Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs rejoiced this week when team owners dropped plans for radio broadcasters Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph to call road games off a television monitor in a Toronto studio. But behind the scenes, the simmering issue affecting travel policy still has the potential to boil over.
The radio contretemps was the first collision of new Leafs general manager Lou (my-way-or-the-highway) Lamoriello and the team's powerful rights-holders, Rogers Media and Bell Media, which broadcast the Leafs' games and jointly own 75 per cent of the team. The stare down began with Lamoriello's edict restricting Leafs charter flights to players, coaches and team executives, forcing the radio and television broadcasters to take commercial flights instead of travelling with the team.
Lamoriello refused to budge, and the Rogers and Bell executives blinked first. They decided in the face of a social-media uproar on Monday that they would pay the extra travel costs for the radio duo (there were never any plans for similar treatment for the television folks). After all, Toronto is the richest team in the NHL, Bell and Rogers are multibillion-dollar companies and how silly does it look for them to be stubborn over a few thousand dollars?
Lamoriello might have won the first round, but in a rare show of unanimity, senior managers at both Bell and Rogers are unhappy with the policy. These are people who have the ears of Rogers Communications Inc. chief executive officer Guy Laurence and BCE Inc. CEO George Cope, who both sit on the board of directors of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
One of those senior executives said Monday the issue of broadcasters riding on the team charter is not going away. He and his colleagues at the other telco do not want to see Lamoriello operate the Leafs the same way he ran the New Jersey Devils from 1987 to 2015, where even the most minor decisions required his stamp of approval. They plan to keep the pressure on the Leafs GM.
This could get mighty interesting because compromise is not something that comes easily to Lamoriello. And he's an influential executive who has a long list of successful hockey people around the league who consider him a mentor. One of them is Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who hired Lamoriello in the summer as part of a bid to transform the team from wealthy, soft loser to battle-hardened winner.
The owners are all in favour of a culture change driven by Shanahan, Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock. Up to a point. They believe it was all well and good for Lamoriello to operate the Devils much the same way he ran the sports programs at Providence College before that. But the Devils, despite all their success under Lamoriello, were not owned by two massive media companies, and their tickets were never the hardest to get in a rich, hockey-crazed market.
Which is where a compromise over outsiders on the team charter comes in. Despite owning the Leafs, Rogers and Bell operate their empires as separate companies. Each division, radio or television, is expected to generate advertising and other revenue, and pay its share of the overall broadcast costs. And each has its own budget.
So when both companies discovered the day before Leafs training camp opened that its broadcasters were booted off the charter, there was great unhappiness. The extra travel costs for radio and television personnel add up to an estimated $500,000 for the regular season, split between Rogers and Bell.
Compared with the overall production costs and rights fees, travel expenses are a relatively small amount. But both companies have to be cost-conscious in the highly competitive communications industry.
To the aggrieved executives, it might just be $500,000, but there was an obvious solution: Let the broadcasters ride on the Leafs charter. This gets them to and from the games refreshed without any 6 a.m. commercial flights and with a minimum of hotel stays. And the plane is big enough to keep them away from the players. Besides, all other NHL teams except the Devils let team broadcasters on their charters.
Lamoriello has held his ground. Doing it his way put the Devils in the playoffs for 22 of his 27 seasons as GM, and they won three Stanley Cups. Everyone knows what the Leafs have failed to accomplish going back much farther, to 1967. But some of Lamoriello's corporate cousins think there needs to be room for a little compromise.
If the fight spreads to the MLSE board, it could get uncomfortable. Shanahan and Lamoriello have enormous political clout at the moment. But Cope did not hesitate to fire Brian Burke as Leafs GM when he didn't like his blustery ways, and he has been known to be less than deferential to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Laurence is no warm and fuzzy type, either.
As they say on some charter flights, turbulence is expected.