With no new signings or moves to talk about, we were on the verge of stale discussion in Toronto. Thankfully, Tim Leiweke wasn’t prepared to let that happen. The new CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment was asked by Bloomberg to talk about his new teams and the vision he has for them, and boy, did he ever. The quote that’s causing the most trouble right now?  

Tim Leiweke, the new chief of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., is so confident the Toronto Maple Leafs will soon end a 46-year Stanley Cup drought that he’s mapped a victory-parade route for the hockey team.  “I have it planned out and it’s going to be fantastic,”

Oh boy. In a city where "PLAN THE PARADE!" has become the go-to joke whenever anybody tries to be optimistic about the blue and white, their CEO just said one of his first moves was to literally plan a parade. This can only end well. Continuing..

While employees at MLSE were a little shocked he mentioned winning the Stanley Cup so soon after starting the job on June 3, Leiweke said the company has to focus on results.  “If you can all dream about that and get that in your mind, we’ll have something we’re all driven toward,” he said he told them.

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I’m on the same page with Leiweke on this one. Similar to what I told the Toronto Sun yesterday, being over confident is a necessity for reshaping this organization.

The teams have spent years wanting to win championships, but have never shown anybody that they legitimately feel like the opportunity is in front of them at any point. The approach was closer to "we obviously want to win, but we can’t promise when, or if, or how". It felt more like a championship would be great if it was convenient, rather than a necessity.

The new approach is simple: MLSE is here to win trophies. Is there a deadline? Not a hard one we can attach a public countdown too, but Leiweke and his employees must now continue to move forward before the plug is pulled on them and they are left looking dumb. This was the direction the Leafs took by hiring Brian Burke as GM, and his brashness lead to the introduction of marquee players and an upswing in reputation across the league. Really, if it wasn’t for the fact that Burke remained the "face of the franchise" in a public sense after all of these moves, he’d still be here. But his tenure was just as necessary as his departure.

Moving forward, the players, management, and ownership must see success on the horizon. Does that mean buying at every trade deadline and disregarding prospects to stack teams with veterans? No. But it means having a plan, presenting it to everybody they have on board, and having absolute confidence that it is going to work. Wavering will only stretch the r. Now, on to the rest of his comments.. 

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Leiweke, who stresses the importance of patience as a means to building long-term success, saw upside in that stinging loss, calling it “the best thing that could have happened to” the Leafs.

 “I think they need a few ass-kickings, and that’s one that will stay with them for a long time,” he said of the players. “I think it will pay huge dividends in the long term no matter how painful it was.”

 There’s a truth to this as well. Sure, many would have liked to have seen the Leafs escape those final minutes alive (and probably lose in the next round). But for a team that performed above expectations, isn’t it better for the long-term success of the core? The only thing more valuable than knowing success is to have a chip on your shoulder from failure. This can even be used as a justification of the signing of David Clarkson; who was just two games from a Stanley Cup in 2012. The bulk of this roster will be devoted to never making a mistake like they did again, which is better than "well, we just lost to a better team". 

Leiweke said a key component to an eventual Cup-winning Leafs squad will be general manager Dave Nonis, whose contract is being renegotiated. “We’ll probably have some news on that very soon,” Leiweke said. “I’m a big Dave Nonis fan, and I want a culture here that is different than the one I stepped into.”

While I can’t say I’ve been a huge fan of Nonis’ decisions this offseason, the only thing to lose by extending him is money. If he can be fired in the event ownership doesn’t like his direction, there’s little to stress over. 

Winning is especially important for the Maple Leaf brand, which has the potential to be a Top 10 or even Top 5 global sports brand, Leiweke said. 

“If you look around world, the great brands are Real Madrid, Manchester United. The Yankees, the Cowboys and the Lakers are there,” he said.

“We should aspire with the Maple Leafs to be there.”

Like the corporate side or not, I’d rather hear "we need to be one of the biggest brands in the world" than "we just need to make a lot of money". Big brands get global exposure by consistent success.  

“Our owners know we’ve got to be patient and stop knee-jerking like we have in the past,” he said.

 In return he’s pledged to double the value of Maple Leaf Sports in the next five to seven years.

“Winning does a lot of that, 30 percent minimum comes just from winning,” he said.

Back to what I said about commitment, he appears to recognize the need for seeing a plan through, while still having confidence in it, which isn’t a problem. Finally, much like he came into the article strong with a big quote, he does so again as it ends: 

Winning above all is key to turning Maple Leaf Sports around, Leiweke said. That may mean sacrificing a few sacred cows, particularly for the Leafs, who haven’t won a Stanley Cup since grabbing four from 1962 to 1967 despite being the richest team in the NHL.

“I don’t want the players walking in the hallways of the Air Canada Centre and seeing pictures from 1962,” Leiweke said. “Get rid of those pictures and tell them, this is your legacy.”

I’m also in favour of this. This isn’t a Harold Ballard situation, where he shielded players from events that recently happened because he wanted to be remembered as the true architect in Leafs history. At this point, Toronto’s prior success has become more of a crutch than an example, drawing back to an era that simply can’t be replicated in any way, shape, or form, yet is consistently see as the bar. Getting rid of a what probably amounts to 2-3% of the throwbacks to a golden era and saying "we’ve made you guys some blanks. They can stay blank, or you can fill them" sets a challenge and leads to aspiration. 

This is an orgaization that tries a little too hard to say "look at these guys and be them" anyway. It’s one thing to have banners in the rafters, it’s another thing to have half a dozen historical nights a season, and pictures of the 2002 roster that went to the conference finals in your AHL team’s locker room.

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Essentially, Leiweke comes to this organization knowing that while the history is great and hard to match up to, the people in place now, at every level, need to see it as an prior era and dream of limitless potential ahead. The only way you’ll ever see a plan through is if you have one, even if it’s something as silly as a parade route.

Photo Courtesy of Eric Richardson, Flickr

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  • @badger people don’t agree with him??? We have been waiting for someone like him! The organisation screwed us so many times in the past by trading away future. This guy actually wants to make a proper team. Leafs can actually carry the NHL and gain it more popularity.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Jeffler — good article.

    What do you mean by this line?

    regarding Burke: “But his tenure was just as necessary as his departure.”

    Certainly the talk of high expectations and a strategic plan are welcome relief. But I think there is a structural problem: winning franchises in North America face competition for fan loyalty, and that keeps management on its toes. The Leafs have had flaccid management because they have never had to compete for the fans. The Bruins have to fight with the Celtics, the Hawks with the Bulls, Detroit the Pistons etc. Some teams, like the Rangers and Kings, have to compete with hockey teams next door.

    I am not saying that it’s impossible for the Leafs to succeed. But sustained success for any organization means paying a price for mediocrity. The fact is, the Leafs organization is never punished for its serial mediocrity. Quite the contrary. How many times did we endure awful games and seasons, raging at our tv screens or leaving Maple Leafs Garden after two periods, only to tune in the next Saturday night? It’s the fans who got punished because we have had nowhere to go.

    I don’t mean to belittle the importance of loyalty to a team (or, sorry, in corporate parlance, “the brand”), but when loyalty is exploited, the management’s rhetoric about wanting to win is just BS. No wonder there is so much cynicism about the Leafs.

    So, has a life-long Leaf fan, I want to see another team in Toronto. Then Leiweke will have to put money and purpose where his mouth is.