board watches hockey. I am more sure they don’t think they know enough about it to tell a Hockey Hall of Famer how to run a hockey team.
The idea that the CFO of Bell or Rogers is down in the war room telling people to package Player X and Player Y to get Player Z is laughable. Not because it’s impossible, but because it could not be kept a secret. That sort of cringe-inducing story is how the hired CFO of a telecom giant becomes the CFO of sitting around his/her living room updating their LinkedIn profile.
But once the Leafs’ Irish omerta broke down, the franchise was opened up to all sorts of nonsense. Are the Leafs thinking of hiring still-suspended, black-hatted, super coach Joel Quenneville? No one’s saying.
A month ago, that’s standard communications procedure.
But after the guy in charge went all Warren Commission on the former GM, people take silence for its own sort of commentary. What aren’t they telling us?!
Among the first things the new Leafs GM will have to decide – how chatty am I? What is my message? Are we starting over or are we continuing on as we were?
Now that you’ve explained one thing, you have to explain everything. Otherwise, all your disgruntled former employees will cut you to pieces off the record. One leaker encourages others. It doesn’t take long for this cascade of pebbles to become an avalanche.
Leiweke’s great insight into Toronto was that people here needed a new story. Toronto wasn’t a city of losers. It was a city of winners (who just hadn’t won anything yet).
That one-year burst of change and creativity sustained MLSE for a decade. Now it has a very small window to decide on a new story to tell, or people will start telling one for it. And whatever that story is, it’s not going to be one it likes.