Whoo! Did Leiweke Say a Mouthful

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Sep. 13) – You pretty much had to know the departure of Tim Leiweke from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – no matter how protracted – would be, well… entertaining. And, without question, full of candor.

The outgoing Chief Executive Officer of the company that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs dropped quite a bombshell while addressing a group of business students at Ryerson University Friday morning. “There are players we have in our organization today whose numbers are off-the-chart good, and whose character is just terrible,” Leiweke said, without a hint of reservation. “I don’t care how good your numbers are, if you have bad character, you are doomed for failure.”

You need be neither a genius nor a life-and-death fan of the Maple Leafs to know that Leiweke’s remarks were directed at Phil Kessel. Had the CEO not said “… whose numbers are off-the-chart good,” any of five or six hockey players could have been implicated. No other athlete in the MLSE chain qualifies under that criterion and it matters not whether Leiweke was alluding to common stats or analytics. The “numbers” reference made it a bull’s-eye on Kessel – a top-ten National Hockey League scorer the past three seasons with a club that is renowned for wilting under duress. In that time, Kessel has suited up for all 212 regularly-scheduled games, scoring 94 goals and 214 points. Appearing to be a lock for the playoffs, the Maple Leafs fell apart in February 2012 (with a 1-9-1 stretch) and again in March and April of this year (2-12-0 to end the season). In between, the club legendarily coughed up a 4-1 third-period lead at Boston in Game 7 of an opening Stanley Cup round.

(NOTE: Leiweke’s comments could not have been directed at anyone on the NBA Toronto Raptors. Like I said, no player on the team has “off-the-chart” numbers. Second, as proven last season, the Raptors are fairly replete with character from the coach on down. Neither was Leiweke referring to reluctant soccer star Jermain Defoe of Toronto F.C. because he singled out the player by name, suggesting Defoe should “get the hell out of our way” if not interested in staying with the MLSE team.)

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TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS PRESIDENT BRENDAN SHANAHAN (LEFT) PROBABLY WASN’T SMILING WHEN APPRISED OF TIM LEIWEKE’S NOT-SO-VEILED REMARKS ABOUT PLAYERS IN THE MLSE CHAIN WITH BIG NUMBERS “WHOSE CHARACTER IS JUST TERRIBLE.” LEIWEKE (AT RIGHT) DID EVERYTHING BUT MENTION PHIL KESSEL BY NAME. 

Whether Leiweke’s words were spontaneous (likely) or calculated (unlikely) is neither clear nor particularly relevant (Leiweke – backtracking – suggested later on Friday that his comments were “general” in nature. Yeah, sure). Bottom line is he cited the malaise that has repeatedly undermined an otherwise-talented hockey club.

His so-called “general” remarks made sports headlines during a day of unprecedented political upheaval here in Toronto. TSN, Sportsnet, The Canadian Press and the Toronto Star were among media organizations to quickly zero in on the story, and follow with Leiweke’s lame attempt at damage control. It was part of a very interesting day.

POLITICS vs. CANCER: Now 55 years of age, nothing about the behavior of human beings surprises me much anymore. Still, I can’t help but shake my head at the mindless, insensitive reaction to news that Toronto mayor Rob Ford has a large tumor in his abdomen. Perhaps because my mother died of cancer before her 58th birthday – or that I’ve been operated on five times since being diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 1976 – this immediately became the story of a man with a possible life-threatening malignancy… who just happens to be a political figure. So many others virtually ignored the cancer angle and zeroed in on the impact Ford’s illness might have on the mayoralty race, to be determined by an Oct. 27 election. Typical social media lunacy went a step further, with some actually celebrating that Ford’s medical plight could preclude him from retaining the mayor’s seat (which happened on Friday when he reluctantly pulled out of the race).

What is it with people?

Here’s a 45-year-old son, husband and father laying in Mount Sinai Hospital with perhaps a cantaloupe-sized tumor in his stomach. Yes, large tumors can be benign. But, they can also be aggressively malignant with metastasis (or spread) throughout the body. We pray otherwise, but it’s not inconceivable that Ford could have only months to live. Even if the tumor is benign, he’ll face a lengthy, arduous procedure to remove it without damage to surrounding organs. Any way you look at it, the man is facing an enormous challenge.

Isn’t that the prime story here?

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THE PLIGHT OF ROB FORD REMAINS AN INTERNATIONAL STORY.

We all know about the Rob Ford saga.

For months now, he’s been the Great Toronto Punchline.

In our insatiable thirst to tear down public figures, Ford is nothing more than an overweight, crack-smoking liar. Others with a substance-abuse problem – which is also an illness – might be expected to evade the truth, given that addiction and denial are inseparable. Not Ford. Only when his brother and staunch ally, Doug Ford, stood in front of their parents’ home early Friday evening – choking back tears – and explained why he was now running for mayor did some empathy prevail.

Even Ford’s ex-opponents – John Tory and (particularly) Olivia Chow – took the high road, emphasizing his health over campaign issues. Chow’s husband, the former New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, died of cancer in August 2011. 

My point here is not to sound naive. I understand there are people that want Rob Ford out of public office and beyond the public eye. That is their prerogative; they may well be justified. What I will never fully comprehend is why someone with even the most virulent aversion to a political figure cannot – or will not – pause and prioritize… if only briefly.

We live in an angry world.

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