The MLSE Hockey Blueprint

TORONTO (Jan. 1) — We begin the new year with a Maple Leafs scene setter. The re–post of a blog from last summer that is perfectly relevant today. It shows how Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment wants the Leafs to stay competitive… but not win the Stanley Cup. That sounds cynical, yet it may seem less–so after reading the blog. Overlooked in this column is the ongoing calamity between the pipes. At the time, I felt that Ilya Samsonov would continue his steady play from a year ago as the club’s No. 1 stopper. I was wrong. The blog, here, was written on June 27:

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the National Hockey League’s most–apathetic and complacent franchise is “running it back” for an eighth consecutive disaster in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

If you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you should be proud of how diligently the club is working on your behalf (sigh) to change a demonstrated culture of losing. General manager Brad Treliving confirmed today the job criteria as laid out by the Teflon Prez, Brendan Shanahan: a) Sheldon Keefe stays on as coach and, b) the Corpse–4 returns intact, this time with lengthy contract extensions. After all, why do some actual work when it’s unnecessary?

No city in North American professional sport demands less of a team than Toronto does the Leafs. The lazy owners and management of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment understand the region is bursting with hockey zealots and take full advantage of it. Even after watching such a real team as the Stanley Cup–champion Vegas Golden Knights grow fed up with playoff incompetence after only two years, thereby prompting bold moves on the ice (Jack Eichel, Alex Pietrangelo); in the front office (Kelly McCrimmon) and behind the bench (Bruce Cassidy).

Sure, some hockey rooters in our city create a stink. The overwhelming majority, however, follow along as always, like sheep, because there is no assuring point of reference. To wit: You must be 70 years old to remember the last time the Leafs played for the Stanley Cup; more than 30 to recall the most–recent visit to the Conference final (in 2002). Young fans of the club know nothing about success in the post season, so why even break a sweat?

The MLSE business model of keeping the Stanley Cup fantasy alive — but never threatening to win — works perfectly. You can be sure the moguls on Bay St. are damned scared to learn what may happen if the Maple Leafs fluke their way to a championship one year and end the charade. Here in Toronto, pretending to care about winning is far–more lucrative than actually following through with a Stanley Cup challenge. All the while recognizing there will be minimal push–back from the soft and fidgety local media. There is no financial or emotional stimulus to make a noticeable effort. As such, the tall thinkers at MLSE routinely assume the path of least resistance… year after year after year. With the same results — in the bank and on the ice… year after year after year.

Ken Dryden said it best, a quarter–century ago, when he was running the hockey club: Watching the Leafs is a “habit.” No different, really, than smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and driving too fast. It may not serve your well being, but you do it anyway. In other hockey markets, a club has to show a commitment to winning in order to sustain interest. In Toronto, the Leafs merely have to show up. Management could dress 20 clowns each night — it was pretty close to that in the 1980’s — and the denizens are satisfied. They may bitch and moan with envy about teams that try to prosper, but they still cram the arena; watch every game on TV and hoard the club’s merchandise. It’s actually quite sad that the Maple Leafs are held to no standard by their admirers. But, again, what point of reference do they have? Playing for the Stanley Cup in 1967 doesn’t count anymore. Hasn’t really for 30 odd years. So, the team and its fans careen through each lost opportunity and hollow promise for the future.

Which never arrives.

Then, the cycle renews itself once more.

The business model, as mentioned, is brilliant, albeit criminal. That’s the only way to describe the Maple Leafs making no systemic change from one underachieving year to the next. As I’ve written, show me an industry in which the top figurehead (Shanahan) fails to reach company goals* for an entire decade, yet is allowed to keep his job… and deploy the same, losing cast. It wouldn’t fly in any environment other than hockey in Toronto, amid the compliance of those who cover the team with such tepid resignation, setting the market tone. The fans just follow along. The club watches… and does nothing while other teams are adding players; visibly trying to improve. Remarkably, this routine is echoed and rehashed from one year to the next. Without so much as a peep of protest.
*Unless the “company goals” are to make gobs of money between October and April. If so, Shanahan has succeeded.

