TORONTO (Jan. 18) — It is often difficult to comprehend that the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs are owned by the same company. The basketball team has not only delivered a championship since the advent of color TV, but it tends to react in an obvious circumstance. When the Raptors were literally one superstar removed from challenging for a title, president Masai Ujiri cemented his place in local immortality by trading fan favorite DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. The following June, revelers choked the city’s downtown core, creating remarkable overhead scenes that have never been witnessed in our city. Yes, and understandably, it took awhile for Ujiri to cry “uncle!” and begin dismantling his former champion… and a Leafs–like blunder did occur along the way: allowing Fred VanVleet to walk for free last June to the Houston Rockets (the player declining a $22.8 million option, thus becoming a free agent). In the past week, however, Ujiri has gone “all in” by trading the two remaining stalwarts of the 2019 champion — OG Anonoby (to New York) and Pascal Siakam (to Indiana) — for a bunch of futures. It was the right decision and the only decision for the veteran basketball exec.
The Maple Leafs, by comparison, are incapacitated. By what, we’re not exactly sure, but there exists an unshakable illusion that the core of their roster can duplicate the Kawhi–led Raptors. Even after one measly advancement to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the past seven years, and an unceremonious exit from that clash courtesy the Florida Panthers. Rather than building up other critical areas of the team — remember, the 2019 Raptors also played the toughest defense in the National Basketball Association — the Leafs have rewarded their top players with the richest contract extensions in franchise history… while immeasurably handcuffing themselves by adding in full no–movement clauses. It’s the worst conceivable type of management, yet it continues, unabated. Ujiri runs the Raptors. William Nylander, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares run the Maple Leafs. Both teams are owned by Rogers (37.5%), Bell (37.5%), Kilmer Sports (20%) and the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, or OMERS (5%), comprising Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Yet, one club is proactive; the other, paralyzed.
TEAMS ARE MANAGED INCONSISTENTLY UNDER THE BIG ENTRANCE AT 50 BAY STREET.
Why are the Raptors evidently held to a higher standard by MLSE? The easy answer is “they must be”, for a losing basketball team in our city won’t likely develop the impenetrable aura of hockey, which is far–more entrenched at the professional level. If the Raptors wallow in the NBA nether regions for any amount of time, vacant seats will increasingly appear at Scotiabank Arena. The Leafs have no–such concern. They could win all 82 games or lose all 82 and the denizens would still occupy every nook of the building. It’s a phenomenon that took root during the “lost decade” of the 1980’s, at Maple Leaf Gardens, when Harold Ballard ran the club into the ground before appreciative audiences each night. Nothing could dissuade hockey fans from filling the joint, though I can still close my eyes and see wide swaths of the corner Greys on the west side of the arena all but empty. That, from the east side press box at MLG in the late–80’s, when the notion of a competent Leafs team had long–since evaporated.
Perhaps that is why fans of the club today are content with good regular season results and quick playoff exits. Even amid the irony of those horrible Ballard teams occasionally advancing farther in the Stanley Cup hunt than the current group. It was a different National Hockey League, 40 years ago, and much easier to qualify for the playoffs (at one time, 16 of 21 teams made it; the Leafs with a paltry 52 points in 1985–86). So, maybe it’s just fine that the Core–4 Boys get everyone excited between October and April, only to fizzle when the pressure mounts.
The other answer is one that I’ve explored here on several occasions — that MLSE is frightened to witness what could happen to the Toronto hockey phenomenon if the Leafs actually win the Stanley Cup and end the lucrative charade of the past 60 years. As mentioned, the hockey business model on Bay Street is brilliant and highly profitable. Keeping the Stanley Cup fantasy alive from one year to the next works perfectly in this market. There’s no economic reason to imperil that pattern. Or, to discover what might occur if the Leafs win it all for the first time since 1967. Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting the Leafs try to lose in the spring. But, manipulation of the roster by ownership and management shows that winning isn’t important. Otherwise, the Corpse–4 wouldn’t be locked into undeserving contracts seven years into a playoff gorge. That only happens when a team grows “comfortable”.
And, the Leafs have been nestled under a cozy blanket for decades.
FROM THE VAULT…
With the Leafs continuing their western road trip tonight in Calgary (9 p.m., TSN), I’ve busted out a selection of Flames media guides dating to the start of the franchise — in Atlanta — for the 1972–73 NHL season. The club played at the Omni in Atlanta (demolished after the 1996 Summer Olympics) for the first eight years, then relocated to Alberta for the 1980–81 schedule:
FIRST MEDIA GUIDES (ABOVE) OF THE ATLANTA AND CALGARY FLAMES.
THE ATLANTA YEARS…
THE EARLY CALGARY ERA…
LATTER CALGARY MEDIA GUIDES (FINAL PUBLISHED EDITION, 2007–08)…