So, enjoy your Maple Leafs, once more, with Keefe behind the bench and Mr. November (Auston Matthews) leading the way each spring. It has worked so spectacularly for seven consecutive years; why not make it 10 or 11? An alternate strategy would require exertion. Perhaps some ingenuity. But, MLSE and Shanahan have grown far too smug and satisfied to extend themselves for the fan base. It’s a glaring violation of the trust lavished upon them by the hapless followers of the Blue and White. But, somehow, and tragically, it remains the Toronto way.


10 comments on “The MLSE Hockey Blueprint

  1. Dear Howard, this is what happens when the owners of the MLSE are the two major telecoms who own the sports/media networks, etc. There is no incentive to win… Ballard showed us that during his reign. Only if and only when there is other entertainment – like a team in Hamilton or Barrie – could this change.

  2. Happy New Years

    I just watched the video with GM Trevling suggesting that Matt Murray will be back in short order and everything will be tickety-boo. April Fools is still on April 1st this year correct?

  3. Thanks Howard, this blog is worthy of being re-printed. It’s baffled me for quite some time, how they can just keep running back this team that is so clearly constructed to repeatedly fizzle out in the playoffs. The conclusion I came to was that the business plan is sell only the ‘hope’ of winning. From that standpoint, I contend (as you did with the asterisk), that Shanahan is in fact meeting all his assigned objectives. I can see him walking the halls of MLSE getting daily back slaps from the executives. This team is run as an entertainment property rather than a sports franchise. Winning is a bonus, not a necessity.

  4. Another great article Howard.
    About Leaf fans, and yes I remember 1967, especially beating the Habs and them not having the Stanley Cup to show off at Expo.

    I remember a psychiatrist explaining why people get addicted to gambling which I found strange but makes sense, ” gamblers gamble because they are assured of losing”, so it is a comforting and familiar feeling they can count on.

    Being a Leaf fan has the similar feeling, knowing we can be guaranteed of being let down, and this familiarity brings comfort. Strange but, seems to be a continual theme. Groundhogs Day forever.


  5. When you subtract all the things that cannot be the issue due to the fact those things have changed over decades. Countless players good and bad. Multiple coaches, GM’s, ownerships, scouts etc. Changed venues, uniforms and even logos. What is the one thing that hasn’t changed in 56 years??? The market the Leafs play in. We will see the return of Roy Neary before we ever see the return of a Stanley Cup to Toronto!

  6. I chose either Detroit or Ottawa to make the playoffs this year citing they “might” be ready to take a shot at 8th spot or so. I also stated that the Leafs have no goaltending or defense good enough to do anything significant in the playoffs, should they make it. I never believed that Samsonov was the answer, but the shot I took for saying the same thing about Murray was laughable. I got ripped for saying Murray was a reclamation project at best….The Leafs are in trouble now as they have nothing in the minors to bring up (not Hildeby) they are rushing him now, but no other choice. The mess has begun, but the trouble has not really yet started…probably will in about a month when they have dug a real hole.

  7. On the mark. In the social contract between a sports team and its fans, Leafs fans give way more to MLSE than they have ever received. It’s a greed-fuelled relationship that would never fly in Boston. I dare say it wouldn’t wash in Montreal, New York or Chicago, either. They have had eight years to get this right and have failed spectacularly. Here’s my pitch: I would lead this team for free (I’m not crazy – I would do it). The first thing I would do as president is establish a fans/season ticket owners club with teeth, and give it a seat at the board table and a quasi role vetting significant decisions. Executives and coaches would serve terms, with objectives included in an annual report, shared publicly in the name of transparency and accountability. Another option that’s a wee bit more practical and realistic: fire Brendan Shanahan, and go out there and find a way to hire either Cam Neely, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic or Kelly McCrimmon.

  8. You have clearly nailed it Howard. The team has some flashy talent to keep their fans interested during the season, but continue to not have pieces necessary for the hard grind of the playoffs. Which will continue to disappoint. But MLSE still makes a bundle with all that is associated with the franchise and stay the course.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.